Times Changes People

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Toward the end of the Shawshank Redemption, Red (played by Morgan Freeman), who has spent most of his life in prison for murder, is asked by the parole board if he has been rehabilitated. Red replies, “I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left.”

After all those years in prison, Red had become a different person.

Which is why I’m intrigued by Norway’s practice of not sentencing anyone to more than 21 years. Nobody. If somebody is still deemed a risk to society, they can keep adding 5 years of what they call “preventive detention.” A person like Charles Manson is never getting released. But they recognize that time changes people. What you did at age 20, you wouldn’t necessarily do at age 40. They are more interested in rehabilitation than in punishment, which tends to be our emphasis.

In America, 49,000 persons are serving life-without-parole, up 22% since 2008. For 3200 of them, their crime was non-violent–80% for drug-related crimes, but others for such crimes as shoplifting or cashing a stolen check. It’s the residue of “get tough on crime” mandatory sentencing laws which tie the hands of judges, and which are terribly unjust.

In Europe, only two countries allow sentences of life-without-parole, and then only for murder.

Do we really need to incarcerate 2.3 million Americans?

Timothy Jackson got caught stealing a $159 jacket, and Louisiana’s four-strikes law forced the judge to give him life-without-parole. He has now been in prison for 16 years. For $159 retail. “I am much older and I have learned a lot about myself,” Jackson wrote from prison, sounding a lot like Red.

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God Didn’t Design Animals for Cages

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Pam’s Dad helps support a large elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. That has helped educate me about the plight of zoo and circus animals. Especially elephants, who were designed by God to roam free over vast areas–not to be confined in a small enclosure.

Fortunately, zoos are taking action. In North America, 21 zoos have shut down their elephant exhibits since 1991. Most recently, the Seattle zoo sent its two elephants to a larger zoo in Oklahoma, where they can be part of a larger herd of elephants. Good for them. The Detroit zoo sent its elephants to an elephant sanctuary.

Zoos tend to be more enlightened in this way. Circuses…that’s an entirely different story. Circus animals–not only large elephants, but noble lions and tigers and other animals–endure terrible conditions, living their lives in traveling cages. It’s wrong.

Here’s an article about it.

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People who Criticize, People who Congratulate

Interesting piece by UConn coach Geno Auriemma in the current Sports Illustrated. It’s obviously constructed from an interview, sort of a stream-of-consciousness feel, so his words must be taken in the context of being somewhat off-the-cuff. But he made this interesting statement:

“People who have achieved great things and understand how hard it it to be really good at something are the first people to congratulate you. People who have not accomplished much in their lives are the first to criticize you.”

I’ve been trying to figure out if I agree or not. Obviously, he intends it as a generality, so I think it’s accurate in that regard. But sometimes people who have accomplished a lot have very high standards, or have a particular way of doing things, and may not be as congratulatory of people who take different routes to success.

Then there are people, successful or not, who just have a critical spirit. Being successful doesn’t remove that character trait.

And then there are equally successful people who view each other as rivals, and think that recognizing the other person somehow diminishes their own standing. It’s a pride thing.

But on this I’m sure: complimenting people is generally a good thing, and criticizing people is generally a bad thing.

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Rand and Alexandra are Concerned About Me

I just received an email from Rand Paul’s campaign. “Rand asked me to email you,” someone named Alexandra began. She said he is counting on my support.

He is? I kinda like Sen. Paul, but I don’t exactly know him personally. I’ve never made any kind of contact with him.

“However,” Alexandra continued, “our records show you haven’t made a contribution.”

What? They have a record on me? How? Why?

As I scrolled down through Alexandra’s email, I found copies of two previous emails. The first was apparently sent on Tuesday, when Paul announced his candidacy; it asked for my support. Then came an email time-stamped 7:28 this morning (Wednesday), in which Paul asks Alexandra, “Can you please follow up with Steve?” He says he’s sent me two previous emails, but I haven’t responded (and he hasn’t).

Like I said, I generally like Rand Paul. He’s an interesting voice. But this email is SO phony, so inauthentic. And I’m sure there’s more to come. I’m still waiting to hear from Ted Cruz.
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The Battle of the Wedding Cake

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The fate of World Christianity apparently hangs on people who make wedding cakes. Unless they hold firm, we’ll descend into a thousand years of darkness and God’s plan to establish His Kingdom will be vanquished.

Well, maybe it’s not quite that apocalyptic.

There needs to be “space” (as they’re calling it) for sincerely held religious beliefs, for accommodation, and laws can address that. But there also need to be loving responses which Christians can give, so they don’t come off as…well, as unChristlike. Let me suggest a few possible responses for Christians who oppose gay marriage, but don’t care about going on CNN and being hailed as heroic Christian martyrs standing firm against the Forces of Mordor.

– If the cake isn’t that big of a deal to you, treat it as relationship-building and just being a good neighbor. “I wish you the best. I’ll gladly refer you to one of my competitors who would do a great job, but if you really want me to do it–sure, why not.”

– If the cake IS a big deal for you, a bridge too far: “I hope your wedding goes well and that somebody makes you a wonderful cake. But please don’t ask me to do it. I just can’t. However, I know a few other bakers who would do a great job for you.”

– If they are being jerks about it, and threaten to take you to court, then you apply Matthew 5:39-42. “Okay, okay, I’ll make your cake.” Then, to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, you bake not one but TWO cakes, and you don’t charge them. And you throw in a bulk container of candied breath mints.

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

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Cross of Terror, Cross of Hope

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“In the United States,” writes black theologian James Cone, “the clearest image of the crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim dangling from a lynching tree.” As Good Friday approaches, it’s worth reflecting on.

I’m nearly done with Cone’s troubling book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” It has shredded my heart. Cone describes the role of the cross among black Christians during the 70-some years of Jim Crow. After Union troops were removed from the South in 1877, it became open season on blacks. They lived in fear, not daring to cross whites in any way. It was an era of terrible persecution, daily terror, despicable evil.

Over 5000 blacks were lynched across the South. Some were shot, beaten to death, or burned alive. But most were hanged, after having been tortured–castrated, flogged, sliced up, burned with rods. The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers sometimes published the date and location of an upcoming lynching. Up to 20,000 people might come out to see a black man, or perhaps several black men, be mutilated and killed. It was a family affair. Children often got their first chance to torture a black person, perhaps cut off a finger or ear as a souvenir. Photographers came to make postcards showing whites posing with the swinging bodies. Smile for the camera. “This is from our weekend barbecue,” people would write on the postcards they sent to friends. THIS EVIL HAPPENED.

lynching-tree-book250“Lynching was the white community’s way of forcibly reminding blacks of their inferiority and powerlessness,” Cone writes. “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights–hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.”

Cone tells of a black man who killed his white boss, but fled. A mob, frustrated, grabbed a different black man and lynched him instead. A proxy murder. When the man’s wife protested, she was arrested and turned over to the mob. She was eight months pregnant. Nevertheless, they stripped her naked, hung her by her feet, doused her in gasoline, and set her ablaze. Amidst this, a white man cut open her stomach, and the unborn child fell to the ground. Then the mob trampled the baby. THIS HAPPENED IN AMERICA.

Cone said that both whites and blacks, in their separate churches across town, would sing, “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” and other hymns about the cross. But it had a totally different meaning for each group. In white churches, the cross was a talisman, a symbol, something to wear on a chain. Something to burn on a black family’s yard.

But when blacks sang about the cross, Cone said, it was real life. The black spiritual said, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” They truly understood that. Some had watched fellow blacks hang on the lynching tree, and they trembled at the sight.

Lynching provided an obvious picture of Christ. There’s a hateful mob. An innocent man railroaded to execution. A public spectacle. Torture. The complicity of government officials. Others who wash their hands of it–“He’s innocent, but it’s not my problem.” A jeering crowd surrounding a man hanging from a tree, watching him die.

When black Christians sang about the cross, they were part of the story, part of the injustice. They had seen this. They had friends, family, coworkers, neighbors who had been beaten and abused, if not killed.

But what consumed black Christians, Cone said, was the VICTORY of the cross. They sang about a cross that brought hope out of despair, a cross that ultimately conquered death. The lynching tree, like the cross, offered condemnation of the hypocritical ruling class–in this case, of white “God-fearing” society. Sorrow and suffering would not defeat them. In the end, the cross promised, justice would reign. It represented hope and victory. As with Jesus, so with them. And that’s what they sang about. Exuberantly. Longingly.

Martin Luther King often used the imagery of the cross. He reminded crowds that when Jesus stumbled on the way to Golgotha, a black man–Simon of Cyrene–picked up the cross and carried it the rest of the way. King said, “One day God will remember that it was a black man who aided his only-begotten son in the darkest hour of his life.”

Another time he said, “When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning….It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

In the black churches during those vile decades of Jim Crow–churches filled with downtrodden, despised, powerless people–the fraudulent Christianity of the white masters was redeemed.

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Than When We First Begun? Really?

One of the greatest hymns is “Amazing Grace.” We did it during communion yesterday–me at the piano, Maddie on the clarinet, Cecilia on the violin. Sounded beautiful. But I confess–that last line always bothers me.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

People sing the last line without the contraction: “Than when we first begun.” Which makes it ungrammatical and, therefore, unspiritual. It should just be, “Than when we first began.” But then you lose the rhyme, and we can’t have that. I’m sure Gabriel and all the other angels cringe whenever we sing it (since English is their native tongue).

Even WITH the contraction, I don’t like it. It means, “Than when we had first begun.” Doesn’t sound right.

I’m sorry. It grates on my wordsmith sensibilities. It just does.

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The Parable of the Prodigal Father?

What does “prodigal” mean? I’m a writer and editor, a lifelong well-trained wordsmith. I’m 58-year-old who learned the story of the Prodigal Son as a kid and has heard countless sermons about it since. But until today, I assumed it meant something like “wayward.” The Parable of the Wayward son.

But that’s wrong. “Prodigal” means doing something lavishly, with wasteful extravagance. Donald Trump is totally prodigal.

In the parable, the son was prodigal in blowing his inheritance. But as James Martin points out (in what I read this morning from “Jesus: a Pilgrimage”), perhaps it should be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

When the son returns, even before the son can express any remorse for his recklessness, his father runs out and, full of compassion, embraces and kisses him. Then he has his son clothed in the best robe, puts a ring on his finger, kills a calf in his honor, and throws a big celebration. As Martin says, the father is “lavish, extravagant, and overly generous.”

Jesus never called it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many lessons can be drawn from this story, and I’ve heard most of them. But perhaps a key point was the father’s prodigal nature. Jesus was saying, “Here’s what the Heavenly Father is like. Even before you have a chance to repent of anything, he’s all over you with his love. Point yourself in his direction, and you’ll find out.”

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It’s What They Do

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About 80 of Obama’s nominees for various positions have been filibustered. In the rest of the history of the United States, only 70 presidential nominees have been filibustered. Hmmmm.

After the Senate Judiciary Committee approves one of President Obama’s nominees, they wait an average of 107 days before getting a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. In the Bush administration, the wait was only 43 days. Hmmmm.

When it comes to nominees for Executive Branch positions, the GOP Senate is on pace to filibuster twice as many nominees as experienced by all previous presidents combined.

38 federal courts are now so short-handed, waiting for new appointees, that they are under what is called “judicial emergencies”–a huge backlog of cases. That’s up from 27 courts just two years ago. This doesn’t seem to bother the GOP Senators. Hmmmm.

Loretta Lynch has now waited nearly five months to be confirmed as Attorney General, and it could stretch out many more months. Some Democrats are accusing Republican senators of racism, since Lynch is black. It’s not racism. It’s just what Republicans do to EVERY nominee. Though they seem to be going the extra mile in putting Ms. Lynch–and a very important government position–on hold. I find nothing admirable about that.

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Jesus as a Parable

Jesus told parables. Ever think of Jesus BEING a parable?

Back in the 70s, my parents had a filmstrip series called “Parables from Nature.” A record album played while you manually advanced the filmstrip. I’ve always liked how the series defined a parable: “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

James Martin would have liked that definition. I’m currently reading his chapter on parables in “Jesus: a Pilgrimage.” He said Jesus was basically saying, “You want to know what the Kingdom of God is like? Let me tell you a story.”

Then he says this: “Jesus is the parable of God.” God is saying, “You want to understand what I’m like? Let me BE a parable for you.” An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.

I’ve heard this concept in various ways over the years. But I’ve never heard Jesus described as a living parable. It’s a new idea to me, and I like it.

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