Grace for Us All: War, Death Row, & Peace

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What a time in our history to be studying nonviolence, imbedded in a world and a country so vehemently desperate to protect ourselves, you think as you read the latest news about the U.S. now exporting armed drones to other countries. It’s 5am and you’re unable to sleep because the child you’re growing inside of you has started the morning stirrings. Phone with drone articles in one hand, you grab your belly with the other, and pray from deep within your gut for a different world in which your son may grow.

Strange timing aside, your small community marches on in its reading, watching, and discussing about this topic so foreign to the majority of the culture. What on earth does it mean to practice peacemaking in the midst of violence?

Peace is a nice concept in theory, you conclude, standing as the ideal that we love to hold in high esteem when it comes to our global existence and how we function. Your leaders claim their decisions made on its behalf. Your holiday songs croon of its rightness. Your pageant girls have notoriously stood for its coming. And the car stickers in your military town show the B52 planes positioned as peace signs proclaiming the words, “Peace the Old Fashioned Way.” It is everywhere, and it is no where.

You’re trying to wrap your head around the blurred lines. Peace is not peace just because we talk about it. Peace is not peace just because we’re able to sit in steady normalcy while conflict rages on over oceans. Peace is not peace just because we are unable to see the fight. We are not at peace right now. We are as humanity, it seems, ever at war. Lord have mercy, you whisper into the morning.

You scroll through articles to find what writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said in a recent online interview.

“We threaten and make war, as a first choice or as a matter of course, because we conceive of violence as the normal answer to other people’s violence. As war becomes ever more industrial, more technological, more able to inflict its damage at a distance and by remote control, we seem to like it better. President Obama has become, as he was fated to be, the new head pioneer of remote control. There is no need to face your enemies or even know them, if you can push a button and kill them at a distance of thousands of miles without getting up from your chair. For this there are the urgent practical reasons that war invariably supplies.

But we also are susceptible to the technological charm of, for example, drones. In the very midst of war, these weapons of precision killing have become ‘consumer products,’ and the most modern and up-to-date people are buying them as they bought cell phones. They fit with perfect logic the needs of the preservers of the ‘balance’ of freedom-and-security, and by the same logic the needs of blackmailers and hit men. No doubt already there are drone billionaires.

Peace assuredly would pay even larger dividends, but to the wrong people. It is not at all clear how you could make a billion dollars by being peaceable. And so we don’t consider or study the means of peace, or make them available to our leaders. We speak well of peace, we say we want it, we have paid the lives of innumerable other people and unaccountable wealth supposedly to get it, but we seem not to mind, we seem not to notice, that all we have got for so much loss, for so long, is more war.”

This is what you read to start your day, and you give thanks to God that people of faith are thinking, considering, concluding, and moving on behalf of real peace. You resolve, it is about time. We have grown and evolved in so many ways throughout the last few hundred years. It is baffling for you to think that we have not figured out how to coexist without killing each other. Especially when so much of the world follows the God-man Jesus who, without question, instructed us in such practices of wild and wondrous grace. Especially when we have recently shared this time in history with such practitioners of nonviolent resistance as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi—appliers of a brave faith and a system that said and showed, “Another way is possible.”

The hours of this normal Thursday take you into morning prayer where you and your little tribe of folks pray for this way to be seen by more eyes—eyes that are so bound by lines of loyalty to militaristic values and enemy hate. Eyes like yours not too long ago.

The afternoon should be interesting in this arena, you realize, as you remember that today is the day you will help walk your community’s interns through writing letters to people sitting on your state’s death row.

Your coworker has been diligently researching these last few weeks the names and stories of those who now face capital punishment at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Profiles have been made with pictures, offenses, and rulings. Not surprisingly, very little can be found about the lives and stories of those convicted prior to their sentencing or since.

You read aloud as a group the details of the death penalty in your state—all of the whos and hows from the last few decades, complete with demographic details of victims and convicts. It is easy in this moment, disgusted with the system, to raise a fist in the air and repeat the words of Jesus, “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword!” It is nonsensical, this enemy-hate, this life-taking, this repentance-stopping that death for death brings. And you see this clearly when the numbers are read.

But then the stories get shared. Your group cracks open the first page and you see the face of the woman who murdered the elderly couple. You look at the eyes of the man who kidnapped, raped, and killed the four year old. You become nauseous with each description, each account of heart-breaking violence, desperation, and cruelty. You had not expected this part, the part where the hate begins to well up inside of you as well, you who had no direct connection to this story, you who moments before were singing a different conviction. And yet, there it is. The “make them pay” part of you that you thought you were above because “Jesus spoke against it and you believed him.” So many emotions and postures at play in this moment—the impossibly heavy grief for a world where hurting people hurt people, the confusion over whether or not a different way is actually attainable, the need for hope to come through three minutes ago. And here you sit, flipping through the pages and the faces of people you had all planned to write.

“This is a practice in active forgiveness,” your coworker shares. And you remember quickly that the teachings of Jesus always feel impossible. They always come with a tension of how our flesh is in battle with the spirit. They always lead to freedom if we will but follow them though we do not quite understand them in the moment.

“What should we say,” your interns ask? “How do we even start?”

“Let them know you’re praying for them, and that you honor the God who made them and sees them. Ask them questions and offer the re-humanization of someone wanting to know something about them. And as we write, we must ask for forgiveness for all the stuff inside of us that makes us as susceptible to such an outcome given the right circumstance, hurt, or fear. We must ask for forgiveness for the web of brokenness that led this specific person to this place in the system. We must ask for forgiveness for the hate in our own hearts that leans to whatever extent in the direction of violent revenge for violence. We must ask for forgiveness for the structures and policies that we have supported as a cooperate body of faith that have made us the judge over someone’s sin and therefore over their chance to be restored or not—the policies that would rather end a life and a chance rather than offer the rehabilitation that we know love can bring. We need grace on every side, grace for us all,” your leadership shares.

You realize this small move of active, all-sides forgiveness is what you are hoping for the grand scale of our world. But now you are acknowledging that there is a reason it is hard—because people have been hurt or scared and they feel that it is the right, natural, and a justifiable option to get those who have gotten them and theirs. You realize that the kind of grace for us all that stops wars, and forgives enemies, and convinces leaders to put an end to an economy of drones and militarism, is the kind of grace that only a Savior can bring. But you know that it is possible, you have seen a tiny version of that miracle here today as the pens move on the letters that will head to Angola later this week. And you pray…

Lord Jesus, we need you to help us forgive ourselves for the potential to take life that lies within us all. We need you to help us forgive those who have terrorized, intimidated, hurt or stolen life from us—be they friend, intruder, or foreign extremist group. We need you to remind us of your radically-unnatural, all-encompassing, entirely-restorative grace that can make way the possibility of generational wars to cease. We need you to show us how we are to speak and share and vote and pray so that our leadership may acknowledge that another way of life is possible and at hand. We cannot argue that in your Kingdom, there is no death for death, only sacrificial death for life. And you have taught us to believe, claim, and bring your Kingdom here to this world today and tomorrow and the next. So we have hope that our cries and actions for peace are not in vain, for they are your heart and hope for the world as well. Raise up the contagious pockets of people who believe that you have made us with the creativity and infused us with the love to find the alternatives to violence that are good news for our world. That the next generation might live in lands where all are not dying by the sword they have raised, but are rather forgiving as you have forgiven, and loving as you have loved. Amen.

Additional Resources:

The Gandhi Movie

Michael J. Nojeim’s book, Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance

Preston Sprinkle’s book, Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

Recent Interview with Wendell Berry

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