Can We Be a Society of Second Chances?

By Phil Haslanger 03-07-2014 | Series:
Man praying, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

Man praying, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

For most folks, these names will not mean much: Eric Pizer, Christopher Barber, and Andrew Harris.

They are names that may have a bit resonance in Wisconsin, where I am from. What they represent, though, are the struggles we face as a society dealing with concepts of repentance and redemption. They represent the way those concepts get overrun by politicians seeking to exploit the public’s fears. We as a people, after all, do not seem to be in a very forgiving mood these days.

So the distinctive stories of these three Wisconsin residents might offer a good starting point for Christians thinking about what our faith tradition calls us to during this season of Lent.

Eric Pizer was a Marine, served two tours of duty in Kuwait and Iraq, then got in a bar fight while home on leave in 2004. He punched out the other guy hard enough to get arrested and charged with substantial battery, a felony. He was convicted and put on probation.

It is the only arrest in his life. He earned a degree in criminal justice, has a job in Madison, and hopes to become a police officer. But he can’t do that because of the felony. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could pardon him, allowing him to pursue a law enforcement career, but Walker says he will not issue any pardons to anyone.

Christopher Barber is one of the Wisconsin workers Walker honored during his State of the State speech in January. Barber and a dozen other workers stood behind Walker at the beginning of his speech as props for Walker’s claims that his policies are rebuilding the Wisconsin economy.

Then the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Barber had a criminal record – two felonies (one making him a registered sex offender) and three drunk-driving offenses. Democrats pounced, having a field day with Walker’s oversight in not knowing this. Instead of praising Barber for trying to get his life back on track, the Democrats used him as political fodder and Walker quickly threw Barber overboard.

Overlooked was the fact that Barber has been working at the Ariens Company in Brillion for more than a year, advancing from seasonal work to a full-time employee, then taking advantage of training to advance to a welder position.

Has Christopher Barber been a model citizen over the years? No. But is there evidence that he is working hard to turn his life around? Yes. So why turn him into a political piñata instead of giving him praise for seeking redemption?

And that brings us to Andrew Harris. He’s a teacher in the suburban Middleton-Cross Plains school just outside Madison. He was fired four years ago for looking at a picture of a naked woman on his computer at school. He and other teachers had long shared risqué jokes and stories. He did not show the picture to kids. He shared it with other staff members.

He was not the only teacher to do that, but he was the only one to get fired. That selective punishment led the courts to order the school district to give him his job back.

There were parents who were outraged, who picketed the school upon his return, one who even launched a threatening Facebook campaign. And so Gov. Walker jumped into the fray, asking the state Department of Public Instruction to revoke Harris’ teaching license.

Did Harris do something wrong by looking at porn (not child porn, we should note) on a school computer? Sure. Did he acknowledge that? Yes. “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry for the mistake I made,” he told the Middleton Times-Tribune in January.

Where in all of these cases did anyone look to those global spiritual concepts of repentance and redemption?

Where was there any recognition of a shared human fallibility?

How can we knit ourselves together as a society if we leave no room for second chances?

Lent is one of those times when we seek second chances for ourselves. It can also be a time when we seek to open the doors to second chances for others.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis. This column appeared in a slightly different form in The Capital Times in Madison, Wis.

Image: Man praying, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

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