Grace

A Struggle for the Nation’s Moral Center

Court gavel with play letters, zimmytws / Shutterstock.com

Court gavel with play letters, zimmytws / Shutterstock.com

Sharletta Evans of Denver says it was her faith that motivated her to forgive the teens who killed her 3-year-old son, Casson, during a drive-by shooting. When she did, Evans says, she could feel the hate evaporate from her body. She has since developed a relationship with one of the young men, whom she hopes to see released from prison.

Minnesota’s Mary Johnson drew on her faith for the strength to meet with and forgive Oshea Israel, who was 16 when he killed Johnson’s 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd. Mary now considers Oshea, who lives next door to her, her spiritual son. The two now frequently speak together about anti-violence and the power of forgiveness.

And Mona Schlautman, whose 15-year-old son, Jeremy Drake, was kidnapped and killed in a park in Omaha, Neb., says her faith — plus her belief that it is good public policy — have led her to support changes in that state’s laws that would ensure young people who go to prison for serious crimes have meaningful opportunities to be considered for release after they have acknowledged what they did, asked for forgiveness and sought to make amends. She testified before the Pardons Board several times on behalf of Jeremy Herman, who at 17 was convicted of kidnapping her son. He was released from prison after 19 years.

Throughout the United States, people of faith are on the front lines of the effort to replace life-without-parole sentences for children with age-appropriate accountability measures that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The Juvenile Justice Week of Faith and Healing is an annual event intended to engage faith leaders and further increase awareness of individual, community and social needs arising from the current juvenile justice system.

What Are We Guarding Against?

Airport security, Tifonimages / Shutterstock.com

Airport security, Tifonimages / Shutterstock.com

As I stood in line at Orlando International Airport, a little girl did not want to go through airport security. She was desperately clinging to her grandmother.

I had already been pondering, as I *always* do, the enormous investment the nation has made in these checkpoints, going on 12 years now, in response to the actions of 19 men. 19 persons. These lines are here forever now, just one more cost of the fall, one more insult to our usual illusion of normalcy.

I'm not inconvenienced by the searches or the scanners, or worried about my personal liberties, though half stripping in public is embarrassing (we men have to take our belts off). At least the posture in those full-body cylinders reminds me that, at a very real level, this ought to be my more constant pose: found wanting, presumed guilty, and in need of throwing up my hands in surrender.

Still, I marvel at the sheer amount of money we must spend for all of this equipment and personnel, hoping this all somehow makes us safe. I'm skeptical.

Oscars and the Big Picture

We shouldn't really expect the Oscars to grasp the point of history, though this year the films nominated for Best Picture are a fascinating snapshot of what ails—and could heal—us.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Sermon on Baptism and the Devil

Baptistm, Jose AS Reyes / Shutterstock.com

Baptistm, Jose AS Reyes / Shutterstock.com

In the church of my childhood it was taught that the “age of accountability” was somewhere around 12. To hit the age of accountability was to, like,  spiritually go off of your parents’ insurance. At age 12 the clock starts ticking, spiritually speaking; you know right from wrong now and because of this you are accountable for every time you screw up. And if you sin knowing right from wrong and then die before you chose to be baptized, you might burn in Hell for eternity. So age 12, as you can imagine, is when kids start choosing to get baptized. The lag time between entering the age of accountability and having your slate wiped clean through baptism can be terrifying. Many of us kids would pray not to die in a car crash before we were baptized, like other people pray to not get sick before their employee benefits kick in. So basically, 12-year-old Church of Christ kids experience a wave of devotion like a Great Awakening comprised only of sixth graders. And this is partly because we were all terrified of the devil and temptation and sin. Since, as we were told, all the bad things we’d done may have been washed clean in baptism, but the devil was waiting right outside the baptistery to try and get us to be bad again.

Unexpected Grace in Les Miz

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.

But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.

As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”

In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.

New & Noteworthy

I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay / Grace and Mercy by Jonathan Butler / Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf / We Are Not Ghosts by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Julie Polter is Senior Associate Editor at Sojourners.

Conjectural Navel Gazing (Jesus in Lint Form): A Poem

Ethiopian cross. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

Ethiopian cross. Photo illustration by Cathleen Falsani.

I cannot
think that you don't
sound
or breathe
weep
or grieve
I will not
think that you don't
want
or ply
the cosmos
with love
or grace
seeking
us
lost again
I can believe
I can lose you
I can thwart you
I can set you up
I can watch you fall
to die
again
you breathe
weep
cry
sing
and I
am here seeking
better signs

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