I try to stay abreast of current news, believing that Karl Barth’s admonition is a good measure for all who dare to claim time in any Christian pulpit. Barth is often quoted as having said that ministers should “preach with the Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other.” But I didn’t watch the Senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
I just have to admit that the culture war is wearing on me. There’s too much anger. Too much vitriol. Too much misinformation, deliberate disinformation, on social media — and even in mainstream media, more division cited than probably exists. (Yes, the nation is divided, but despite the deep divisions, I believe we still have more in common than divides us but evidently unity and tranquility don’t sell the commercials that fuel today’s “news.”)
After the last shamefully partisan confirmations for seats on the highest court in the land, the process has just become too rancorous. The anger isn’t good for my constitution. (Either the one penned in 1776 or the one involving my own viscera.) Judges are supposed to be impartial, non-partisan, but it’s sadly clear that we now have “three Trump justices” at the Supreme Court, and, apparently, one “Biden justice” about to be confirmed.
I didn’t watch. I couldn’t take it. But as I was driving to the office one day, that now-hyped exchange between one aggrieved senator and the judge was airing live. What disturbed me about the exchange has nothing to do with politics. I expect “conservatives” to question “liberals” forcefully, and vice versa. “Iron sharpens iron.” It’s what makes a people, a nation, stronger.
As I’ve told my congregation many times (although they have been less able to hear this for the last few years), my concerns are never partisan, never political in a narrow sense. If I raise an issue with something I read, that newspaper in one hand, whether a “political” matter, “the economy,” cultural mores, military affairs, my concern is always theological. It’s the only reason I have a platform to speak, the only subject matter I’ve been properly trained to address.
What’s more, the theology — whether involving the price of a gallon of gas, the rising crime rate or the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice — cuts across all disciplines.
No, my beef with one Missouri senator isn’t partisan. It’s theological.
As he grilled the judge, one particular case involving the conviction of an 18-year-old defendant on child pornography charges was the center of his attack. The senator seemed particularly offended that the judge, maybe any judge, should express any compassion, anything that sounds like concern for the well-being of the perpetrator, as well as for the victim. He quoted her, condescendingly, as having said, at the time of sentencing: “This is a truly difficult situation. I appreciate that your family is in the audience. I feel so sorry for them and for you. And for the anguish this has caused all of you. I feel terrible about the collateral consequences of this conviction. Sex offenders are truly shunned in our society.”
“The senator was almost apoplectic in his indignance.”
The senator was almost apoplectic in his indignance: “Help me understands this, judge.”
She never could. Let me try.
Call me “soft on crime” if you’d like, but I do feel sorry for this boy’s family. Can you imagine being the parent of this 18-year-old? And, yes, I even feel sorry for this boy. Can you imagine being drawn into such a disgusting, harmful world of perversion at such a young age? Can you imagine spending the rest of your life as a registered “sex offender”? Can you imagine the “collateral consequences” this family, and their circle of family and friends and colleagues and church (if they have one), are surely now enduring because of an 18-year-old’s mistake?
We say, “Do the crime, serve the time,” as if we believe some equation of recompense, rehabilitation, restoration is built into our system of criminal justice. But does anyone ever really get to “do the time”? Would your company hire an ex-con? Most won’t even consider a resume if those words are there. Many people recoil at the very thought. Would you welcome someone who had “done his time” into your church?” For petty theft? For rape? For murder?
And, when it comes to sex offenses, is there anyone more shunned in our society, truly?
The judge had responded to the senator that she was “attempting to take into account all of the relevant factors and do justice individually in each case.” Obviously, such a “justice,” rendered “individually,” within a context of judicial compassion, was not enough.
“Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies.’ It’s not a theology that sells well in America these days.”
Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It’s not a theology that sells well in America these days.
As a pastor, it is not my job to work out anyone’s partisanship. As I have said many times, you can be a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Republican all day long. All are valid choices in our democratic system. As a pastor, it is my job to remind people that Christian values are supposed to be different. That rehabilitation, forgiveness, restoration to relationship, justice for individuals — through compassion — are supposed to be at the center of our love.
We’re supposed to be different. Even when dealing with sex offenders.
I don’t know the details of the above case (any more than the senator did). I don’t have enough information to fairly evaluate even my own feelings about how the judge ruled in that trial. I do know that sex crimes are heinous and that the psychology involved in sexual pathology is often deeply ingrained, maybe even genetically predisposed, making treatment, rehabilitation, restoration, in some cases, seemingly impossible.
As a Christian, I also believe not even the worst offender any society has to offer should ever be tried by a judge without compassion.
Russ Dean serves as co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He holds degrees from Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. They are parents of two sons. Russ is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue. He is author of the new book Finding A New Way.
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