I saw something great today… though it definitely didn’t start out so well. A teenager, not realizing that the T intersection in front of our house was still icy, tried to make the turn too quickly, lost control, and smashed his truck into the water runoff drain. He wasn’t going that fast…just too fast to turn on ice.
The boys and I were outside playing in the snow with my neighbor, Chris, and his two kids. I don’t know about the other kids, but this was the first time my boys have actually seen a wreck as it was happening.
As auto accidents go, this wasn’t a bad one (thankfully). My 10 year old, however, was nearly in tears – “Dad, that was a car wreck, aren’t you going to call 911?”
He was fine once I explained that no one was hurt, but the 5 year-old was unconvinced. There was no “nearly,” for this one. With full-on tears, he said, “But that truck is hurt. Don’t we have to call 911 for the truck?” He was very upset about the truck…
Though the front wheel was down the sloped entrance to the drainage, I initially hoped we could pull him out with my own vehicle. But he was right in the middle of the ice – I didn’t have any ropes or chains long enough to reach the dry pavement. As Chris and I were trying to figure out how we were going to get the truck out of the street, a Ford F-250 passed us and then stopped on the dry section of the street. Without any hesitation, a young man (maybe mid-twenties) got out, pulled two, long towropes from his toolbox, and asked where the truck needed to go.
The front-end of the kid’s truck was totally jacked – he couldn’t even turn the wheels. Thankfully, the ice helped us “steer,” but it still took all of us working together to get it moved somewhere safe. (Which we were eventually able to do…it’s parked out there right now.)
After the initial fear of having seen “a truck get hurt” wore off, the kids had all gone back to laughing and throwing “snowballs” at each other. (Translation: nearly murdering each other with chunks of ice and sleet…) Meanwhile, in the backseat of the Ford, the young man’s two daughters had opened the back window and were pelting their dad with snowballs of their own, gleaned from the top of his toolbox. All of this definitely helped lighten the mood as I talked to the teenager about getting his truck fixed – or the more likely scenario that the repair estimates would be more than the truck is worth.
Before our Good Samaritan drove away he gave the kid his phone number and said that his company has a wrecker they’d be happy to bring by and get his truck to a repair shop – just call when he’s ready. It turns out that this guy’s parents live just down the street from us. His company works on oil rigs – and apparently they’re limited in what they can do until the ice melts. So for the past couple days, he and several of his coworkers have been driving around town doing exactly what he stopped and did today.
As I sat down at my computer later in the evening I saw a video posted on Facebook where University of Oregon students stopped a car driving through campus, pelted it with snowballs, and then stood in front of it while others covered the entire car with tubs of snow. Several of the comments were lamenting (or venting) about “young people these days.”
Yeah, the kids in the video were acting like jerks…and I’d bet that the driver of the car was pretty angry. I know I would be. But I hope that he (and the rest of us by extension) won’t let that event define our view of “young people.”
Today, in front of my house, we had many of the same ingredients present in the Oregon video:
- Young people spending their day out in the snow
- A motorist whose drive in inclement weather took a sudden turn for the worse
- …We even had snowballs (well, sorta…work with me, this is Texas).
However, in our case it was the weather, not the young people or snowballs that caused the motorist’s distress. If anything, the snowballs thrown by the youngest people were a distraction from the distress. And this other “young person,” close to the same age as those in the video, chose to spend his day in the snow helping people he encountered along the way.
The choices we make impact those around us. And all of us, regardless of age, socio-economics, education, location, etc., etc., are going to make some bad choices as well as some good ones. Sometimes we (including “young people these days”) will even make great choices.
So don’t believe the hype – just because videos of the bad choices are more likely to go viral, or get reported on the news, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing things happening right now in the street outside your house.
And to further illustrate my point: I didn’t get a video of this young man’s choice… but my wife did happen to have her video going in time to record this not so good choice of mine.
… wait for it…
Boom goes the dynamite.
So by now, you’ve probably seen the 20 Things list that was posted on daveramsey.com. Many, including myself, first learned of this post by reading Rachel Held Evan’s article “What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty.” You’ve probably seen – and perhaps even participated on one side or the other – in the ensuing backlash and defense battle in social media land.
And then there was the ironic “commentary” that Dave Ramsey added as a postscript to the original post. I almost decided to dedicate an entire post of my own to responding to the response to the responses to the post…but then I said that out loud and decided to just mention a couple things and move on.
In his postscript, Ramsey’s criticism of how others communicate strikes me as an ironic self-indictment. Communication is not confined to transmission – it hasn’t actually occurred until it has been received. (Thus the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…”) We cannot ultimately control what others will do with our words. However, a seasoned communicator such as Ramsey should know there is no such thing as a “simple list,” and that by saying nothing initially, he said a lot.
His entire ministry is built on teaching people about practices that lead to debt and poverty, and practices that lead to wealth. If he didn’t want people to read an implied causative relationship in this comparison of “what the rich do every day that the poor don’t,” he should have stated that explicitly.
Sadly this list could be somewhat helpful – if properly contextualized, nuanced, and unpacked. But it wasn’t. This was sloppy communication, plain and simple. And it just went downhill from there.
Defining the good and bad habits of “rich people” is a contextual process. The same need for contextual awareness applies to the habits of “poor people.” Those contexts are not the same, so comparing their habits is as useless as comparing…well, any two sets of unrelated things.
The truth is that yes, making better choices is important. And even the painfully awkward, “I’m no Max Lucado,” paragraph has a valid concept underneath – our attitude does directly impact our situation, how we deal with it, and whether or not we will let it define us.
Unfortunately, those messages – assuming they were intended – are very difficult to hear over the noise of poor communication and suspicious indications that Ramsey’s awareness of the landscape stops with the middle class. This list of habits, as a means of assigning a general “cause and effect” relationship between poverty/wealth and the specific activities is remarkably flawed. But the way in which this self-described “mature teacher” responded is worse – and, at least from my limited perspective, caused noticeably more damage.
Apparently some people have accused this post, and Ramsey’s ministry, of “hating the poor.” I haven’t seen those comments, but encountering overstated responses online isn’t a unique phenomenon. That isn’t to defend inappropriate statements – I do not.
On the other hand, misrepresenting millions of people’s situation in a way that makes them look inferior to “the rich” in matters of basic self-care is deeply insulting – in addition to being totally misleading. That some people would see this as more hateful than loving is one more aspect that should not have come as a surprise. Calling them immature for doing so is a failure to accept responsibility for poor communication (at best).
However, in the midst of various Facebook discussions, I’ve seen a several versions of the same question come up repeatedly. The paraphrased version is, “If the 20 Things post represents an overly narrow and simplistic understanding of poverty, what would a more nuanced approach look like?”
That’s a great question, because it recognizes the insufficiency of defining your position by what you reject.
Even beyond the present issue, I have a number of problems with Ramsey’s material – most of it having to do with how it is presented. And yet, I do believe that people struggling with debt, uncontrolled spending, and other financial difficulties associated particularly with the middle class context in America would do well to attend a Financial Peace University class and implement the practical tools it offers. I use the “debt snowball” principle on a regular basis in my work as a coach and teacher/trainer – there are a lot of solid principles in this material.
So an important step toward a nuanced approach would be to acknowledge how critiquing one aspect (or several) of something doesn’t require wholesale rejection of the entire project. We don’t have to develop an all or nothing approach. Likewise, supporting one or more aspects should not lead to blind support of the project either.
It seems that things change somewhat if we understand Ramsey’s use of the word “poor” as relating most directly to “the struggling middle class.” That context is still way too broad, but many people in that socio-economic bracket are educated, have / have had / have access to dependable and financially viable jobs, and also have the relational networks (other friends and family in relatively stable financial situations) to benefit most directly from Ramsey’s strategies. And for that group of people, I am glad there are practical programs like this available.
Next, I would say, if you want a nuanced approach to working with the poor, you need to actually know and be in relationship with people living in poverty. Talk to them…but, more than that, listen to them. Start in your own community – be aware of the places of marginalization in your own back yard.
As you become aware of these places, find a way to simply be present in that space. Whether it’s a park, a library, a coffee shop, a laundromat/washateria (depending on what part of the country you’re from), the deli counter and lunch area at the grocery store, or walking down the street – just pay attention. When you have the opportunity to engage in conversation, do so with genuine curiosity and listen to what people have to say.
That’s where the nuanced approach begins…by replacing our mental concept of the faceless “poor,” with the names, faces, and stories of actual people living in poverty.
You could also try talking with people who already live, serve, and work with and alongside the poor.
Some potential resources:
- Christian Community Development Association – a well-established national organization with a phenomenal track record.
- For folks in my state, there is Texas Christian Community Development Network, the hub of which is in Waco – where you can also find Mission Waco. TxCCDN operates an annual conference – No Need Among You – that can help provide both broader awareness of issues and practical ways to get involved.
- The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is home to an amazing resource in CitySquare.
- I’d be happy to connect you with residents in our (Missional Wisdom Foundation) Epworth houses. These folks are engaged with the issues present in the lives of people in their actual neighborhood – homelessness, adapting to American culture as a refugee from a war-torn country, under-resourced minority communities in a city that has been charged with influencing racial segregation and actively blocking opportunities for the poor to make those “better choices” we’ve been hearing about.
Maybe you’re not ready to get into a long conversation. I get it. This 6 minute video can shed a lot of light on the nature of poverty…and why it isn’t really about money.
Wayne Gordon & John Perkins of the CCDA, along with a list of participant contributors, have written a fantastic – and brief – book about community development, working among the poor, and the various cultural issues that come into play. Making Neighborhoods Whole is an accessible but content rich primer.
One of my favorite lines from this book is, “We are finally beginning to realize that programs do not fix communities. Only neighbors can do that” (50).
For a description of how a lack of nuanced awareness can cause harm – and a recommendation for focusing on the assets, rather than shortcomings, of the poor -pick up a copy of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself. By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
And then for a completely different take on the “propensity to build wealth” in the way of Jesus, I strongly recommend God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
Finally, for a description of why things are not as simple as Corley’s list and Ramsey’s response seem to insinuate, check out No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future, by Joerg Rieger.
So, spend time among the poor… and listen to their stories. Talk with people who already work alongside the poor…and listen to their stories. Pick up some resources on the theology, theory, and practice of both ministry with the poor and the broader issue of community development…and listen to the stories from these various perspectives.
And as you listen, notice the points of connection with your own passions, gifts, and callings. Once you’ve made that connection; once you gotten to know the names, faces, and stories of people in your own community, I suspect you’ll discover that their dreams for a preferred future, and the most pressing obstacles to those dreams, are no longer foreign to you.
Of course, all of this merely points us in the direction of HOW to develop a nuanced approach – but I think you could do worse than using “listen to people” as your approach.
A few days ago, Steve Knight, curator of the Missional Shift blog, reposted part of my blog entry, The Great Missional Misunderstanding under the headline, Maybe Methodists Are Not So Missional After All.
We’re not. But we do have the capacity, the heritage, and the personnel to be missional. John Wesley was nothing if not the ultimate missional pastor. At the very beginning, the Methodist movement was a living, breathing example of what a sent people looks like. The Methodists were missional monks, transforming their neighborhoods, discipling folks in small groups, and going on to the perfection of entire sanctification. Many elements of our current polity originally arose out of a missional paradigm, such as itineracy, lay preachers, and holy conferencing.
In other words, we have missional DNA. It’s deep in there, way down.
But something happened in the first half of the nineteenth century in American Methodism. It’s all summed up in the image of the itinerant, circuit riding preacher getting off his horse, and becoming “located.” This happened across America as the frontier stopped expanding; preachers decided they wanted to stay home, raise families, and build churches. This was an understandable shift, but it completely changed the modus operandi of Methodism.
I believe that the itineracy is the very place where United Methodists could once again, and immediately, start living out of a missional paradigm.
We could start making truly missional appointments.
In Methodist-speak, an appointment is what a bishop of a geographic region, known as an annual conference, gives to each ordained pastor. Each appointment is officially made for the duration of only one year at a time, and it is made at the discretion of the bishop.
Most pastoral appointments are made to existing local churches. Every year in our conference, a few appointments are made to new church starts. Pastors who feel called to serve outside of a local church may request appointment to “extension ministry.” Common examples of extension ministry appointments include seminary or university faculty positions, conference administrative positions, or chaplancies.
But the vast majority of appointments are to an already-existing congregation, every one of which are heavily invested in attractional ministry and maintenance of a campus. Over time, the best and brightest pastors get sucked into these traditional church settings where they inevitably end up serving the status quo.
A very simple way to change this dynamic would be to create missional appointments, in which pastors are charged with creative assignments, or are tasked to serve a very unique people group.
Let me throw out a few possibilities, using my own conference as an example:
What if we appointed someone to the night life in Deep Ellum? A few city blocks on the east edge of Dallas contain a thriving night scene, including tattoo shops, metal clubs, coffee shops, and artist lofts. But maybe only one church. Where is the reign of God breaking out in Deep Ellum? We have no idea, because none of us are there.
What if we appointed someone to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport? Not only do hundreds of thousands of people fly in, out, and through the airport, but thousands of people are employed at the airport. Could we imagine the airport as a vast mission field, with unique needs, problems, and pastoral care opportunities?
What if pastors were appointed, not to local churches, but to zip codes or neighborhoods? And what if they had no other responsibilities but to live in the neighborhood, spend lots of time in the coffee shop and grocery store, and hang out with people?
What if we appointed someone to a public justice issue, such as the death penalty? Imagine a clergy person spending all her time researching the impact of capital punishment in her city and state, speaking out and educating people in churches about the issue, and making public acts of witness.
What if we appointed someone to be a missionary to refugees? Every year, close to 2,000 refugees are resettled in the Dallas area. They come from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Congo, among other forsaken places. They arrive here with their entire worldly possessions in their hands, and are forced to adjust to life in the States in a very short amount of time.
The possibilities are truly endless. I have heard and seen such appointments happening in various conferences around the country, but they don’t happen often enough. Lorenza Andrade Smith, whom I have written about before, is appointed to the homeless of San Antonio, and actually lives on the street with them! I can’t imagine a more creative appointment!
In the North Texas Conference, back in the 1990s, there were a series of creative 3-year appointments like this, thanks to grant money from the General Board of Global Ministries. My friend, Diana Holbert, was appointed to work with the creative, artistic community of downtown Dallas; another friend, Marcia McFee, became the worship consultant for the conference.
Now the reason why appointments like these don’t happen often is very simple — money.
Pastor salaries are paid by the local churches where they serve. Leaving aside the contentious issue of pay equity among clergy, we should note that this means that there is little to no money normally available to fund new missional appointments. Our conference does fund new church starts, often at quite large sums, but the assumption is that these churches will become self-sustaining in three years. Missional work may not ever be “self-sustaining” in the traditional sense. Thus, conferences frown on such work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to be appointed as missionary to refugees in our conference. It’s what I feel called to do. I’ve started a nonprofit refugee ministry called Daraja, which takes up most of my time. My official appointment is to the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which initially helped pay part of my salary. However, now the funding has run out, and I find myself in the position of raising my own salary support, an unusual new job skill which I am learning on the fly. (Not doing it particularly well, yet, so if you feel so inclined, here’s where you can make a monthly pledge!)
Yes, I’d love it if the conference could pay me a base salary, ensuring that I can pay my mortgage and bills, but since working with refugees is not a particularly lucrative business, nor is it ever going to be “self-sustaining,” then they will be wary of this move. I will have to rely on good old-fashioned fundraising.
My point is that our Methodist connection actually does provide us with a network of like-minded, followers of Jesus who could, if they dreamed and dared, find ways to fund, resource, mobilize, and send pastors into unique places for missional purposes. It could happen, and as I said before, does happen from time to time.
But there’s room for more.
In his excellent blog post last week on the travesty that is called the “Timely Justice Act,” which still sits on the desk of Florida Governor Rick Scott, my partner-monk Bret wisely rips apart the argument that justice has anything to do with the bill, which would speed the execution process. In fact, as he shows by the words of those who support the bill, justice is actually beside the point! What matters is a swift process, not an accurate one.
But this skirts a fundamentally more important issue, one which has a lot to do with the life and calling of a missional monk. That issue has to do with a right understanding of justice.
What exactly do we mean we talk about justice? In current popular usage, justice refers simply to the process by which those who are accused of a crime are tried, and either absolved or convicted and punished. The popularity of shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order,” and “NCIS,” as well as superhero movies, proves that we like to watch bad guys get caught, and we like to see them get what’s coming to them.
In contemporary Christian lingo, justice tends to take one of two predominant meanings. It could refer to a trait of God, which is unyielding and stubborn, and finally exercised by Jesus on a white throne at the end of time. Of course, God’s justice is tempered by God’s mercy, but it is never obliterated or removed. This justice is a divine necessity.
A second meaning is used, either perjoratively or complimentary, of Christians who are concerned with social issues, such as climate change, poverty, environmental destruction, and war. Usually the word “social” is tacked on in front of the word “justice.” Often, churches are depicted as focusing either on personal piety or social justice; this dichotomy has infiltrated most churches in North America.
I think we ought to abandon these notions of justice, and start over with something that is more concrete, as well as more scriptural.
First of all, we must reclaim justice as an integral part of our identity as followers of Jesus. It is not a separate sphere of action; it is not a call to which only certain people and prophets must pursue; it does not stand in contradistinction with piety, spiritual disciplines, or worship.
When we follow Jesus, we are pursuing lives of justice, which orients us to all areas of human activity.
In scripture, there are two Hebrew words for justice: tzedekah and mishpat. These words get alternatively translated as “justice” and “righteousness,” and are shown to have roughly the same meaning. And in fact, in the Greek New Testament, there is simply one word used interchangeably for both.
The best scriptural definition for justice, then, is righteousness, which means simply “to be in right relation with.” Justice is a relational word! When justice is done, then right relationships exist between individuals, communities, cities, and nations. Things are set right, things become what they were meant to be in relation to each other.
Justice is never an abstract concept; it can be seen concretely when people treat each other with dignity and respect, or as Jesus would put it, with love.
This is why every part of our lives is a justice issue. The things we teach our children orient them to a certain relationship with others and the world; the prayers we pray strengthen our relationship with God; the worship we engage in impacts our relationship with fellow members in the pews. Everything is about justice, because human existence is a dense network of relationships.
In his book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant L. Myers argues that the nature of poverty is essentially relational: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”
By introducing the word shalom into the conversation, Myers brings a different scriptural word into play, one which I believe could transform the conversation. Shalom is a beautifully rich Hebrew word which encompasses everything we could possibly want to say about justice. It is translated peace, wholeness, fullness, and wellbeing. It is used, to this day, as a greeting as well as a benediction. Shalom is both the goal of all life and the promised future, as well as the kind of life which we, as followers of Christ, have access to right now. Shalom is, essentially, the kingdom of God, which is both now and not yet.
Shalom is being in right relationship — with everything and everyone!
Myers illustrates the idea of shalom with a simple chart that depicts the self in relationship with five other spheres: the self, God, others, community, and the environment. Shalom is the state of being in right relations with all of these spheres. Thus, one must have a healthy self-awareness and identity, must have a living relationship with God, must have healthy relationships with family and friends, must be a responsible and participating member of the community, and must be a conscious and careful citizen of the planet. Only when all of those relationships are in order, can it be said that true justice, or true shalom, is present.
What makes this state of affairs difficult to achieve is that everything is overlaid with the unseen, invisible forces of systems — economic, social, political, global, and even religious — which conspire to thwart, twist, and corrupt any attempts at making relationships sound. These systems include patterns of thought, unspoken assumptions, prejudices and hatreds.
When seen in this framework, then, bills like the “Timely Justice Act” are seen as what they truly are — pitiful and painful attempts to make things right by removing the relational aspect from the picture.
In fact, the death penalty itself fails to achieve anything like “justice” for this very reason.
If justice means to restore even the remote possibility of a right relationship, then killing someone is out of the question. To take someone else’s life means to destroy all possibility that something new and hopeful might replace the well-worn conflicts and abuses that have existed before.
This is why so much is being made today of the difference between retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice pays back and punishes; it makes a judgment that someone must be harmed in retaliation for what he or she has done. This retaliation usually results in destroyed relationships.
But restorative justice believes that a person can be redeemed and can have his or her relationships with others restored. Hope remains, because the possibility of a new relationship is kept open, even if only slightly, with family, friends, and even the victim and victim’s family.
The death penalty is the ultimate anti-shalom measure. It breaks and crushes the possibilty that a murderer might be able to find forgiveness, receive a word of grace, or even speak a word of grace to someone else. It continues the spiral of destruction which a murderer began, often because of the lack of shalom in his own life.
If we want true justice, which is always timely, by the way, then it begins with the relationships closest to us. Down the hall, across the street, on the other end of a phone.
Do justice. Make shalom.
And please, Gov. Scott — kill that bill.
Like most people, my adolescent years were marked by occasional philosophical conflicts with my parents. However, I grew up on a ranch, so some of the contentious issues might seem foreign to others.
For instance, it used to bug me that while tromping around the woods, my Dad insisted I keep using my single-shot .22 rather than his semi-automatic version. As is often the case, it took a few years to realize his motive wasn’t to crush my dreams and steal my joy. He was teaching me that claiming the responsibility of shooting a rifle means learning how to shoot it responsibly. That means shooting straight, with full awareness of surroundings and the potential implications of every squeeze of the trigger.
When you shoot you want to hit a target – obviously. If you want to hit a target, you can either shoot straight or you can shoot fast and often.
Shooting straight is hard. It takes effort, patience, and dedication. It requires you to develop accuracy, learn to control your breathing, pay attention to your surroundings, and choose your shot carefully. My single-shot was made for this approach.
On the other hand, shooting fast is easy and appealing. Instead of skill, practice, or patience, it only requires bullets. Without all that tedious concern with accuracy, you simply shoot enough times that you eventually hit the target…and a lot of other things as well. Dad had strong opinions about “fast shooters.” He viewed their careless mindset and reckless behavior as a danger to everyone.
During the last week of April 2013, the Florida legislature passed a bill meant to increase efficiency in the process of death row executions by setting time limits and decreasing options for appeals. Citing the cost of keeping inmates on death row for decades and the extended lack of closure for the families of victims, Republican lawmakers were able to get this bill through the House and Senate with overwhelming support.
In the minds of some, should Governor Rick Scott sign the “Timely Justice Act” into law this month, Florida will hit several targets. They’ll hit the target of reducing the high cost associated with lengthy stays on death row. They’ll hit the target of bringing “swift justice” to the state’s worst criminals. They’ll hit the target of bringing closure to the families of the victims.
However, there is a major problem. This bill and it’s proponents are rejecting hard work and accuracy, instead embracing the careless mindset of “shoot fast and shoot often.” Their lack of concern for accuracy is going to increase the number of targets hit, but it will also increase the number of wrong and unintended targets hit. And that is unacceptable.
The bill is not about “Timely Justice,” it is about swift execution, regardless of innocence or guilt.
The death penalty currently represents the ultimate and final form of justice applied to perpetrators of extreme violence and evil in 32 states. Full disclosure, I abhor the death penalty. I don’t find it to be a convincing definition of justice, but rather the final sign that justice and reconciliation have eluded us.
But my feelings about the death penalty don’t matter at this point. The issue on the table, which is going to be decided in the next couple weeks, is this bill to execute people more quickly in the state of Florida. Even by the current definition of justice, the Timely Justice Act is a direct affront to justice.
If we claim to be a just society, and executing perpetrators is our form of justice, then we are obligated to do the hard work and refuse the temptation to be fast shooters. Accuracy is nonnegotiable for justice, particularly where executions are concerned. And this bill decreases accuracy.
It must not be signed into law.
What is so dangerous about this bill in Florida?
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Florida has executed 76 people.1 During the same time period a whopping 24 people, the most in the nation, have been exonerated after sentencing. This one state represents 17% of the nation’s 142 cases of death row exonerations.2 And that figure doesn’t take into account those whose death sentences were reduced or commuted.
This is a state that has one erroneous death sentence exonerated for every three people executed. The people of Florida should be enraged that their lawmakers would try to speed up a process that they can’t perform accurately at a slower pace.
You don’t need to be opposed to the death penalty to oppose this bill. The only reason you should support this bill is if you have no problem executing innocent people. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the one’s who get away with murder – or take advantage of the system. Proponents of this bill will definitely play up the need to be “tough on crime.” But we need to remember:
- With this bill, the system is still broken, it’s just faster. That means there is less time to correct mistakes, with too little being done to avoid making the mistakes in the first place. While the bill attempts to address issues of incompetent representation – particularly in court appointed attorneys – it doesn’t say much about how they are going to pay these people. Interesting…this is normally the complaint we hear the Republicans leveling at Democrats.
- Removing/reducing the hope for appeal doesn’t just block the guilty who are taking advantage. It also blocks the falsely convicted scrambling to save their lives.
- Don’t Worry: Wealthy people (innocent or guilty) will still get off the hook. Its only the poor, the one’s who are at the mercy of court appointed representation, who really need to worry…But at least now we don’t have to listen to them complain for so long, right?
This bill is not concerned with accuracy, it is concerned with a particular outcome, namely, executing somebody…whether they committed the crime or not. As Sen. Robert Bradley, R-Orange Park has made clear, “This isn’t about innocence or guilt, it’s about timely justice.” Other than the ironic misuse of the word “justice,” I couldn’t have said it better…but he was supposedly supporting the bill with that statement.
Sen. Bradley’s statement is startlingly (if unintentionally) honest, incredibly disturbing, and wholly inaccurate. In the minds of those who choose to shoot fast instead of straight, accuracy and outcome may be separate issues. But that just confirms my Dad’s beliefs that fast shooters operate from a mindset of carelessness.
Justice which can somehow be separated from innocence or guilt is a new definition of justice altogether; neither the one that many of us long for, nor the one we currently have. This bill is pursuing a facade of justice, a hollow victory based on someone repaying blood for blood, and that person’s guilt or innocence in the matter is not the primary concern.
“But,” you may say, “they have already been found guilty!”
Yes, they have been found guilty in a state with a documented history of unfairness and inaccuracy in their death penalty system. In a 2006 analysis of Florida’s death penalty laws, procedures and practices, an American Bar Association (ABA) report states, “the State of Florida fails to comply or is only in partial compliance with many of these recommendations and that many of these shortcomings are substantial. More specifically, the Team is convinced that there is a need to improve the fairness and accuracy in the death penalty system… The Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team has identified a number of areas in which Florida’s death penalty system falls short in the effort to afford every capital defendant fair and accurate procedures.”3
Florida is also the only remaining state in which a simple majority vote of the jury is sufficient to sentence someone to death. Five members of a jury can remain unconvinced without stopping the sentence. That detail becomes even more disconcerting when we consider that the previously mentioned report from the ABA found that “many Florida capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence.”4 Among other signs of confusion, “36 percent of interviewed Florida capital jurors incorrectly believed that they were required to sentence the defendant to death if they found the defendant’s conduct to be “heinous, vile, or depraved”¬¬ beyond a reasonable doubt”5 (emphasis mine).
And yet, even in cases where the jury doesn’t recommend the death penalty, the practice of judicial override (used 166 times between 1972 and 1999) in Florida may mean the death sentence is given anyway. The 2006 ABA report cites a study showing that “trial judges take into account the potential ‘repercussions of an unpopular decision in a capital case,’ which encourages judges in judicial override states to override jury recommendations of life, ‘especially so in the run up to judicial elections.”6
There are reasons that we have an appeal process in our courts. We’re not talking about staying after school for detention, or passing the 30-day window for returning your item to the store. We’re talking about the life and death of a human being. That warrants some caution before taking irreversible action. This is part of the price we pay in order to continue claiming to be a nation grounded in things like truth, justice and the sanctity of life.
This bill threatens to void those claims.
Among the 24 cases in Florida, the average time from sentencing to exoneration has been 7.5 years (national average is 9.8 years).7 If this bill becomes law, without the immediate provision of new evidence, executions will happen in a matter of months.
Even if we stretch that out to one year, only 2 of the Florida 24 would come close to that window. Two. As in, just two people more than zero.
If this bill had been in place since 1976, how many of these twenty-four exonerated people would have been executed? We can’t know for sure, but the odds for twenty-two of them are pretty bad and the odds for the other two aren’t great. At least two people who received commuted sentences (as opposed to the full exoneration of the 24) after new evidence came to light would have fallen well outside that 1-year lifespan.8
No other state in the nation has more local data to comprise an informed notion of how long it can take to fully investigate and sort these matters out. If we are going to snuff out the life of a person, we cannot afford to leave any lingering doubt as to whether it is the right person. Again, in a just society, accuracy is nonnegotiable.
But Florida representatives are apparently comfortable with not knowing. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the bill in the House, glibly stated, “Only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting.” This statement artfully combines a misapplication of Scripture, poor use of logic and an apparent belief in the incompetence of the judicial system. If only God can judge, then why have courts at all? Why make laws?
About a month after the “kill ‘em all, let God sort it out” comment, Rep. Gaetz summoned the power of the twittersphere to deflect his callous lack of concern. Here is the full text of his May 30 modified tweet (MT: which is reposting a version or a section of someone else’s tweet, usually with a comment or response):
Any of them mention the victims or their families? MT:”@TroyKinsey: A death penalty critic’s blasting @mattgaetz’ timely justice act.”9
It’s interesting to note the selective nature of this MT. Here’s the part of @TroyKinsey’s tweet that doesn’t make the modified cut: “Noting 8 inmates were exonerated after more than a decade on death row.”
The righteous condescension of Gaetz’ modified retweet is rivaled only by its accidental irony. This tweet was in response to a critic mentioning 8 people exonerated after MORE THAN A DECADE on death row. Are those the victims and families to whom he referred?
I’m not a lawmaker, I’m a minister. I know a lot about grief. And unfortunately, I also know about people using emotional ploys to kill conversation. There are certain things you can say that make it very difficult for the other person to argue. Appealing to the emotional trauma of families who have had loved ones snatched away from them by a murderer is one of those hard-to-reply-to arguments.
I don’t mean in anyway to sound insensitive to the grief of the victims’ families, but the fact that their grief is even being brought up in a conversation about falsely convicted people suggests exploitation of their grief to push another agenda.
Rep Gaetz doesn’t seem to appreciate how inaccuracy in the death penalty system creates victims – though my suspicion is that he simply will not admit it publicly.
Speeding up an inaccurate process will lead to fewer exonerations10 and less time on death row, thus simultaneously lowering the cost to the state and lowering public awareness of inaccurate sentences.
But the victims are created whether the government acknowledges them or not. I understand grief and I have a great deal of painful experience grieving with those who grieve. I have seen tremendous grief and longing for justice – as well as insatiable thirst for revenge. I’ve sat and visited with inmates – some who were behind bars because of their own stupid, broken decisions, as well as those behind bars because the justice system is just as broken.
I’ve also wept with the families torn apart by tragedy, violence and evil – which is true of the families of both victims and perpetrators. All are in tremendous pain. All long for justice. And the people of God are sent to stand with those who cry for justice and lend their own voices to the chorus.
For those who have ears to hear, the cry for justice is the most piercing cry of all. And those who hear that cry are compelled to see justice done. This is as it should be.
But this bill isn’t offering justice. It’s offering retribution. Worse yet, it’s offering retribution with only moderate concern for guilt. The Timely Justice Act should more appropriately be called The Scapegoat Act.
No, the issue at stake in this bill isn’t justice at all. The justice-flavored additives are masking a concoction of “tough on crime” resume building, bottom-line finances, and deflecting attention from the real problems in Florida’s justice system.
Why have so many people been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death? That seems like an important question to answer and resolve before attempting to increase the rate of executions.11
The system is broken; no one is denying that reality. The fast shooter mindset may want to deal with a broken system by executing people before every possible doubt has been removed, but that will never be construed as justice by a just society.
I’m sorry Representative Gaetz, decreasing the accuracy of justice under the guise of concern for victims is misleading, at best, when your state’s inaccuracy is already leading the nation in creating victims. The stakes are too high, we cannot afford to get this wrong. We cannot lower the accuracy of this process even more and still pretend to be a just society.
Governor Rick Scott, I implore you, in the name of justice, please veto the Scapegoat Act.
Bret Wells, D.Min.
For more information on the death penalty in the United States, visit the Death Penalty Information Center website. You can also read the 400+ page ABA report on Florida’s death penalty system, or read this report written by Christopher Slobogin, chair of the Florida assessment team and Milton Underwood chair in Law, Vanderbilt University Law School. You can also visit the Florida Department of Corrections website to see more statistics about executions in the state.
Dr. Bret Wells is the Director of Operations for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, where he oversees and is a member of the teaching faculty for the Academy for Missional Wisdom. He is also the minister of The Gathering in Burleson, TX.
He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology as well as an MA in Christian Ministry and a BS in Psychology and Christian Ministry from Abilene Christian University. Bret is also certified as a Christian Coach through Mission Alive and CoachNet.
1 Florida Department of Corrections website. http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/deathrow/execlist.html, Accessed June 3, 2013.
2 Qualifications for inclusion in this list of exonerations on Death Penalty Information Center website. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row. Accessed June 3, 2013:
“Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-
- Been acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, or
- Had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution, or
- Been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence.”
3 Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team, American Bar Association, “Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Florida Death Penalty Assessment Report,” September 2006. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/aba/fldpreport.pdf, Accessed June 4, 2013, iii.
4 Ibid, vi.
6 Ibid, vii.
7 Death Penalty Information Center, website, “Innocence: List of Those Freed From Death Row,” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row. Accessed June 3, 2013.
8 Sonia Jacobs, convicted in 1976, released in 1992. Joseph Spaziano, convicted in 1976, still in Florida prison for other crimes. Information provided on Death Penalty Information Center website, “Additional Innocence Information,” under “A. Partial Innocence – Conviction Reduced” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/additional-innocence-information#Released. Accessed June 3, 2013.
9 Matt Gaetz twitter account, https://twitter.com/mattgaetz. Accessed June 3, 2013.
10 Closing doors on the appeal process could not only lead to more posthumous exonerations, it could also mean that innocence is never formally recognized. As the Death Penalty Information Center states, “There is no way to tell how many of the over 1,000 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent. Courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead. Defense attorneys move on to other cases where clients’ lives can still be saved.” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executed-possibly-innocent. Accessed June 3, 2013.
11 The 400+ page Florida Death Penalty Assessment Report certainly sheds some light on how this happened at least prior to 2006. In addition to the juror confusion and simple majority vote issues already stated, the report also focused on inadequate compensation for conflict trial counsel in death penalty cases, lack of qualified and properly monitored Capital Collateral Registry Counsel, inadequate compensation for Capital Collateral Registry Attorneys, the practice of judicial override, lack of transparency in the clemency process, racial disparities in Florida’s capital sentencing, and geographic disparities in Florida’s capital sentencing. http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/aba/fldpreport.pdf . Accessed June 3, 2013, iv-viii.
Exploring the Collision Between the Missional and the Monastic.
Engaging the Mission of God…Right Where We Are.
These are a couple of the taglines that Missional Monks has used over the last 3 years to communicate what we’re addressing with this website, the podcast, and other equipping works. Lately, Wes and I have been focusing on a new – shorter (you’re welcome) – version.
Missional = Sent. Monks = Together.
A tagline that defines our name and describes our vision. Simple, eh?
Of course when we start digging in to what it means to live a Sent. Together. life, there are countless paths to explore. Sent. Together. should describe the posture of our churches and faith communities. It provides direction for our church planting, evangelism and discipleship endeavors.
But it also speaks about the way we view broader cultural issues. The human experience itself should be understood as a lived expression of a Sent. Together. process. We are not created to live in isolation. The problems you face are my problems precisely because you face them.
And so as Missional Monks we are committed to engaging community building projects, like the Bret Sent Me experiment. And we’re committed to things like neighborhood meals, playdates at the park, volunteering in our children’s schools, coaching, and training coaches to help people improve their missional imagination.
This afternoon we’re going to post the first of a series of articles that address a disturbing and incredibly unjust piece of legislation currently awaiting either signature or veto from the Florida Governor’s office. Speaking out against this sort of injustice is part of what it means to be a Missional Monk, because it is a recognition that our neighbor’s struggle is our struggle…and hearing our neighbor’s plight is itself a call to action.
For United Methodists, the gathering known as Annual Conference is the high-water mark of the year. It is the time in which we gather to worship, organize our priorities, focus our vision, and catch up with each other — at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.
In past years in North Texas, Annual Conference has been particularly mind-numbing. But this year, things took a turn for the better with a gathering that refocused our eyes on the work of discipleship and revitalization.
The highlights of the event were the two addresses given by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the leading youth ministry authors and speakers in the country. She galvanized the crowd with her depiction of today’s youth culture and a breakdown of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.
People left the conference feeling better about the future of the church than when they arrived, and that says a lot about how well things went.
However, I think one thing did become clear to me: whatever we United Methodists are, we are not yet truly missional. Everything that happened at Annual Conference this week presupposed and presumed that the attractional church is the preeminent and ultimate expression of Christian community.
Now, before I go any further, let me define exactly what I mean by missional. The word has become a catch-all for a couple of different concepts. Dr. Dean used the phrase missional church in her first talk, and defined it herself as meaning “a church that looks outside of itself and its walls, instead of being preoccupied with itself.”
It would be great if that described most churches in North America, of course, but that is not what missional means, nor is it the best definition of a missional church.
I also heard the word missional thrown around in casual conversation and in the exhibit hall, where a number of ministries (including Daraja!) had booths set up. Most of the time I heard it used like this: “Oh, our church is very missional. We support a food pantry, we have two or three mission trips a year, and we sponsor a missionary in Africa.” In this context, missional means “our church loves to support mission projects.” But that is also not what missional means.
Missional means sent.
A missional church understands that it primarily exists to be sent.
A missional church is so preoccupied with life in the neighborhood that it doesn’t really have time to worry about the maintenance and upkeep of buildings, vehicles, and programs.
And, as a Missional Monk, I would like to remind us that we aren’t sent alone. We are Sent. Together.
Here’s an example of the fact that our Annual Conference doesn’t get that yet. The last thing that happens at every Conference is the reading of appointments. Traditionally, each district superintendent would get up and read the names of all the churches in the district, followed by the name(s) of the pastor(s) appointed to that church.
This year, they changed it up. Instead of taking the time to have each name read, one by one, each appointment was put on a slide which was then projected on the big screens during our closing communion service. The media team had also asked each pastor in the weeks leading up to Conference, to send a picture of the church which they served. Thus, each slide showed a picture of the church building, the name of the church, and the appointed clergy.
Think about the message that presentation sent. The clear message is that Rev. Jane Doe has been appointed, or sent, TO a particular building. Pastors are sent to an already-existing church, where there already exists a group of people who are used to meeting every Sunday morning to hear an inspiring word and then go home to lead a comfortable life. There are already committees and systems and customs in place, which mostly prop up a status quo which we know isn’t sustainable anymore.
Here’s another example that our Conference doesn’t understand missional yet. Another innovation in this year’s gathering was a Monday afternoon Toolbox Session, which is just another name for a series of workshops that people were free to choose from.
Look at the workshops on offer:
- Social Media as a Ministry: Challenges, Content, Growth
- Big VBS for Small Churches: Making VBS the Biggest Outreach Event of the Year
- Planting and Growing an Explosive Small Group Ministry
- Developing a Culture of Call to Ministry: How to Cultivate a Call in Young Adults
- Building a Community Center Without Bricks and Mortar
- Welcoming the Stranger in Small Churches: Five Changes in Hospitality that Can Make All the Difference
- Inclusion at Our Church: A Place for Those with Special Needs
- Are We Building Towers or Temples?
- Retiree Matters: New Retiree Medical Insurance Program
- God Talk: Reaching the “Nones”
- Energizing Volunteers: Maximizing Lay Leadership for Small Churches
- Multi-Site Worship: One Church, Different Zip Codes?
- Confirmation: Claiming the Faith We Profess
- Mission Programming: Growing Your Church Through Social Services
- 911 Responding to Violence in Your Church or School
- A Church Full of Cowboys: Alternative Worship for Small Churches
- Partnering with Schools, the Community, and Other Churches
- Creative, Collaborative Worship Team Planning
- Senior Programming: Do Bingo, Buses and Brunches Really Meet the Spiritual Needs of our Elders?
- In Sickness and in Health: Faith Community Nursing in Your Congregation
- MinistrySafe Refresher
- Effective Programming for Small Membership Churches
Did you notice that every single workshop offered presumes the existence of a building? Interestingly, one session explicitly suggests that you can do social services without a building, but not church!
Did you also notice that what is primarily being encouraged is programming? Lots of programs. The right kinds of programs.
Now, I am not criticizing these workshops, nor the presenters. I am sure these were great sessions, and I happen to know many of the presenters personally, and believe that they have plenty to share that is helpful and valuable.
But what I am saying is that everything presented at Conference was firmly inside the attractional church box. Everything shared and celebrated and lifted up as worthy of emulation was traditional, programmatic, and based on the idea that our job as church leaders is to try to get people inside the church building. And that’s an idea that I think we must get away from, if merely because it’s too small a vision!
The mission of God is greater than that. It transcends the narthex, the vestry, and the sanctuary. In these days of “nones,” spiritual-but-not-religious young people, the benign-whateverism of a good number of Americans, and the different religions and faith traditions of all the rest of us Americans, it might be very good for us to turn our attention away from our buildings and start paying attention to what God is already doing out there.
We cannot go on assuming that the best way forward is getting our programming right. In fact, perhaps the way forward will lead us to forsake programs altogether.
Rather than write a long, boring bio of myself, which you would only briefly scan anyway, I thought I’d make it easy and give you a bullet-pointed list of things you need to know about Wes Magruder, the newest Missional Monk:
- Yes, I actually am a friend of Bret Wells. We got to know each other through our work with the Missional Wisdom Foundation, but even then, I kind of like him. I think he’s cool, especially with the facial hair. We like hanging out together, and even more, talking about how to be Sent. Together.
- I am a Wesleyan, but not sure how Methodist. Full disclosure: I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I became a UM because I felt called to the Church, and because I resonated with John Wesley’s emphasis on sanctification, joining together of faith and good works, and patterns of discipleship. When I see those things happening in the UMC, I celebrate. When I don’t, I get a little crabby.
- I don’t think most people who throw the word “missional” around knows what it means. I will say more about this later, but the missional conversation has been dangerously diluted by those who use the word loosely. And a lot of them are denominational folks looking for a new angle. If I can accomplish anything as a new Missional Monk, I’d like to help correct this situation.
- I hate church meetings. This comes from experience, believe me. I’ve been a pastor in churches in London, rural Texas, and suburban Dallas. Most church meetings, I have learned, peak after 11 minutes, and then quickly descend into ineffectiveness, gossip, and malaise. The proudest moment in my years as a pastor was shutting down a committee in England that couldn’t remember why it was meeting in the first place.
- I’m distrustful of institutions, but love community. This isn’t a paradox. It’s just a recognition of the reality that institutions quickly lose sight of the movements that birthed them, and end up doing things that undermine relationships and community. Exhibit A: most North American congregations.
- I believe that justice work is one of the great neglected themes of the North American church. Which means that most evangelical churches are lopsided, having determined (consciously or not) that social justice is not “spiritual” work. We need a recovery of the whole gospel, good news for every system, principality, power, and people group. Look for my contributions on this theme coming soon on this blog!
- I don’t own a gun, and never will. I might as well get this out here now: I’m a pacifist. No, I would not kill someone even if they were advancing on my family to do harm. I can explain some other time and in some other forum. All you need to know is that I believe the way of Jesus is nonviolent. Completely.
- I am suspicious of most Western missionary efforts, though I have been a missionary myself. I spent four years in Cameroon as the director of a new mission initiative through the denominational missional board. The experience was wonderful and life-giving (to myself and others), but even while I worked on the ground, I wondered if I was engaged in anything more than a colonizing project.
- Daraja is the Swahili word for “bridge,” and the name of the nonprofit organization that I recently started. Daraja is my current passion, a ministry to recently resettled refugees in the Dallas area. We train volunteers to coach refugees and their families, and help them make a successful transition to life in America. For more information, check out www.jesuswasarefugee.com.
- I am a girl dad. That’s what my three daughters call me. This means that I know way more than I ever wanted about drill teams, the Twilight series, hair and clothing, and emotional swings. But it also means that I am pampered, loved, and spoiled. Rachel is 19 and currently touring the world with Long Island University — Global. Chloe is a Planoette and going to be a senior next year, while Mallory starts high school next year as a Vikette. Oh, and my wife recently started her own business, a franchise of Kumon.
- In my next life, I want to be a rock musician. Seriously. My younger brother lived this life for awhile as the drummer of a band called Calla, and I was madly jealous the whole time. I’m currently digging the new album by The National, but I also like Bon Iver, Delta Spirit, Mumford and Sons, The Tallest Man on Earth … ok, this could go on awhile. Just know this — Bob Dylan is the man. And so is Bono.
- When Jesus says to follow him, I think he meant it. My whole life has been an attempt to figure out what this is supposed to look like. It’s taken me to some pretty crazy places, but it’s what life is supposed to be about.
- There are only two seasons of the church year: Baseball Season, and Ordinary Time. My major leisure activity is watching baseball. I am a lifelong fan of the Texas Rangers, and thus, have recurring nightmares of a ninth-inning fly ball in St. Louis. I’m SO glad we let Josh Hamilton go, but hope we never trade Jurickson Profar.
I am beyond excited to announce that Missional Monks once again refers to two people
…instead of one guy using the Royal “We.”
Dr. Wes Magruder is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Director of Missional Community Development for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and is the founder and director of Daraja, a ministry which works to build bridges with refugees in the Dallas area. Wes and his family served for several years as missionaries in Africa. Since returning, he has worked to cultivate missional renewal in a large congregation as the Associate Pastor, he has helped launch missional communities, teaches a course on “Reading Scripture with Missional Eyes” in The Academy, and has developed incredible relationships with refugees from multiple countries. So, since he isn’t busy, I asked him to partner with me as a Missional Monk.
In addition to working together on the blog, Wes and I are relaunching the Missional Monks Podcast (hooray!) - with the addition of monthly videocasts. We already have several fantastic interviews lined up where we’ll be talking about the collision of the missional and the monastic with people in a variety of different contexts.
Through our work together in the Missional Wisdom Foundation, Wes and I have had multiple opportunities to speak and teach together. The “Bret and Wes Show” as it is often called within the Foundation, seems to work pretty well. Specifically, we have had a number of opportunities to work with individual churches and groups that are interested in cultivating the missional imagination. Missional Monks is the perfect context to continue developing and improving that aspect of our ministry.
As this marks an exciting transition for Missional Monks, you can expect a number of changes coming to the website in the near future.
Please join me in welcoming Wes, because I’m contractually obligated to limit the nice things I say to him personally…and I think I’m already over my quota.
But for now it is time to unveil the first ever Missional Monks Videocast…complete with too many closeups of someone who needs to shave.