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Monday, February 9, 2009
The following is an excerpt from a talk/speech that I gave over this last weekend:
In the third field of ministry, Society, we are called to work for justice. Our world does not consist of one-on-one relationships alone. We are an integrated part of society and culture, groups, families, organizations, institutions, workplaces, and governments.
We influence society by how we do or do not participate as Christians. We are called to help Christ transform our part of the world into a more Christ-centered, loving, and just society.
In America today, there is a class of people that we consider less than human. We force them out of their homes, deny them opportunities to find and keep a job doing productive work, and prevent them from seeing their families. In some cases, we force them into homelessness, making them live under bridges or in other unsuitable conditions, and then we round them up for vagrancy. In extreme cases they have been assaulted or even murdered.
The really tragic thing about the whole mess is that those who call themselves Christians are very often the ones leading the charge against these people. Who are they? We call them "sex offenders".
Before I go on, I want to make something very clear: I understand that some of them have done terrible things, and I don't excuse that. But if they've served their time, and have been returned to society, it's my proposal that we should be helping them to reintegrate rather than forcing them to the fringes. So, I've become an advocate for them. I believe there's got to be some middle ground between letting them work at a daycare and completely driving them from our communities.
It's a lonely position to take most days, but I find it's helpful to ask, "what would Jesus do?" with regard to sex offenders. Fortunately I don't have to wonder, since the Bible tells us what Jesus did, in John chapter 8:
The Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery -- a sex offender -- and wanted to stone her to death. We all know what Jesus told them:
"LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN CAST THE FIRST STONE."
They all walked away, and Jesus asked the woman, "where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?" And when she answered "no", Jesus said, "then I don't condemn you either. Go and sin no more."
I have devoted a fair amount of time on this site to defending and advocating for the rights of sex offenders. It's an issue that eats at me, especially when I see politicians making hay and gathering votes by stirring up peoples' fears and passing laws to make it almost impossible for these people to live. I don't understand how we can expect a person to reform if we continue to treat them like garbage for their past mistakes rather than encouraging them to become something better.
However, it's one thing to say these things on the relative anonymity of a website that only half a dozen people read anyway. It's quite another to stand up in front of a group of 40 guys and almost accuse them of impropriety, especially when you don't know who may have been a victim or knows a victim of an offender.
As a philosophical libertarian, it's really easy for me to make demands of my own behavior. I can tell people that I understand they don't see anything wrong with doing this or that, but that I can't participate in good conscience. Where it gets really hard -- almost to the point of impossibility -- is when I am asked to challenge someone else, quite confrontationally, on their own behaviors and attitudes.
As I was writing the talk, which was titled "Changing Our World", I tried to rewrite this section several times, to avoid this subject. I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want to say what I knew I would have to say if I did talk about it, and I did everything I could to talk about something else. I fought with God over it. He won.
Still, as I went into the weekend, I was dragging my feet, dreading the moment when I would have to get up in front of all these men and "speak the Truth to Power", as it were. Ordinarily this isn't something I have a problem doing, but for some reason this time I struggled. I had some great moments with the men at my table, where they were unknowingly quoting bits and pieces of my talk to me, including key verses and lines. It was simultaneously spooky and encouraging.
At the same time, my obsessively anxious nature had turned the waiting into an indigestion bonanza. I spent most of Saturday in various forms of intestinal discomfort, and only ate fruits and vegetables to try and settle my stomach.
Finally, late Saturday night I approached our spiritual director, who had heard the talk previewed a few weeks before, and told him of my anxiety.
He said "it's not easy being a prophet."
I sat back and blinked at him. "A what?" He went on to explain that this is the work that prophets do: challenge established norms, stand against the flow, call people out on their errors. He said that too many preachers these days say what people want to hear, to keep butts in the pews and money in the collection plate. People don't like being challenged, especially about their attitudes. It's easy to point elsewhere and say "that's sin", and try to distance oneself from it. It's much harder to look inward and find sin, and to try to do something about that.
He also said that one of the main reasons he works professionally as a hospice chaplain is because he challenged his church one too many times and they stopped wanting him around. Truly, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown."
He then affirmed my talk, and told me that even though it was clear I was afraid, this is what God wanted and He would carry me through it. We prayed together, and I felt a little better about the whole thing.
Sunday morning came, I got ready and went to the prayer room where friends and wife were waiting to pray over me before, during, and after the talk. The talk itself went exceedingly well, as evidenced by the number of people who sought me out afterwards to discuss it. In a really odd turn of events, I learned that someone attending the weekend was in fact a registered sex offender, though I never learned who. I can only hope and pray that he heard my talk as a reassuring thing... that it somehow reaffirmed his value as a person, no matter what he's done in the past.
I'm glad it's over. I'm glad it went well. But now I'm left with an unsettling notion... I feel as though I am now almost obligated to find new ways to spread this message. I have no idea how, though the United Methodist "certified lay speaker" program has been suggested to me several times by a whole host of people. I wonder if the ability to do a one-off talk to a church I don't attend would save me from being excommunicated from the one I do. I wonder if that's even important. One thing's for certain... if continuing down this road is what God really wants, I've got a lot of work to do.
Posted by Tom, 2/9/2009 7:40:59 AM (Permalink). 3 Comments. Leave a comment...
Tom, you did an amazing job with your talk. My table was really challenged by the words God gave you. Today I started the process of reevaluating the ministries and programs in which I am involved. There may be some "sorry, but no" conversations that need to happen, but I know my overall ministry will be better for it.
Amen. I am so proud of you. I know I have been asking Pastors to challenge me. I want to be unsettled, not the "feel good" message of what I want to hear. God used in you a in a powerful way to many of the men but I bet a great deal the ex-offender. DeColores
It seems like the smallest thing, but even the language GBitner uses, "ex-offender" offers a person so much more hope than the language society uses, "registered sex offender".
"Registered sex offender" is permanent. You're on a list. You'll never get off of it. You cannot and will not ever change. You are a bad person and we will never let you forget it.
"Ex-offender", on the other hand, gives one the possibility of change. Sure, you can re-offend. But you can also not re-offend. It refers more to something you've done, rather than something you are.