Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Quote from St. Augustine

"We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand?
If you do understand, then it is not God."

- St. Augustine

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thinking about Lawyering and Living

Now that I am off from work at the Public Defender's Office for a whole week, I have been thinking on and off about what it means for me to practice law. I practice almost solely as a criminal defense attorney, representing people charged with crimes who don't have enough money to hire an attorney.

And, that brings up one thing I really like about doing a good job as a public defender. If I am really doing a good job, then that means that a poor person in Blount Co, TN has as good a defense attorney as a rich person. It makes me happy to think about that. What makes me even happier is that our Public Defender's Office clearly provides better legal representation to clients than most of the private attorneys in our area who practice criminal defense.

Being an attorney in the area of criminal defense means "standing with someone in trouble." Now, oftentimes, the person is in trouble because they have violated the law; sometimes, like a man I had a trial for last week, people are in trouble because an officer charged them with a crime they didn't commit. But, whether my client is actually guilty or innocent or somewhere in between (that happens - life is complicated!), it is my duty to stand with them in the legal system - a system in which the government has decided to "prosecute" them.

Until you are being prosecuted, or are close to someone who is being prosecuted, it is hard to understand what it is like. For the government to decide they want to charge you with a crime is not simply someone saying: "hey, you did something wrong:" it is the most powerful authority saying: "you violated our state's laws, and we are going to punish you for it. We are going to put you in jail; then bring you to court; then try to get you stamped with a criminal conviction which you can carry around on your record everytime you apply for a job, or a school, etc. We are going to threaten you with jail time, etc. or at least probation and costs and fines."

I think the biggest thing that is hard to understand is how a person gets falsely charged. When that happens to a person, it becomes clear just how powerful the executive branch of government is (law enforcement/DAs), and just how inept the judicial system can be as a protection against wrongful prosecution. What happens is fairly simple. Here's an example:

A crime is committed. Let's say a really terrible crime: a child has been raped. Law enforcement feels pressure to solve the crime for obvious reasons. And, a suspect is identified. Let's say a neighbor saw this suspect around the child's house where the rape occurred on that same day. The suspect does not live in that neighborhood. The suspect has been convicted of assault and burglary before, and has a sexual assault charge as a juvenile. The suspect begins to look like a real possibility and becomes the focus of the investigation. Being influenced by law enforcement, the child picks the suspect out of a lineup (not real convincingly, but then more convincingly as time goes on). The suspect is interviewed regarding his whereabouts that day. He admits to being in that neighborhood, but can't give a good reason why he was there. He can't provide an alibi to show he wasn't in the neighborhood at the time the crime was committed. He is caught in a couple of inconsistencies. Now, law enforcement begins to gather all sorts of evidence that would support him being the rapist. And, law enforcement ignores any evidence that does not support him being the rapist.

It is amazing how strong a case you can make against someone if you only take account of those things which support guilt while ignoring all things which don't support guilt.

The example given above is pretty close to what happened in a North Carolina investigation twenty years ago, an investigation which resulted in an innocent man being convicted and a guilty man not being charged. Eventually the error was discovered by DNA testing, and after 11 years in prison, the innocent man was freed, and the guilty man was located - a previously convicted sex offender and charged.

But, the weight of the prosecuting branch of government on a single human being is a very heavy weight, and the protective power of the court system can be very weak.

Now, I don't want to act as if this is a common occurrence, but in real serious crimes it is probably more common than we would like to think. And, most criminal investigations don't go this wrong. But, many criminal investigations go a little and lot wrong, this way and that, because of a rush to judgment, and the desire to resolve a situation by blaming someone. Somehow human beings feel better when someone can be blamed for a terrible thing. We don't do well with "not knowing."

That's what I am thinking about today. How important it is in life to be able to live with "not knowing." If you can do that, you can consider more facts, can keep your mind and heart open to more things, before you try to decide something. Scientists are supposed to be able to do this. Judges are supposed to be able to do this. Truth is: scientists and judges often fail as often as the common man on the street in enduring "not knowing." But, they shouldn't. And, we as human beings shouldn't. To live with "not knowing" is to live in harmony with the way things really are in the world. There are always so many things that we will never quite understand, so many things which don't make much sense. It is not particularly easy to admit or accept this; but, in the long run it is a far more peaceful and humane way to live. It takes an enormous amount of effort to grate against reality; it is like swimming against the current of life. To be in harmony with life is to understand things, but the greatest part of understanding is when you realize how much you don't know.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Forgiveness: 3rd Post on dealing with anger

Maybe we have stated the problem in the wrong way - the problem we think we are getting at when we talk about the struggle to forgive. Isn't the real issue what to do with anger? Anger comes when injustice or unfairness is experienced. Anger is born when our inner world explodes because our outer world is so at odds with our hopes and expectations.

And, once that anger comes to life in our hearts and minds, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes a force that must be reckoned with. Anger is a force in our inner world that has its effect, one way or another.

Whether we consider ourselves to have forgiven someone who has wronged us, or whether we consider ourselves to have not forgiven, there remains a reality within us which I will call our anger at what has happened to us. Anger in this sense is like a reverberation or aftershock from a terrible shaking of our being. There is a sense in which anger is a biological and psychic reality that is inevitable after serious trauma.

This force may or may not be expressed outwardly. It may or may not be expressed directly. But, it affects and shapes our inner reality and eventually how we express ourselves, how we act.

On one hand, we can have conscious strategies for dealing with our anger (or upset if you want to call it that), but on the other hand, so much of how we 'process' difficult events is unconscious. That is, the reverberations within our selves are channeled, controlled, interpreted, etc. without conscious awareness that such "channeling, controlling, interpreting" is going on. We have what I will call our "direct" strategy for dealing with upset, but we also have our "indirect" strategy or basic ways of finding meaning and hope and peace in life which in time shape how we respond to upset in our lives.

These two levels of response: the first conscious; the second more unconscious; the first direct; the second more indirect; the first a trouble-shooting type of approach; the second more of a way of living/habit type of approach.

The dominant focus of religious people seems to be on "direct, conscious, trouble-shooting" type of approaches to problems. At least, this is the way of most Western religion. You have a conflict, face it; you have a problem, solve it. But, our best resolutions usually come when we aren't working directly on our problem. The answers to our greatest challenges often come when we aren't dealing directly with these challenges, or at least when we are not consciously trying to solve these problems. Scientists and mathematicians and inventors have had this experience, as have writers and other artists. If the mind and heart are committed to working on a problem, then the work goes on even when the problem is "out of sight and out of conscious thought."

What brings new resolutions and revolutions in understanding and creativity is when a person carries a concern hopefully and with commitment and dedication to resolution of the difficulty. There is a "faith" at the heart of this positive movement towards understanding, reconciliation, resolution. There is a way of carrying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings new life and new understanding. And, there is a way of carrying or perhaps burying unresolved issues and experiences of life that brings death and prevents understanding (breeds misunderstanding).

If you are backpacking, there is a way of "shouldering" the pack that makes walking easier. It is worthwhile to stop and adjust the way you are carrying the pack, getting it to fit as naturally as you can to your back. In the same way, it is worthwhile to stop and adjust mentally and spiritually the way you are carrying burdens of anger and hurt, so that you can carry them in a natural way, fitting to your psychical make-up. When you are hiking with a pack,and everything is going just right, and you are enjoying the view and when the exertion itself seems natural, then you don't even feel the weight of the pack. The burden of the pack is resolved by being swallowed up by other experiences and desires and goals.

This is an analogy for how we deal with anger indirectly, how we deal well with upset in our lives indirectly. If the pack is our anger and upset, then we carry it best when we don't allow its weight to distract us from our deepest concerns, dreams, hopes and goals. When its weight is keeping us from going forward, we need to stop and adjust the way we are carrying our trouble. When we do this, our anger doesn't consume our attention. That thing we are upset about, or that person we are mad at, is only one concern of our lives - not the concern. As we take a break from thinking about what we are mad about in order to focus on other duties and desires, that is when we tend to find the answer to our conflict, a way out of our conflicts.

The great teaching of Jesus is this: "Seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you as well." He also helpfully says: "He who sets his hand to the plow but looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God." That saying seems harsh as it is spoken to the son who wants to care for his aging father, but the only way to resolve many difficulties is to renounce their hold on your life. By stepping outside of a conflict, and seeing what life has to offer, you begin to live free from being controlled by the conflict or the anger, and in the end probably find a way to resolve it when you get caught up in other concerns and forget about being mad.

The Universal Reach of Christmas

In Luke 2:14, it is written that the angels were singing:

"Glory to God among those on high, and peace among humankind with whom God is well-pleased."

According to many scholars, the Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" are to be translated "to human beings upon whom God's favor rests or with whom God is well-pleased." These scholars rely on evidence of the use of this Greek phrase in the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the mid-1900's. The old King James translated the same Greek words "en anthropois eudokias" as "good will to men."

So, the King James renders Luke 2:14 as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace, goodwill to men."

Some other scholars have translated the same verse as "Glory to God in the highest, and peace upon human beings of good will." But, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it appears that this translation has lost much of its support. And, I am glad about that. Because, if God's peace was only for those who had good will at the coming of Christ, then where is our hope for this world? Of course, the translation that I favor: "Glory to God among those on high, and peace among human beings with whom God is well-pleased" could be understood as referring to a certain group of human beings that are "the elect" and "chosen" of God. But, I think to understand things this way would be to have the same misunderstanding that so many in Israel had of the salvation that would come through the Messiah. That is why Jesus provoked some real outrage among the scribes and Pharisees. He proclaimed a salvation that was coming from God to all people. In fact, if you read scripture closely, it appears at times that God was pouring out that salvation to the Gentiles and Samaritans through Jesus before Jesus was preaching the universal reach of it. I am reflecting now on the times when Jesus recognizes genuine faith in Gentiles and Samaritans and others who were not considered among the "elect" of God. But, Jesus in the end does proclaim a message that encompasses all humanity or better put: "Jesus is the Word of God spoken as a blessing over all humanity."

And, that gets me back to Luke 2:14. It is a remarkable message, what those angels are reported to have sung:


I think of Jesus being baptized by John, and a voice from the heavens says: "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased" or in Mark's Gospel: "You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased." The Greek word that is translated here as "well-pleased" is the verb form of the same word used in Luke "eudokias."

Several years ago the deep connection between these two announcements from the heavens struck me. Both of them are about the parental joy of God, the rejoicing of the father in his son - the joyfulness of God at the birth of Jesus, a joyfulness that causes God to embrace the entire human race with that fatherly care and pride. To see that newborn child, who was flesh of our flesh, but also just as deeply of God's very being, was for God to fall in love all over again with human life in all of its fragility and beauty and tragedy and joy.

I don't know how else to say it than to say: "God threw in his lot with us that day. He gave himself into the life of humanity for better or worse. He made the heavens shake with the joy of his love for all human beings." God's heart was so full of love at the sight of the newborn Jesus that that love overflowed to all people, and has ever since.

But, to love, to really love another, is to become vulnerable. When you love someone else, you are affected by what happens with them and to them. When you love someone outside yourself, you might just take a risk in that love to help or even try to rescue another. God came among us so humbly, so simply, so joyfully, without pretense or pomp. The purity of the Christ awakened the hope of many, but also caused shame and hiding among those who loved their impurity.

God was revealed in this love, in this flesh and blood of Jesus, whose very flesh was able to fully bear the life-giving Spirit of God in this world. Yes, for God to do this, it must have been just as the angels said on that day of Jesus' birth:

"Glory to God among those on high (they were praising and congratulating God with all their might), and peace among those on earth (below) whom God loves beyond all imagining."

When Jesus was born, we were all reborn in the heart of God. Amen.