Monthly Archives: October 2022

Zacchaeus on the Issue of Reparations


Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32:1-7

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

Prayer of the Day: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“‘Look, [said Zacchaeus] half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’” Luke 19:8-10.

“Look here!” said the angry red faced parishioner. “Nobody ever gave me a dime! I worked my way through college, fought like hell for every job interview I ever had, started at the bottom rung of the ladder and climbed every step of the way with my own blood sweat and tears. I don’t have anything I haven’t worked my butt of for. So don’t be calling me “privileged!” “God loves EVERYBODY!” the elderly woman nearly screamed in my face. “God doesn’t care whether we are rich or poor!” “Yes, you could say I’m rich by some standards,” said the doctor in his measured and rational tone. “But with pre-med studies, medical school, residencies and fellowships, my life didn’t even start until I was almost thirty-and then there was the debt for all that I had to pay off. That is the price I paid to obtain the skills promoting human health and saving human lives I use today for the benefit of all. I am not about to apologize for the benefits my profession brings to me.”

All of this following a sermon I preached during my internship back in 1980 in which I used the following quote from liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez.

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

We are nothing if not defensive about what we call our own. Though I suspect few of my readers would consider themselves rich, I think it fair to say that the most financially strapped among us still live on a level of comfort and security the financial bottom third of the world’s population can only dream about. That is perhaps why preaching the God of slaves, the God who champions the rights of the poor, the God who “sends the rich away empty” pushes a lot of hot buttons. When I read the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke describing the “great reversal” in which the powerful and wealthy are cast down in favor of the destitute, I can’t help but wonder where I will end up. My name may not be Gates, Musk or Zuckerberg, but I know that I am probably a good deal closer to the hated 1% than I am to the folks to whom Mary sings her liberating hymn of hope. So I have to wonder, is there any place for people like me in the new world God is preparing?

Sunday’s gospel issues a resounding “yes,” to my anxious query. Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector-and “rich.” Yet Jesus does indeed see Zacchaeus as a child of Abraham, one beloved by God and one God seeks to redeem. Zacchaeus, for his part, recognizes what this means for him. He understands now that the reign of God Jesus proclaims stands all of the power, wealth and status arrangements of this world on their heads. He understands now that ownership is a myth, that private property is a fraud perpetrated on behalf of the powerful to hold the status quo in place against the onslaught of God’s just and peaceful reign. So Zacchaeus does what any sensible person would do in his circumstances. He gives away half of his wealth to the poor. More importantly, he vows to restore fourfold the wealth he has made at the expense of others. To use a more contemporary term, Zacchaeus makes reparations.

Of course, a lot of wealthy and privileged people are not as perceptive as Zacchaeus. I can well imagine Zacchaeus making the same kinds of arguments as those of my hearers decades ago . Sure, nobody likes the tax man. Everybody complains that taxes are too high. Everyone thinks they are paying too much. But if you want the streets paved, police and fire protection and some semblance of civil order, you need government. Government has to be paid for and that means taxes. Somebody has to get the taxes from the pockets of the people to the government coffers. “So,” says Zacchaeus, “that is the legitimate service I perform. And, I might add, I’m good at what I do. So good that I was promoted to the station of ‘chief.’ The job pays well-as it should. If you have a problem with my success, it’s your problem. My being rich doesn’t make me responsible for your being poor. The world isn’t a fair place, I’ll grant you that. But I didn’t make the world, I just live here.”  

These excuses would have been as lame in the mouth of Zacchaeus as they are in our own. As Gutierrez reminds us, we did and do make the world. “The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.” As he goes on to point out, “the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” I believe that this is precisely what Zacchaeus is doing. His relinquishment of half of his wealth to the poor is not to be construed as a charitable donation. It is a wholesale rejection of a way of life that sustains itself by impoverishing others. Zacchaeus’ fourfold restitution to all who have been impoverished through his profession reflects his new found determination to live henceforth, not in the cruel and unjust world of his own making, but under the just and gentle reign of God’s making. The radical reversal about which Mary sings is not a distant future hope. It is a present reality in the life of Zacchaeus and all others who hear Jesus’ call to the new reality of God’s reign.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is, I believe, the tragic alternative to the story of Zacchaeus. The nameless man in this parable never perceives the reign of God and its life changing potential for him-though for all his life it has been lying right in front of his gate in the person of Lazarus. Unlike Zacchaeus, the rich man never recognized how his bondage to wealth, power and security built a huge chasm between himself and the rest of the human community of which he was created to be a part. But this story of Zacchaeus and his transformative encounter with Jesus is in our scriptures to remind rich folk like ourselves that it doesn’t have to end that way for us. There is a way out of bondage, out of guilt and out of death on the wrong side of the chasm between rich and poor.

I believe it would take legislative action backed by political will exceeding that behind the New Deal and the Marshall Plan to begin remedying the political and economic inequality imposed on black Americans from the foundations of our nation. So also for genuine efforts to restore for indigenous peoples the life and culture we have stolen through violence and genocide. In the same way, it will take more than good wishes and intermittent acts of charity to rebuild the communities built for the convenience of corporate America and then summarily discarded and left to rot. There is not much appetite for that in either major American political party. But is it too much to expect the Body of Christ to take a different view? Is it too much to expect that white American churches make financial reparations to black churches in recognition of the historic wrongs against them and their members from which we and our members have benefited? Is it too much to expect that our larger, wealthier congregations in more propsperous communities share their substantial wealth with smaller, struggling churches in stressed communities? Is it too much to ask that the Body of Christ at least strive to be the change it keeps calling for from the rest of society in its screechy preachy social statements? Perhaps, in the spirit of Reformation, we ought to attach such questions to the door of ELCA headquarters in Chicago.

Here is a poem by Marcus Wicker that puts the lie to claims of impossibility for making meaningful reparations to the descendants of slavery in the United States.

Reparations Metric Ending in Assisted Schadenfreude

It is impossible to come up with a fair metric for recompensing slavery ten
generations after slavery’s end.
—Ben Shapiro, Fox News

What apple, which conquistador

oats? Which ruby red

moat, what filet of bartered goat?

Which glazed carrot caught your nose,

drew you into the station

w/ blinders on? Horse’s ass.

Quaffed cad. Whatdoya call a

property tax on a revolving

accessory? What’s a loan

w/o a lessor, B? Which of these

eventualities is not like the other—free

& clear from the shattering / a mast

of tears makes / when it fractures /

scalpels away / silt / clean off

a runaway cliff,

before gashing the quarry w/ after-

shot? I’ll take my safety net in breakneck

class action union wage annuity checks

from, 23 & Everybody

Who’s Made a Killing Trafficking

in Families & Trees. Run me my knot,

Money. Untie my limbs. Underwrite

the court costs, plus notary fees

to petition my change of surname.

Now multiply that expense by a modest

interest rate accrued over 154 summers,

give or take. Or strap weights

to your ankles / go float in a lake.

Source:  Poetry (November 2019). Marcus Wicker (b. 1984) is an American poet. He began writing in elementary school, beginning with mystery stories and personal journals. His Tenth Grade English Teacher introduced him to poetry and encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. Wicker earned an MFA from Indiana University in 2010. In 2011he won the National Poetry Series Prize for his collection Maybe the Saddest Thing. He also won a Pushcart Prize for his poem “Interrupting Aubade Ending In Epiphany” in 2014. Wicker currently teaches creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. You can learn more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Navigating the Highways to Zion


Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Psalm 84:1-7

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy surprises us with everlasting forgiveness. Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Happy are those whose strength is in you,
   in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Psalm 84:5.

Not many years ago, a pastoral colleague in my pericope discussion group remarked, “I don’t know who Ezra was or what he did.” While I would find such an admission troubling on the lips of any believer, coming as it did from a fellow pastor left me searching for my jaw down on the floor where it had fallen. Ezra, of course, was the teacher credited with re-establishing Hebrew society, culture and worship in the Holy Land for the Jewish exiles returning from captivity in Babylon. His reinterpretation of Torah for the community of refugees returned home formed the basis for a fresh, renewed Judaism. The legacy Ezra and his disciples left behind gave shape to the hopes expressed by the prophets and set a foundation for the growth and development of both the synagogue and the church. How could a preacher not know about Ezra?

I think that perhaps the fault likes in part with the common lectionary and the way it has been fed to us throughout the years of my ministry. Most of us in the ELCA received pre-printed bulletin inserts with the lessons, the prayer of the day and some ready made petitions for use in the general prayers. This made it much easier for us to avoid pulling the Bible off the shelf and finding the readings ourselves. And let’s face it, in days filled with parish obligations of one kind or another, anything that saved a few minutes of our time was more than welcome. Of course, there were downsides. Unless you made a conscious effort to explore the whole biblical context of the lessons-which involved pulling the Bible off the shelf-you were left with a disembodied text without any “before” or “after.” Moreover, the lectionary leaves a good deal of scripture unexplored. If all you have is the lectionary, there are many stories, legends and poems that will never intersect with your life and ministry or find their way into your preaching. There are many fascinating biblical characters you will never meet. Finally, the makers of the lectionary tend to “censor” the readings in ways that are not always helpful. Unless you are paying close attention to the verse numbers, you might not even realize that passages from the lessons have been omitted. Of course, that too can be remedied by pulling the Bible off the shelf. For all its benefits, the lectionary as it is given to us tends to encourage laziness, carelessness and breeds a sense of disconnection with the larger Biblical narrative.

This disconnect between the Biblical narrative and our use of the Bible in worship and liturgy has produced a Biblically illiterate membership. Most of our members these days are far more familiar with some version of the American story than the Biblical one. Sadly, for us mainliners, the Bible serves as little more than window dressing for our progressive, ever white and ever polite social agendas-which might be just fine, but can stand well enough on their own without the frosting. Of course, the white evangelical wing of American religion finds little use for the Bible beyond employing it as a weapon in the culture wars. While I suspect that nearly every American home has a Bible in it somewhere, most of them are probably doing little more than collecting dust. The Bible has become in many respects a stranger to us.

That is what led me to advise a seminarian in a sermon preached at her ordination as follows: Read the gospels-one chapter each morning seriatim-Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And don’t worry that you find yourself reading the Christmas story on Good Friday. The feasts of the church year do not exist in isolation from the rest of the Biblical narrative. Read regularly the whole Psalter, two psalms a day, morning and night, from one to one hundred fifty. Don’t worry that the language, moods and content don’t seem to resonate. There are prayers in the Psalter you have no idea how much you will need later in life. Read through the rest of the Bible one chapter each evening from Genesis to Revelation. Get to know the Biblical characters and not just the Sarah’s, Abraham’s, David’s and Esther’s. Get to know the marginalized, exploited and suppressed voices seeking to be heard. Cain, the exiled murderer. Tamar the rape victim, the daughter of Lot who narrowly missed being handed over for gang rape to the mob at Sodom and the nameless concubine of the Levite in Judges who was not so fortunate. Get to know Hagar, the discarded wife and Ishmael, her disowned child. Meet Esau, the disenfranchised son. You will meet all of them in your ministry. They need to know that they, too, are caught up in the grand sweep of God’s story by the “God of seeing.” Genesis 16:1-14.

The psalm for this Sunday is likely a song composed by and for Jews making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem on high feast days similar to the “songs of ascent” found at Psalms 120-134. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (c. 1962 b S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 565-566. The vivid description of the pilgrims’ travels through the wilderness on their approach to Mt. Zion suggests to me a post-exhilic time when many Jews continued to live in lands far removed from Palestine. Vs. 5-7. Though separated from the holy city by miles, foreign borders and dangerous terrain, still “the highways to Zion” are indelibly etched into the hearts of these Jews from distant lands. Vs. 5. I believe that the scriptures ought to be for preachers, no less than the rest of us, “highways to Zion.” That is, the songs, stories and preaching along which we travel to find our place among the people of God and the meaning, purpose and direction for our lives.

Much like the home described in the following poem by David Igatow, the Bible should be for us a home which, familiar as it might become, has undiscovered corners, closets stuffed with items loaded with meaning and memories of times good and bad. It is a place that is forever open, welcoming our return. Yet it is forever turning our gaze beyond itself to the open road. The ways forward and back become inscribed on the heart-like the highways to Zion.

The Journey

I am looking for a past

I can rely on

in order to look to death

with equanimity.

What was given me:

my mother’s largeness

to protect me,

my father’s regularity

in coming home from work

at night, his opening the door

silently and smiling,

pleased to be back

and the lights on

in all the rooms

through which I could run

freely or sit at ease

at table and do my homework

undisturbed: love arranged

as order directed at the next day.

Going to bed was a journey.

David Ignatow (1914-1997) was born in Brooklyn and lived most of his life in New York. He published sixteen volumes of poetry and three prose collections. He taught at Columbia, the New School for Social Research, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, York College of the City University of New York, New York University and Vassar College. He has worked as editor for both the American Poetry Review and Beloit Poetry Journal. You can read more about David Ignatow and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

Why Pray?


Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 121

2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Luke 18:1.

Why pray? Is it really the case that God is largely disinterested in our little lives and loath to get involved with them? And is it also true that, if sufficiently needled with enough prayer, God can be goaded into action? That seems to be the message of the parable at first blush. It seems to be an interpretation that many of us buy into. “Don’t worry Dad,” I overheard a woman say to an elderly man in the ICU where I have spent more time than lately than I care to recount. “Everybody in church is praying for you.” I think that was meant to be comforting and it probably was. It means a lot to know that you are surrounded by the love and prayers of a caring community. But I wonder about the underlying assumption. Is God really more likely to intervene on behalf of this man, who is the object of numerous prayers by numerous people, than to act for the man in the next room who has no family, friends or church to pray for him?

Does prayer influence God? Should it? If God knows infinitely more than we do about every situation, what is needed and what should be done, what can our prayers add? If God can be trusted to know and to do what is right, what is the point of prayer? How do we know that we are praying for the right things? I might want a sunny day for the church picnic, but the local farmers desperately need rain. My prayers can be selfish, misguided and uninformed. I will always be missing the “big picture” only God can see. So why pester God with information God already has, advice God doesn’t need and desires that may be altogether wrong? Why not just let God be God and go confidently about our human affairs knowing that what lies beyond them is in capable hands?

Some argue that prayer is more about the transformation of the one who prays than about swaying God’s opinion. There is something to be said for this outlook. I can vouch for the fact that, through the exercise of prayer over time, I have come to understand the selfishness of my requests, the limits of my understanding and a greater dependance on and faith in God. But while I recognize the importance of this aspect of prayer, I am not prepared to reduce prayer to nothing more than a spiritual exercise for personal edification. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to involve God at all.

Plagued with these questions during my high school years, I turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer at my brother’s suggestion. Brother Steve, then a seminary student, was a good listener and a ready source of information on questions like these. He gave me a copy of Bonhoeffer’s book Meditations on the Psalms, wherein Bonhoeffer writes: “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.” So, I put aside all of my metaphysical troubles with prayer and began praying though the psalms on a daily basis-a practice I continue to maintain to this day. I learned a few things from this daily ritual and life long immersion in the psalms.

Praise is the first lesson I learned from the psalms. There are numerous prayers that ask God for nothing; complain to God about nothing and expect from God absolutely nothing. They simply praise God for God’s mighty deeds, for God’s love and compassion and the beauty of God’s creation. While much of our church teaching and preaching focuses on goodness and truth, beauty is often neglected. Much of our public proclamation and preaching is infected with anger or delivered in language that is abstract, theoretical and sterile. The psalms are filled with metaphors, similies and imagery taken from the natural world and the great stories of God’s salvation. They challenge us to fill our prayers with this same rich and powerful language.

Related to praise is thanksgiving. Gratitude is a mainstay of the psalms. Israel never forgot that it was a community formed by God’s many mighty acts of salvation. When offering praise, God’s goodness is lifted up. When crying out for deliverance, God’s past works of salvation are invoked to inspire confidence in facing present threats. God was acknowledged and thanked for the rains nurturing rich harvests, for times of peace and prosperity and for the promise of Israel’s future destiny. It sounds corny to say that one ought to count one’s blessings, but that old saw is true.   

Yet I also had my share of problems with the psalms. First of all, many of the psalms cry out for help against enemies. I had a difficult time relating to these petitions as I cannot say I have any enemies. There are of course, people who don’t like me and people who have hurt and disappointed me at times. But as far as I know, nobody is out to kill me, take my home or injure my family. Frankly, I would be shocked to learn that there were such people. I would like to think that is because I am so even tempered and amiable. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that, as a straight, white upper middle class male, I have managed to navigate life without worries about whether my dress is too provocative, how my accent or skin color is being perceived or what my interviewer would think if he or she knew who I loved and what my family was like. I never had any problem getting credit or applying for a mortgage. When I say that I am “privileged,” I don’t mean to say that I didn’t work hard to achieve all that I have accomplished. But I understand now that I had a huge head start in life that many folks do not.

So perhaps my lack of enemies demonstrates that I am standing on the wrong side of the gap between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors. The psalms were written in part by a people who know conquest, occupation and colonization. Lately, I have quarried my church leaders about taking up the call for reparations to Black Americans for centuries of slavery, segregation and discrimination that continues to this day. See Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe. With one notable exception, this letter met with a resounding silence.[1] Perhaps if more of us put our privilege toward pushing our church leaders, and if our churches take serious steps toward compensating those whose oppression helped to enrich us, we will discover that we have some formidable enemies. Then the psalms crying out for justice against oppression will come more naturally from our lips.

Another problem I had with the psalms is their frequent calls for vengeance. That seems to run contrary to everything Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. But the truth is, I have harbored secret desires to see vengeance against people who hurt me. I know that is not what I have been taught, but it is how I sometimes feel. As one wise colleague told me years ago, “feelings are not right or wrong. They just are.” While it might grate on me to pray that my enemies “little ones” have their brains bashed our against the rock (Psalm 137:9), I can understand how victims of war, occupation and genocide might feel that way. The important thing, though, is that the psalmists leave the business of actually carrying out punishment of the wicked in the hands of the God to whom they pray. They do not take that task upon themselves. Thus, prayer is a place to which we can bring our whole selves-even the bad and the ugly.

One question the psalms do not answer is the question with which I began? What exactly does prayer do? The stories of Abraham’s plea for the righteous citizens within the evil cities of Sodom and Gommorah and God’s response to the repentance of Assyria indicate that God’s mind can be changed. What neither of these stories tell us is when, where and how God’s mind is changed and how God responds to our prayers. I have often found comfort in the belief that every transaction in the Universe, from grand historical events to the revolutions of the most minute subatomic particles, has a “God factor” built into it nudging the world closer to the new heaven and earth God envisions for us. That leaves plenty of room for creation’s freedom and human agency. It also leaves room for robust prayer and for God to surprise us with outcomes we could never have anticipated.

Here is a poem/prayer by Anna Kamienska capturing what a mature prayer might look like.  

A Prayer That Will Be Answered

Lord let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head.

Source: Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, (c.. 2007 byParaclete Press; translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon). Anna Kamienska (1920-1986) was the member of a distinguished generation of Polish writers who experienced the Second World War as young people. Many of her colleagues died at the hands of the Nazis. During the war she taught in underground schools in the Lublin region, having studied Education in Warsaw. She continued her studies after the War and subsequently became deeply involved in the literary life of the Polish capital, working on the important monthly magazine Creativity. You can find out more about Anna Kamienska and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] A notable exception is the New Jersey Synod of the ELCA which has launched project raising funds for deepening education regarding reparations and the role of leaders of color in our church. The program will further address structural barriers to persons of color seeking to serve the ELCA and has raised substantial funds for scholarships for the education, training and participation of these leaders. Most importantly, the program was formed and is being implemented in partnership with the ELCA’s leaders of color. Kudos to Bishop Bartholomew and her staff for their prophetic leadership!

Touching Lepers


2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Psalm 111

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Full Disclosure: This is actually an adaptation of an article I published back in 2013 relative to the above texts. I repeat it because the issue seems as ugent as ever today and perhaps more so.

Who are today’s lepers? Who are the people for whom no one has any sympathy? The people none of us want living in our neighborhoods? The folks whose suffering we deem just and well deserved? While it is true (and unfortunate) that many people regard illegal residents, sexual minorities or particular racial groups as unwelcome and unwanted, thankfully these groups today have their advocates and supporters. We are a long way from full equality on all these fronts, but there is at the very least a struggle going on to achieve that goal. Nobody supported lepers in the first century or advocated for their well being. No one in that age (except Jesus) would so much as touch a leper. It didn’t matter that leprosy is not highly contagious or that most of the people classified and shunned as lepers actually had benign skin diseases that were altogether harmless. Once that dreaded label attached, your life in the community was over-until a priest declared you officially cured.

I think that the closest thing to a leper we have in our society today is the registered sex offender. You might object that, unlike the sex offender, lepers did nothing evil to merit their disease or the social isolation it earned them. But that is not how leprosy was viewed in the first century. Like blindness, paralysis and other debilitating diseases, leprosy was commonly understood as a punishment for sin. So pervasive was this notion that Jesus’ disciples presumptively asked him whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. John 9:2. It has to be somebody’s sin, right? Jesus rejected that notion altogether. Though he does not explain where the man’s blindness came from, he does let his disciples know that human suffering is for them an opportunity to manifest the glory of God through the exercise of compassion. John 9:3 Such compassion extends to all people-even lepers.

Our feelings about sex offenders are in many ways similar to the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt about lepers. Lepers were believed to pose a serious danger to the rest of the community. They were therefore feared and kept at a distance. It was assumed that such a terrible disease could only have come about as punishment for an equally terrible sin. Ignorance and fear coupled with a lack of compassion led to branding and ostracism.  The same can be said of those folks on the registry of sexual offenders. We find their violent and exploitive acts repulsive. We see them as a threat to our communities and we regard their placement on the registry as both just and necessary. Pity is out of place.

While there is much that we don’t know about the perverse twists that surface in some individuals driving them to acts of sexual violence, a few things are clear. Violence is pervasive in our culture. The fact that nearly half the population of the United States believes that we need to keep guns in order to preserve our freedom testifies to our acceptance of violence as a normal and necessary component of our lives. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but what little I have seen is enough to convince me that the portrayal of violence against women and children is becoming ever more common and increasingly graphic. The plot line from so many of these shows reinforces our societal creed: the only way to fight violence is with more violence. I don’t know whether shows like Hawaii Five O, Criminal Intent and CSI make us more violent, but their popularity certainly demonstrates that we find violence enormously entertaining. Our civil discourse, whether in the halls of congress or in the barbershop, has degenerated into name calling, character assassination and even death threats. Is it at all surprising that this tidal wave of anger and ill will infecting our common life spills over into our sexual lives as well? Maybe we hate and abhor the sexual predator so much because he reflects the beast within us all and the vortex into which it is sucking us.

Another thing we know about sexual predators: they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. No, that does not justify their acts, but it does help us understand the source of their deep seated anger and violent tendencies. It also forces us to ask ourselves the question I posed in last week’s post: does the entire responsibility for the crimes of sexual predators rest with them alone? Is their evil not also the responsibility of the neighbors who heard the terrified cries of an abused child, but turned up the television set to drown them out figuring that it was none of their business? What about the pastors, teachers and coaches who noticed odd bruises and welts on a child but didn’t bother to investigate or inquire about them? Is there not a sense in which all of us share responsibility for the abuse such abused children ultimately commit?

It is not my purpose here to criticize the statute creating the sexual offender registry or suggest an alternative law. Clearly, the criminal justice system is in dire need of an overhaul. That issue is addressed in the ELCA’s recent statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. But my concern here goes beyond legislation and social policy. While we might debate what society ought to do about sexual violence, there can be no question about what Jesus requires of his church. Let us be perfectly clear that sexual predators are dangerous people and the crimes they commit wreak unspeakable sorrow and pain upon their victims. Laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens from sexual violence and harassment need to be enforced scrupulously and with rigor. But disciples of Jesus, and especially those of us who claim Martin Luther as our spiritual mentor, know that laws and penalties are not enough. Beneath the most heinous of labels society places on convicted criminals there are human beings. However marred and disfigured, these people bear the image of their Creator. I might not want to touch them, but Jesus does. That leaves me no choice.

I am not sure how we reach out to touch the lepers on the sex offender registry. I am not sure how we include them as part of our faith communities. That is clearly a daunting challenge for churches desiring to create a safe space for women, children and persons recovering from the trauma of past abuse. Obviously, we need to keep the safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities foremost in our minds as we minister to these folks. To borrow a phrase from the little known and seldom quoted New Testament Book of Jude: “on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 23.  Despite the obvious dangers involved, I think we need to find ways to show mercy, even if tempered by fear. It seems to me that we who follow Jesus have a particular obligation towards these people so hated and ostracized by the rest of society. If the Body of Christ will not touch them, who will? And if no one touches them; if they remain hated and feared outsiders; if they are never offered forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption, then their hatred and loneliness will only increase, making them more violent and more dangerous than ever.

Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson about the conditions that might well breed those we label as monsters and ostracize.

Group Home Before Ms. Edna’s House

The monsters that come at night don’t

breathe fire, have two heads or long claws.

The monsters that come at night don’t

come bloody and half-dead and calling your name.

They come looking like regular boys

going through your drawers and pockets saying

You better not tell Counselor else I’ll beat you down.

The monsters that come at night snatch

the covers off your bed, take your

pillow and in the morning

steal your bacon when the cook’s back is turned

call themselves The Throwaway Boys, say

You one of us now.

When the relatives stop coming

When you don’t know where your sister is anymore

When every sign around you says

Group Home Rules: Don’t

do this and don’t do that

until it sinks in one rainy Saturday afternoon

while you’re sitting at the Group Home window

reading a beat-up Group Home book,

wearing a Group Home hand-me-down shirt

hearing all the Group Home loudness, that

you are a Throwaway Boy.

And the news just sits in your stomach

hard and heavy as Group Home food.

Source: Locomotion (Puffin Books, 2003). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.