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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Justice, Mercy, and Grace: Defining Discipleship

Louis Zamperini, Olympic Champion
and Disciple of Jesus


Copyright © 2014 
by Ralph F. Couey

Then came Peter to him and said, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, "I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.  Therefore is the kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought before him which owed him ten thousand talents.  But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all!"

The lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants which owed him a hundred pence, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest!"

His fellow servant fell down at his feet and besought him, saying, "Have patience with me and I will pay thee all!"  But he would not and when and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt.

His fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry anc came and told their king all that was done.  Then his lord, after he called him, said, "Oh, thou wicked servant!  I forgave thee all that debt because you desired my mercy.  Shouldst thou not also have had compassion on they fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?"

"The king had the servant delivered to the tormentors until he could pay all that was due unto him.  So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one their trespasses."

--Matthew 18:21-35

This scripture tells an interesting story.  A servant had somehow encumbered himself with a debt of 10,000 talents.  This was a sum of currency that would require at least a lifetime to repay, and actually may have been the kind of debt that was never meant to be paid back, only as a way to bind a servant to master. The modern equivalent might be called a student loan.  But the king called in the debt.  The servant, realizing he was facing an impossible burden, went to the king and begged for relief.  The King was moved by his plea and forgave the entire debt.

But this was not the only debt of this story.  As it happens, the servant held the debt of another servant, in the sum of 100 Denari, a much more humble sum, although it still represented about three months wages.  The forgiven servant then did something that qualified him to be on the list of the dumbest people in the Bible. He went to the servant, grabbed him by the throat and demanded full payment of the debt.  Of course, the second servant could not pay, so the forgiven servant had him thrown in prison.

But this was a secret that would not be kept.  Other servants who witnessed the incident, went to the King and told him what happened.  Angry, he summoned the servant.  When the man appeared in his presence, the King thundered, "Should not you have shown the same mercy to this man as I showed to you?"  The King turned the wicked servant over to be tortured until his debt was repayed.

Some might call this  by that familiar phrase, "poetic justice."  But there are two other concepts in play here:  Mercy and Grace.

In my day job, I work for the Department of Justice, the symbol of which is a set of scales.  In order for justice to be served, the scales must be balanced.  As long as one side hangs lower than the other, justice cannot exist.  The scales can only be balanced when force is applied.  In the literal sense, that means add weight to the higher side until the force of gravity evens the scales.  In practice, it means that when someone commits a crime, justice means they are arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted and either imprisoned or in the case of capitol crimes, put to death.  If someone has been wrongly accused and found not guilty, they are set free.  These days, the use of DNA evidence has helped to free people who were wrongly convicted.  More prosaically, when on the freeway we are victimized by a speeder weaving in and out of traffic, and we later see that same driver parked on the shoulder with a State Trooper behind, we like to say that justice was done.



But it can be difficult at times to separate justice from vengeance.  In Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, a celebrated duel which the locals always called "the street fight."  The rest of the world knows it as the shootout at the OK corral.  In the incident, four of the Clanton-Mclaury gang were killed, and three of the Earp party, Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday, were wounded  Wyatt was unscathed.  Several months later, Virgil was ambushed and severely wounded, crippling his arm for life.  Morgan, while playing pool with his big brother Wyatt, was shot in the back, mortally wounding him.

Up to this point, Wyatt had earned a reputation as a man who kept his cool, exhibiting amazing courage in the face of danger, a reputation earned in the tough Kansas cowtowns.  In fact, he rarely fired his gun, choosing instead the practice called "buffaloing," bashing men in the head rather than shooting them.  But the cowardly and craven nature of the shootings of his brothers (even in that violent era, shooting someone in the back or from ambush violated the unwritten ethics of gunplay) pushed him over the edge.  He gained an appointment as Deputy U.S. Marshall and under that authority, systematically hunted down and killed those he had determined to be guilty.

Now these were all bad men; violent men who lived by the sword and probably would have died by the same eventually.  But that doesn't for one minute excuse Wyatt for what he did.  Wyatt Earp thought he was balancing the scales of justice.  Today, we call that cold-blooded murder under color of authority.

Today, we know of other cases when someone who is obviously guilty is set free through a legal technicality, or by gaming the system.  Most people think of O.J. Simpson in this context, or any number of crooked politicians.  Even though the scales end up balanced, we are left with a bitter taste just the same.

Mercy,  on the other hand, is different.  Webster defines it as "compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to another's power;  Also, lenient or compassionate treatment."  The unspoken caveat here is that mercy must be requested, or begged for.  There also seems to be the shadow of a quid pro quo, in that when mercy is granted there is an inference of payback.  Or as Don Vito Corleone said, "Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me."

This scenario is a comment element in most medieval dramas as well.  Even today, if someone is going to trial for a crime that was obviously committed, they are advised to "throw themselves on the mercy of the court."

So mercy must be begged for, and is not always granted.  Justice is a balancing of the scales through a purposeful, forceful act.

That leads us to Grace.

Again, we turn to the dictionary.  Grace is described as "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification; a virtue coming from God; a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace."  In theology, Grace is described as "the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it; the condescension or benevolence shown by God toward the human race."

Grace is understood by Christians to be a spontaneous gift from God to man - "generous, free, and totally unexpected and undeserved" - that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.

It is perhaps one of our most regrettable of human foibles, the difficulty we have in accepting a gift without feeling an obligation.  Don't we sometimes, when shopping for a Christmas gift ask ourselves, "What did they give me last year?" and then gauge the value of this year's gift by that measure?  And how guilty do we feel when someone gifts us with something beautiful, meaningful, and personal after we've given them a rather cheesy reindeer sweater?

The concept we can't seem to get our heads (and our hearts) around is that a gift is supposed to be just a gift.  It's not intended to be the opening salvo in a battle of gifting wits and egos.  But God's gift of grace is a completely open-ended gesture of love, given with no expectations attached.  The gift isn't given on proof of past performance, or expectation of future action.  It is just an act of love.

In a few weeks, a movie will open called "Unforgiven."  It's the story of one Louis Zamperini.  "Who?" you might be asking.  Louie grew up a problem lad, always getting into trouble.  The one thing he could do well, however was run.  With the encouragement of his older brother, he turned that blazing speed loose on the track.  He set records all over California, got a track scholarship to USC, and made the U.S. Olympic team, competing in the same games as Jesse Owens.  This would have been a remarkable story had it ended there.  But it goes on.

With the outbreak of World War II, Louie joined the Army Air Corps and was trained as a bombardier, flying on B-24 bombers in the Pacific.  On one occasion, they had been assigned a search mission for another crew that had gone missing.  Their regular plane, called "Superman," was down for maintenance.  The only other aircraft was one called "Green Hornet," which had earned a reputation as a lemon.  So unreliable was this plane that it was a danger to fly.  Louie's superior, the kind of egotistical, officious malcontent we all love to hate, nevertheless ordered them into the air.  As could have been predicted, the plane went down in a patch of ocean some 850 miles west of Hawaii.

The surviving crewmen, Louie included spent 47 days in their raft, drifting some 2,000 miles before they were picked up by the Japanese near the Marshall Islands.  Again, that would have been worth a major book.  But it doesn't stop there.

Louie was one of three survivors the Japanese pulled from the water and they were interrogated viciously before being sent back to Japan to a special prison camp called Ofuna.  There over two terrible years, they were beaten, starved, brutalized in every conceivable way by the prison guards.  Because this was a special camp, the prisoners were kept off the logs that went to the Red Cross, hence Louie's family during this time thought he had died, until he showed up on a Japanese propaganda radio program, once his captors had learned that this was indeed Louis Zamperini, the famous Olympian.

Calling on his considerable strength of will, Zamperini survived his captivity and was liberated at the war's end.

Now let me hasten to tell you that the people who ran the Japanese army and government were not representative of the Japanese people themselves.  The men sent to guard duty at the camps were there because they had failed at every other duty the Army had assigned to them.  The prisoners were convinced that many of them were psychotic.

Louie returned to America as a hero, but the nightmares of captivity would not let go.  He began to drink heavily.  Finally, his marriage, and his life, in deep trouble, he consented to go with his wife to one of Billy Graham's early crusades, then held in tents set up in various parking lots in Los Angeles.  The experience over several evenings, changed his life, and as he said later, literally saved his life.  He remembered those long weeks on that raft when he continually promised God that he would serve Him for the rest of his life if he could be rescued.  And after several personal conversations with Reverend Graham, Louis gave his life to Jesus and made the difficult decision to forgive his captors.

From that moment, he never had another nightmare.

In 1950, Louie returned to Japan and went to Sugamo prison where most of the Japanese war criminals were serving their sentences.  He sought out his old captors, and to their astonishment, greeted them with honest love and affection.  He forgave them, and testified to them of God's unending love.  After listening to their former prisoner, several of the former guards also gave their lives to the Lord and became Christians.

This way of living, of loving his enemies, was his life until he died of pneumonia at age 97 this past July.  In a very real sense, he gave the gift of grace to those who had tortured him.  He didn't even ask for an apology.  You have to read the book to understand how utterly brutal and inhumane their treatment at the hands of the Japanese army truly was.  Even after that, he chose to forgive.

And it truly freed him.

In the late 50's, Louie had a conversation with another former POW, asking the man, "Have you forgiven your captors yet?"  The man retorted vehemently, "I will never do that!"  Louie replied, "Then they still have you in prison, don't they?"

The movie, produced by Angelina Jolie, is true to the history, but apparently plays down the Christian faith that saved his life. So I recommend you read the book.  When you get to the part where his trial through the prison camps is described, don't focus on hating the Japanese guards.  Instead, focus on how God transformed and healed Louis Zamperini.  If he could freely give grace and forgiveness to those who beat and tortured him almost to death, can we do no less for those people in our lives?

You can't be a Christian by keeping score.  Remember that Jesus told Peter that he must be prepared to forgive "seventy times seven."  And Jesus wasn't intending for us to stop at 490. He is telling us that there is no limit to forgiveness; no limit to grace.  For the true disciple, there is no scorecard.

God's people are a merciful people.  We understand mercy and grace because we truly understand that God never stops forgiving us, never cuts us off from his grace.  Jesus' lesson this parable is one that is so very difficult for us at times.  And that is to forgive others in the same way that he continues to forgive us.  We should never attach conditions or establish a rate of exchange.  When we forgive, we should then be able to walk away and forget we ever did it!

Grace is an idea we have a hard time comprehending.  But God's example should lead us to offer that same level of love to others, even to the point of forgiving someone before they've apologized.  When all is said and done, Grace is best summed up thus:

"Love one another, as I have loved you."

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