Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Redemption: Believe it, or not?

My mom sent me a link to this CNN article, about a man who became an ordained Episcopalian priest while serving a prison sentence for a second-degree murder he helped (a homeless man who was stabbed to death) commit at age 17 in 1986.

The priest, Rev. James Tramel, earned his M.Div in 1998, while in prison. He is now engaged to another Episcopal priest (I don't know how that came about, won't go there in this post...) and will now be serving as assistant pastor at a small Episcopal church. The congregation, the article reports, is excited to receive him there. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger granted his parole earlier this month.

The family of the murdered man is not so excited. Some family members wonder if the conversion is a trick to get released from prison. The twenty years he served was not enough, some say.

I think this raises interesting questions. Do we believe a person can be redeemed? I don't blame the family for their skepticism. I am sure I would feel the same way if it was my loved one who was murdered. But do we not believe that a person who commits a crime at 17 can be changed by the time they are 38 into a different person? A person who has repented and been forgiven, if not by the family, then by God?

If we believe in redemption, does redemption override the need for punishment? How much redemption do we need to outweigh the need for continuing punishment?

These questions are also the questions I have when we talk about death-penalty issues. I strongly oppose the death penalty for many reasons, including the way the death penalty is applied, how death sentences are carried out, who decides the sentence, etc., but also because I don't see in the death penalty room for redemption.

I understand the struggle. How does the victim and the family of the victim find solace in the redemption of the criminal? The victim has no such opportunity to change over twenty years of their life has been cut short. But must we always have "an eye for an eye"?

Perhaps we could argue that a person redeemed spiritually can still serve out a punishment for a crime - they can be redeemed and forgiven and still required to be punished - it is only fair. But still, I wonder - do we believe they've been redeemed or not? Or do we still see the criminal as that - a criminal - no matter how long it has been, how different they are, how much their life has changed?
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