Thursday, September 13, 2007

The quandary of Christian indemnification

I don't know if you have followed the story at all, but Mary Winkler appeared on yesterday's Oprah, talking about her conviction, her freedom, and her life. As a reminder, Mary Winkler is the woman who shot and killed her husband, Matthew, in May 2006 and fled with their three daughters to the beach. Matthew Winkler was the well-liked preacher at a small Church of Christ in Selmer, Tennessee; the defense that Mary presented shattered the perceptions of those who knew this couple. I have followed this story over the last year with some interest: I, too, grew up in a small Church of Christ in Abilene and my uncle, many years ago, preached with Matthew Winkler's grandfather. I could know this family, seen in a hundred others I've known in my life.

First, let me make it clear that I don't want to debate the conviction and sentence that she received: the courts evaluated the case, based on evidence, and decided that a charge of intent to kill was not appropriate; thus, manslaughter and the relatively light sentence (which, incidentally, Mary Winkler herself told Oprah was too lenient). This decision was made by people who did not have a vested interest in the case or in the people, but rather in the law, and I will trust and accept their wisdom. Clear? No rants from anyone (regulars or visitors) about how she should be locked away for decades, or the abysmal state of the American Justice system. If you want that, go somewhere else. Now. Thanks.

What I do want to discuss is something that I see going on in the aftermath, and how these actions pertain to the calling of Christ's disciples. (This case simply serves as a convenient example, but we've seen it happen in many others as well.) What is occurring, and what commonly occurs, is the family of the victim, Matthew Winkler's parents, are seeking to terminate her parental rights and are suing for $2 million in a wrongful death case. Basically, what it comes down to is that they are, intentionally or unintentionally, trying to make it impossible for her to move on with life. And this is an understandable reaction: their son is gone, even the image they held of him is broken by testimony in court, and all this was done by one of the people they trusted most. In a similar circumstance, I am confident that I would also have the strong desire to act in a similar manner. But, what I ask myself is this: should I, as a Christian, seek this kind of redress?

What cause do we, as Christians, have seeking punitive damages? The sin of the criminal action is (or should hopefully be) dealt with in a criminal proceeding. To my (imperfect) understanding, what passes in civil courts seems to fall squarely under application of such biblical commands such as found in Luke 6:27-36

27"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29"Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. 30"Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. 31"Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. 32"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33"If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34"If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. 35"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."
Where, I ask myself, does indemnification fit into such teaching? How can we righteously scream "Make 'em pay!"?

Time and time again, I read news of a criminal given a long sentence or having his life taken for his crimes, and see that the victim's families are there nodding approval. It is rare, indeed, to find the families offer true forgiveness and sorrow over where the criminal's life has taken him. So I ask, where do our actions transition from pursuit of justice to pursuit of vengeance?

Does forgiveness end? All good Christians know the Lord's Prayer "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others", and so we readily offer forgiveness. But does that forgiveness include forgetfulness? Are we willing to remove the stigma of an offense committed and truly accept with love a brother or sister? In this case, the Winkler's do not seem to be able to do this, as they seek to forever terminate Mary Winkler's parental rights. I don't know their motivations, and I realize that wise actions do include limitations (don't give a drunk a drink is the common example). But is this not, at it's basis, also a denial of complete forgiveness? Does God tell us "I forgive you, but I'll never trust or use you again"?

We ask of a person actions demonstrative of remorse (repentance) when they have committed a wrong. In fact, a big part of the lenient sentence for Mary Winkler was her sorrow over the death, whereas many others are tried much more harshly because they lack remorse. But, do we also ask for proof that they will never sin again before extending our trust and forgiveness? I think, often, that we do just that, judging their hearts to justify our own. This is as true for the murderer as it is for the panhandler on the street corner. We decide on their worthiness for mercy and grace, and we act in accordance with our desires to force them to be different - sinless, perfect, or at least trying really hard. But that's not who we are asked to serve: the Christian should love and serve their enemies as readily and joyfully as though loving and serving their Lord.

One final question I have is this: How should Christians seek to defend themselves? Even more basic than this is should we defend ourselves at all? I spoke about
living the life of Isaac recently. He never defended himself, stood up for his rights or his property. No, he just moved on; Jehovah was with him wherever he went, not in the lands where Isaac had been but in Isaac himself. So I find myself questioning the righteousness of any type of suit for redress, be it against a believer (as Paul chastised the Corinthians for) or against an unbeliever.

I have many opinions on these questions, some more recently developed than others. But none are so firmly held that I will not reevaluate my theology in light of God's word and will. Elucidate me - what do you feel about these questions? More importantly, what do you believe is God's will in these matters (beyond personal feelings)?

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erin said...

You've raised some really important questions, and I think I definitely will have to do some more thinking before I respond. I'm particularly interested in the question: "So I ask, where do our actions transition from pursuit of justice to pursuit of vengeance?" I think that's what causes people problems. I can't say for certain because I'm not them, but the parents of Matthew Winkler probably think it's just that she not be allowed to care for her children after killing their father. They may not see it as revenge, but as a means of protecting their grandchildren. The line between justice and revenge seems blurry when I know it shouldn't be, and I have no idea what the right thing is.

erin said...

One thing I thought of: can there not be forgiveness but still be consequences? God forgives us of our sins, but we still must face the consequences of our actions.

Amy said...

That's a lot to think about. I'll get back to you.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to separate the Winkler issue from your bigger questions because I'm sure there is at least some truth in what Erin is wondering bout the grandparents. I wouldn't want children in my family to be raised by a woman who killed their father, so in that I understand them to a certain extent. Punitive damages? Very different.

But I'll say this about your bigger question: I'm not sure we do have the right to defend ourselves. That said, I'm not sure how good I'd be at it. I'm very good at avoiding violence and putting myself or my family in a situation where I would have to put my pacifism to the test. And I don't think that's cowardice or weakness; I think it's shrewdness.

Relative to this subject, I've recently decided that I believe Christians shouldn't own guns. Especially not for "self defense." A Christian cannot "defend" themselves even by threat of violence. And that's what gun ownership is. And Euph, you know how unpopular that belief makes me here in Texas! What do you think?

euphrony said...

I totally agree that consequences exsist separate from forgiveness. Plenty of biblical examples of that, from David's adultery as a sinful example to his children to Judah's 400 year exile before being able to return to Jerusalem.

Mary Winkler will suffer the consequences of her sin for the rest of her life. Even if she regains custody of her children, they will never think of quite as a normal mom - the knowledge will be there, and will impact their lives. Numerous others I can think of that will occur without anyone else doing a single thing.

From what I can see, the need for consequences to actions is not an excuse for seeking what often turns into personal vengeance.

I think I agree with your comments. Don't know that I could sit by and let a killer raise my grandkids. Don't know if I wouldn't pick up a handy gun if violently attacked. And, like you, I'm not so sure that it is the Godly action to hurt others in self-defense - though I am by no means a pacifist. My dad has a couple of nice guns (rifles and shotguns) that we did some hunting with when I was younger. I would like those when he is gone - a nice reminder - but at the same time I don't do any hunting these days. Why do I need the guns, or want them around even, when I have no plans of using them. Spells trouble, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you. And that's why I always describe myself as "trying to be a pacifist." The reason I won't claim the designation in full for myself is because I know I would use violence to defend my wife. In fact, I know I'd use it to defend a stranger or anyone else - I've done so in the past. But not myself. At this point in my life I can actually say that I wouldn't use violence for self-defense. And that's why I don't think Christians should own guns. It's completely un-Christian to use violence or the threat of violence in self-defense.

Discontented Refuge said...

I'm with you on the "trying to be a pacifist" I enjoy shooting as a recreation, although I haven't done it yet, I think I would enjoy bird hunting. That said, I don't keep a loaded firearm in the house, but I'm with Euph, if someone threatened me (or more importantly my family) with violence or death and there was a gun handy, I'm not sure what decision I would make.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's a good argument for not having a gun handy? If we decide beforehand that violence or threat of violence is not appropriate then we can't be prey to situational ethics. Because, to tell the truth, I'm not sure what I'd do either and that's why I'll never have a gun handy.

Douglas said...

If someone threatened my family's safety (e.g., a home intruder who did not stop when commanded), I would have no qualms about shooting them, and I would certainly be aiming for the center of mass. I have a tough time believing that Jesus wanted Christians to be pacifists, especially when he told his disciples to take a sword with them. Violence should be a last resort, but it is something that I believe God is OK with us resorting to. God didn't change hats from OT to NT. He's the same yesterday, today and forever. I have no problems believing that Jesus expected his disciples to use the sword he told them to carry in light of what the Scriptures say elsewhere.

Personally, I don't see the point of the punitive damages in Winkler's case, unless it is meant to be some form of compensation for raising the kids analogous to child support. Even then, the particular amount seems like too much, but perhaps they are suing for more than they expect to get and padding the number as a tactical measure. I certainly think it is inappropriate for Winkler to have custody of her kids after killing their dad, though it would be appropriate for her to support them financially.


euphrony said...

I would not hesitate to protect my family, either. I also do not see God calling us to be pacifists; men of peace, most definitely, but I see a distinction between that and total non-violence. However, if no family was involved, I do find myself believing that violent self-defense is not what Christ would desire us to do. Again, a distinction; some may think it is artificial, but there it is.

Douglas said...


I do agree that most of the time the option of violence presents itself, it is not good to fight back. I have had people try to start fights with me on multiple occasions and had to walk away (sometimes after being pushed, once by a former youth pastor). At the same time, if the situation cannot be diffused by nonviolence (walking away or reasoning with them, maybe even offering a humble apology for perceived offenses knowing you won't get one back), I don't think fighting is out of the question. If someone threatens my physical well being or professional reputation, they are threatening my ability to provide for my family. I'm not going to leave my wife a widow because of a command of Jesus to turn the other cheek. I honestly don't think he expects me to do so under those circumstances. This is all rather ambiguous, but I don't have time to flesh this out in more detail, so it will have to do for now.

I do see your point though, that violence and fighting back (even with words) should not be our standard modus operandi.


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