I had settled in for the evening after a long day. The phone rang as I was about to drift off to sleep. “Is this Reverend Carder, the preacher who is quoted in the newspaper as being against the death penalty?” the irate woman asked. I had gone on public record in opposition to executions in the Tennessee.
“Yes, I am opposed to capital punishment,” I calmly replied. What followed kept me awake most of the night and taught me a lesson that is being relearned in my relationships with people affected by dementia.
“Tell me why you are against it,” demanded the caller. I began to explain that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Before I could make my point, she interrupted, “It would deter that one murderer!”
Next, I stated that the death penalty runs counter to my religious faith. Again, she would have none of my argument. “The Bible says, ‘an eye for an eye’,” she retorted. I countered with quotes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Turn the other cheek. . . Love your enemies.” The debate was on!
Our verbal clash went back and forth with ever-escalating emotional intensity. Then, she blurted out something that abruptly ended the arguing!
“If your daughter had been murdered, you’d think different,” she yelled while sobbing uncontrollably.
I had totally missed her! I had seen her as an opponent, one with whom I disagreed. I missed her as a person, a grieving mother of a murdered child. I was bent on winning an argument. I should have been listening to her story, especially her pain.
“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry,” I said with embarrassment. I shared that as the father of two daughters I couldn’t even imagine the pain of one being murdered. I apologized for my insensitivity by arguing with her. For another hour I listened to a heart-wrenching story of horrific loss and harrowing grief.
She ceased being an opponent and became a person with a story I needed to hear. We both moved from an abstract argument to sharing stories behind our ethical/theological perspectives.
We like to think that our ideas, doctrines, affirmations, and understandings are derived purely through rational thinking. We assume that our truth is totally objective, universally applicable, and detached from our personal stories. But behind every theological, ethical, and political proposition is a story; and we never fully understand another’s perspective until we hear his/her story.
The caller’s position on the death penalty couldn’t be separated from her experience of having a child murdered. My opposing position is inseparable from having a friend awaiting execution and earlier having sat with a mother whose son was executed in another state. The mother whose son was executed loved him no less than the grieving mother of the murdered daughter. Both had children who were intentionally killed, one by a boyfriend and the other by the state.
Our church and society are awash in arguments—political, theological, ideological. Placing opponents within the margins of our dismissive categories prevails over seeing them as persons with stories. And, we would rather lead with our arguments than with our vulnerabilities and hurts. Consequently, we compound the polarization, deepen misunderstanding, and intensify suffering.
We organize into groups of those who fit within our margins of preferred categories—“progressive,” “evangelical,” “liberal,” “conservative.” It’s easier to control the margins than to listen to the stories of others, especially the painful ones. But we can be sure that no one fits neatly into any of the categories, if we know their stories.
In reality, truth can never be severed from story. Arguments over abstract propositions are more about winning and losing than about understanding and growing. Positive change emerges from shared stories of pain and struggle more than from quarrels and contentious debates.
God didn’t redeem the world with an argument. God saves the world by entering our stories with The Story of a Love that shifts the margins outside our prescribed categories.
Thank you, Bishop Carder. I miss your caring addresses to Tennessee Annual Conference while I served there.
This is amazing and speaks to so many issues in my life. Thank you. I also am against the death penalty. God Bless
Thank you for the reminder – even in disagreement we should be kind, compassionate and empathetic.
Thank you for the reminder that is more important to listen than to prove our point!
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You continue to be a blessing to others wherever you are. Many thanks for your service to God and God’s people in Tennessee.
Thank you, Bishop!
Your writings fill the need of actually hearing you talk/preach.
Another tender and perceptive commentary that I’d like to republish on United Methodist Insight. I believe the United Methodist community is deeply in need of your wisdom right now, and I’d like to have your permission to republish your posts on a regular basis, so that I need not bother you with continuing requests. Thank you.
Thank you, Cynthia, for your kind workds. You have permission to republish any of the reflections you deem appropriate.
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Our best stories are a new look and shared perspective on an old problem.
The Story of Mary Catherine Strobel is the one that changed my mind with new information. It proved to me the consistency of the Catholic Faith, by example. All Life is sacred. Devoted to the homeless she was killed by one of the very people she loved. While most capitalised on the problems of the mentally ill wondering the streets they offered no help for thoes people suffering in the streets, except revenge.
The Strobel Family changed that narrative quickly.
It was the most powerful statement by Father Strobel that has stuck with me thru time. Forgiveness was the only way for healing, in the community and their Family. The murderer must live his life understanding he killed someone who loved him and was only trying to help him. I can think of no greater punishment. The family proved to all, including the Government, the power of their faith by example.
Hate like acid, destroys all vessels that contain it. By forgiving a murderer the family had peace. Revenge was not of the families doing but it quickly became the ambition of our Government. Once again the Strobel Family had the oppertunity to teach the Government a lesson of Faith. Prosecutors sought the death Penalty over the wishes of the Family. They very quickly decided that was not a fight they were not willing to undertake.
Think of the guy in the cell. Your Murder a kind, gentle Lady that was trying to help you. Sitting in a cell, when you come to your senses, you may determine that death is the easy way out. Perhaps you do deserve to die. Then along comes her family once again with the Forgiveness of their faith. That faith saved his life. Are we into just killing people or we here to change the hearts and minds of our community? That same Soul sits in a cell today and awakes every morning to thank Mary Catherine Strobel for every day he is alive, Forgiven.
If life is learning for the Soul one Lady of faith, who lived the powerful words so many proclaim, often without deeds. Mary Catherine Strobel taught us ALL, a powerful lesson by example. Punishment is sitting in a cell forgiven. Death is the easy way out.
The Soul we knew as Mary Catherine Strobel has given me more to think about than revenge. Life is by example, lead by faith. Love and forgiveness concurs, governments, haters, religions, and murderers. Thanks be to God.
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Thank you for sharing this story of forgiveness!
Thank you Bishop Carder. We look back on our years with you in the Memphis Conference with many many good memories. I was always opposed to the death penalty until Timothy McVeigh made it more complicated for me.
I remember our times together with great affection and appreciation.
It is easy to hold high minded views from my position of safety, where nothing like this has ever touched my family. This story reminds me that others have walked paths quite different from mine, and I need to hear what they have to say. Thank you for sharing this story.
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Thank you for sharing this story.