Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Virginia Inmate Advocates For Parole Reform

VPB contact page
“The traditional view of what should happen when a prisoner is released has it backward—that you get people to stop committing crimes so that you can reintegrate them. Actually, you reintegrate them to keep them from committing crimes.”
University of Vermont criminologist Kathy Fox

The following is by an anonymous inmate at one of our Virginia prisons:

Many cases of error and confusion have surfaced in the activities of the Virginia Parole Board.

1. Parole-eligible prisoners have received a one-year deferral only to find out later that it had been changed by the VPB to a three-year deferral.

2. Some parole-eligible prisoners have received parole denials even BEFORE speaking to the parole interviewer. This suggests that parole NOT GRANTS are set to be sent by the computer automatically on a specific programmed date along with the programmed digital signature from the Parole Chairwoman, Ms. Karen Brown. It also seems that the reasons are routinely copied from the previous years Not Grant form letter.

3. Virginia Parole Board has been known to make clerical errors. Clearly, there should be no room for carelessness where the fates of real people are at stake. How many pages are misfiled? How do parole-eligible prisoners know that what is in their VPB files are accurate?

4. Virginia Parole Board has listed on its database names of prisoners who are not old enough to have been under the old parole law before parole was abolished (in 1995). Are the numbers being fudged? The Board should only have on that database those sentenced prior to July 1, 1995 or set up a column listing who are old-law and who are new-law or juvenile inmates.

Parole-eligible prisoners should be allowed to review their parole files and refute any erroneous information that could have been placed in their files by accident or by malicious intent.

VPB's examiners, Board members and staff have proven in the past to be biased, perhaps without even realizing it, especially if one of their family members or friends had been victimized by a sexual or violent person in the past. Also, they often become casehardened after decades of work and their dedication in the "war on crime" and tend to build up a hostile and cynical mindset that cannot be changed overnight.

Every board member, examiner and staff member of the Parole Board should be impartial and unbiased in order for fair and effective justice to be served. Many parole-eligible prisoners have come to the conclusion that, no matter what is discussed at the examination, the examiner's impact on the Board's decisions is negligible. Then why keep having the same costly and useless examinations year after year?

The Board's unprofessional actions include the following:

1. In denying parole, VPB routinely gives the following reasons, all of which have to do with past behavior no inmate can change:

a. The serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s)

b. Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of the crime

c. The Board has concluded that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole

The General Assembly passed Code of Virginia § 53.1-151, "Eligibility for Parole". Lines 1-4 state how much time should be served by parole-eligible prisoners before being granted release on parole. Ironically it turns out that all first time offenders have served double the time mandated by the General Assembly.

2. Another reason often provided by the Virginia Parole Board in its "Not Grant" form letters is:

The Board considers you to be a risk to the community

Clearly, anybody can snap and commit a violent crime, not just paroled ex-felons (Look at the recent murders and assaults even by police officers). But unlike many young people roaming the streets, most paroled ex-offenders are no longer rowdy youths. Many have matured, have learned to control their anger and emotions, and have learned to adapt to their surroundings and to coexist peacefully in violent and drug infested prison communities where they have lived for decades behind prison fences.

3. The Virginia law that the VPB cites on the parole "Not Grant" form letters is Code of Virginia § 53.1-155, "No person shall be released on parole by the Board until a thorough investigation has been made into the prisoner's history, physical and mental condition and character and his conduct, employment and attitude WHILE IN PRISON [emphasis added]. The Board shall also determine that his release on parole will not be incompatible with the interests of society OR OF THE PRISONER [emphasis added]."

The problem is that the Board totally disregards the interests, and even the rights, of parole-eligible prisoners.

Virginia Parole Board's Mission Statement as formulated in its Agency Strategic Plan, proclaims that its goal is to "Contribute to a fair and effective justice system" and that "those who no longer present a risk are released to become productive citizens".

Why then are so many model prisoners still routinely denied parole release, while some who have had previous parole violations and frequent infractions in prison been granted release?

We suggest supplementing Virginia Parole Board's decision-making functions with computer software designed to help make parole decisions that would be consistent statewide and free of subjectivity, emotions and political motives. It is high time VPB entered the twenty-first century and started using modern information technology instead of allowing personal feelings to get in their way of sound professional judgement.

Most correctional professionals agreed that prisoners require a strong support network, both inside and outside of prison, to encourage positive change and keep them from relapsing into old criminal behaviors. This is particularly true of prisoners who have been incarcerated since their youth and have never developed life competencies. What often happens, though, is that VPB continues denying them parole grant until their loved ones have given up on them or have died, leaving no one to help them get reestablished in society.

In conclusion, the above facts demonstrate that VPB seems to be going to extreme lengths to avoid doing its job - namely, that of releasing parole-eligible Prisoners back into society. The Board's overly cautious and punitive approach is proving to be ineffective in combating recidivism.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why Christians Should Still Refuse To Fight

“As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”
This succinct statement taken from Article 22 of my church's "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective"  sets us apart from all but a small fraction of other Christians around the world, although I am heartened by more and more individuals and denominations supporting this position.  

Yet the above was embraced universally by believers in the first and second centuries, and by most Anabaptist-minded (later Mennonite) Christians since the 16th century.

To cite two of many examples, Tertullian, a prominent leader and theologian in the early church expressed this vision when he described the church as a people who “join to beat their swords into plows, and their lances into sickles.”  Origin of Egypt, a contemporary of Tertullian’s said, “Nor do we ‘learn war any more,’ having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, our leader.” The best known example of a first century believer who refused to fight is Maxillian, who was martyred for not joining the Roman army and later canonized as a saint.

To early Christians, Jesus represented the final word from God on issues of war and peace.  War was simply over for them, a relic of the past. Menno Simons and other outspoken leaders and martyrs in Anabaptist and other renewal movements simply helped revive this conviction. Menno wrote, "True Christians do not know vengeance... their hearts overflow with peace... The regenerate do not go to war, or engage in strife...  they are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares."

Sadly, few followers of Christ over the centuries have maintained such positions, which has resulted in Inquisitions, Crusades, multiple wars among so-called Christian nations in Europe and elsewhere, and Christians defending and participating in every kind of military adventure imaginable, all in the name of God and country, and each case defended as a "just war." 

There has been a gradual erosion of anti-war conviction among Mennonites as well, members of a small “peace church” that has maintained for most of 500 years that military membership and church membership are incompatible.

To me, a weakening of any church’s position on this kind of witness represents a crying shame.  Surely there is a need for at least a remnant of people in our blood-stained world who consistently teach and demonstrate that Christians, by definition, are people who will not harm or kill under any circumstances. Not even in a time of war, not even their enemies (and certainly not their fellow believers), anywhere in the world.

I see this as not about some sectarian “peace position,” but about an “agape position,” about Jesus's followers being a people defined by their passionate love for God above every other love or allegiance, and by a compassionate love for neighbor--friend, foe and foreigner alike.  

And lest we reduce agape to being a mere sentiment, an attitude of niceness, or as simply a benevolent feeling toward others, the New Testament makes clear that God's kind of unconditional love is defined by its actions, not merely its motives or emotions.  Thus Jesus, in explaining what loving ones neighbor actually means, tells the story of a Samaritan binding up the wounds of his mortal enemy, a Jew.  And Paul, in Romans 13 (the very passage that urges respect, rather than armed resistance, toward even the occupying, crucifying, terrorist Caesars) makes it clear that love will "do no harm to a neighbor." Period. 

As Ghandi once observed, Christians seem to be the only ones who believe Jesus and the New Testament are not absolutely clear on these points: Do no harm.  Return good for evil.  Take up the cross, not the sword.  Follow Jesus’s personal example of a completely nonresistant life, who taught, "My kingdom (government) is not like those of this world. If that were so my servants would fight."

If in our baptism we receive a missionary commission to evangelize and reconcile God’s enemies to God and to each other, how can we accept a military commission to harm them?  And if we are convinced that in Jesus God’s future kingdom has already been inaugurated, how can we also pledge, under oath, to become a part of an enterprise committed to harming or coercing others “in the national interest”?

Clearly, most decent people, Christian or not, would renounce the following as immoral and unacceptable:

breaking and entering
lying and other forms of deception
physical, psychological, or other forms of torture and abuse
armed robbery
malicious wounding
organized acts of terrorism
using racial or other demeaning slurs 
using explosives to destroy people or property
destroying land or other natural resources
stabbing or strangling 
forcing people from their homes or communities
committing mass murder

Without question, most believers would speak out against members of churches engaging in such behaviors--and would disapprove of their supporting or belonging to any groups or organizations that do so. Yet we tend to raise no objections when military forces routinely encourage, train and/or command people to do all of the above and more.  

Thus we are in danger of accepting, on a mass and organized scale, what we could not accept or allow on any other basis. Unlike legitimate police force, necessary in human societies to maintain order within national boundaries (and intended to preserve life and bring individuals to justice under laws designed to protect individual rights), military forces have a long history of plundering and destroying without benefit of such civilized restraints.

True, we pacifist Christians must repent of the many "beams" of self righteousness, materialism, and cowardly indifference that are inconsistent with our moral vision. Because of these we may not always “see clearly” to lovingly help remove any specks of militarism from another’s eye. 

But remove them we must, all of us, lest history write off the church as having been irrelevant and mute in one of the most pressing moral issues of all time.

This is an edited repost from January 21, 2011.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

After 62 Executions: "I Will Never Do It Again"

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
Virginia re-instated the death penalty in 1978 but did not resume executing death row inmates until 1982. Overall the Old Dominion holds the record of being third in the nation in total number of executions (after Texas and Oklahoma), but put only one person to death in 2015.

Jerry Givens was the state's chief executioner from 1982-1999, responsible for 62 state-sponsored deaths during that period. Near the end of his career with the Department of Corrections Givens had two experiences that led to his eventually opposing capital punishment.

The first had to do with the case of Earl Washington, Jr., who had an IQ of 69 and was scheduled to die in the electric chair in 1995. Just days before his execution, his attorneys were able to secure a stay, and subsequent DNA testing resulted in his being proved innocent. 

That was very disturbing to Givens. "If I execute an innocent person, I'm no better than the people on death row," he said.

Meanwhile he learned that there had been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, including 15 in Virginia. Some of them were capital cases.

The second experience, this one personal, resulted in his becoming even more mistrustful of the criminal justice system. State prosecutors charged him with conspiring with a friend to launder drug money. Although he has always maintained his innocence, he was nevertheless convicted and sent to prison for four years.

According to a Washington Post article, Givens said God asked him if he would have executed his Son if he were on death row (which Jesus once was), and Givens realized he could no longer support the death penalty.

Since then Givens has been active in giving anti-capital punishment speeches across the country. He also testified against a bill introduced in January 2014 to restore the use of the electric chair if the state found it necessary due to problems getting proper lethal injection drugs. After his testimony, in which he described how electrocutions often left prisoners' bodies with severe burns and blisters, a legislative committee failed to agree on the bill, dead locking in a tie vote.

According to the Post, Givens continues to wonder if any of the people he executed were innocent. "The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did." he said, "but I do know this - I will never do it again."

For more detail, here's a link to one of several Washington Post stories:

Proverbs 24:11-12 New Living Translation (NLT)

Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die;
    save them as they stagger to their death.
Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.”
    For God understands all hearts, and he sees you.
He who guards your soul knows you knew.

   He will repay all people as their actions deserve.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"My Name Is Nina"

Nina, now 49, with her adopted mother
It was November of 1968.

The note left with the premature infant abandoned at the entrance of an Asuncion hospital simply read, "Mi nombre es Nina", and identified the baby's mother as Mara Dielmans.

That's all. No one knew where the baby came from and apparently no attempt was made to make connections with any family she may have had.

My older sister Fannie Mae Yoder, who ran a maternity clinic in Paraguay, was first introduced to Nina, then 6, at the Government Children's Home in Asuncion that cared for abandoned children up to 8 years of age. Some of the staff there asked my sister, an RN and a certified midwife, if she knew of any place in the US where she could be cared for, knowing that otherwise she would likely spend her entire life in an Asuncion mental hospital.

Nina, diagnosed as severely autistic, was unable to talk, was still being bottle fed and had the appearance of a three-year-old. Fannie Mae, ever the compassionate nurse, was due to return to the states in just a few months, and agreed to check with folks she knew at the church-run Faith Mission Home in Greene County, Virginia, to find out if they might be able to provide for her.

After some correspondence, Faith Mission Home agreed to accept her into their program, but said they had a waiting list and that she would need to have some other place to live for up to a year. Meanwhile, Paraguayan officials worked with my sister to arrange for Nina's emigration.

My dad was a very supportive father figure for Nina 
After considerable correspondence and many conversations with family and church members, Fannie Mae agreed to have Nina live with her at Stuarts Draft until there was an opening at the Home. Not everyone was in favor of her taking on this responsibility, but my father, remarried after my mother's passing in 1971, was among those who supported her choice.

During the eight months Nina lived with my sister she made remarkable progress, was taught to feed herself, eat solid food, and be toilet trained, all of which helped her in her transition to Mission Home.

There Fannie Mae visited Nina regularly and brought her home some weekends and holidays. Unable to express herself in words, Nina would typically clap her hands in delight on the way to my sister's, whereas she began to cry whenever they drove back onto the Mission Home campus, even though it is one of the finest facilities I know of for developmentally challenged children and young adults.

Fannie Mae said she will never forget the time when, at her church, autistic Nina, for the first time, looked into her adoptive mom's face and gave her a warm smile. There was a special though unspoken bond between them.

When Nina was 11, steps were taken to gain permanent immigration status for her rather than their having to apply for annual renewals of her visa. In order to gain this status it was recommended that Fannie Mae formally adopt her, after which Nina's sponsorship at Mission Home ended.

So as my sister retired from nursing, Nina moved back to live with her now adoptive mother on a permanent basis. She was enrolled in a special education class and learned more life skills and became able to communicate more of her needs non-verbally.

Nina remained at what she considered her real home until it became necessary for my sister to apply for adult foster care for her a decade ago. She is currently being cared for by a wonderful set of loving parents.

I am proud of my sister for investing so much of herself in making a difference in one very special person's life, my adopted niece Nina Ruth. And on this Father's day, I commend my late father for supporting her in doing so.

Note: The photo above is of us running into Nina recently when I took Fannie Mae for a medical appointment at Stuarts Draft. Nina, not having seen her mother since her recent hospitalization for a heart condition, at first seemed shocked to see her in a wheel chair, then quickly walked over and placed her hand on the person to whom she owed her life. A touching moment.

Here's a link to another post on my sister's story

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Allegations Of Murder, Rape, Conspiracy, Lying And Cover-ups

If we think the accusations and mudslinging going on in today's political campaigns are bad, we should listen to the rhetoric associated with the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. 

Here are two examples of charges and counter charges that were made, not by the candidates themselves, but on handbills circulated by their surrogates and campaign managers:

“John Adams is a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who secretly wants to start a war with France.” 

“If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames? Female chastity violated?” 

But is all of this new? In one of last Sunday's lectionary texts we were reminded of charges of a scandal 3000 years ago that rival the worst of any we see today. And the national figure facing the hot light of public blame and exposure was none other than the beloved King David himself.

Had David been running for another term in office back then, we can only imagine the vitriol that would have been leveled against him--with lurid details of adultery, murder, conspiracy and worse. He was in fact guilty of secretly conspiring with his army commander Joab to have his illicit lover's husband killed by putting him in a defenseless position in battle, all in a shameless effort to have his wife Bathsheba for himself.

The major difference between David and most politicians today is that when he was confronted with the awful truth of what he did he acknowledged his wrong, repented of it, and accepted the judgment he deserved.

God's response to his prayer of remorse and lament (as found in Psalm 34, one of the other lectionary texts for last Sunday) was to both punish David and to graciously forgive him, honoring him for not resorting to denial, rationalization, defensiveness and blame.

Imagine candidates of either party today being willing to simply take responsibility for past wrongs and to make an about face in their behavior.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A President Speaks Out To Fathers

Wikipedia photo

Regardless of how we may feel about President Obama's political leadership, he and Michelle have set an above average example as parents, as did George and Laura Bush before them.

In a Father’s Day message to the Boys and Girls Club organization in Washington early in his first term, Barak Obama said, "We can talk all we want here in Washington about issues like education and health care and crime; we can build good schools; we can put money into creating good jobs; we can do everything we can to keep our streets safe -- but government can’t force a kid to pick up a book or make sure that the homework gets done. Government can’t be there day in, day out, to provide discipline and guidance and the love that it takes to raise a child. That’s our job...." 

He went on to add, "Too often when we talk about fatherhood and personal responsibility, we talk about it in political terms, in terms of left and right, conservative/liberal, instead of what’s right and what’s wrong. And when we do that, we’ve gotten off track. So I think it’s time for a new conversation around fatherhood in this country." 

On a more personal note, he stated, "Even when we give it our best efforts, there will still be plenty of days of struggle and heartache when we don’t quite measure up. .. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a parent. I’ve lost count of all the times when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood. And I know I’ve missed out on moments in my daughters’ lives that I’ll never get back... But I also know the feeling that one author described when she wrote that ‘to have a child ... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.’

"I can say without hesitation that the most challenging, most fulfilling, most important job I will have during my time on this Earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad."

Good words for Father's Day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Joaquin Rodriguez's 108-Year Nightmare

Joaquin Rodriguez, photo courtesy of WVTF
The following is an excerpt from a 5-part radio documentary on criminal justice and parole reform done by Sandy Hausman with Virginia Public Radio, and is posted here with her permission:

Joaquin Rodriguez came to this country from El Salvador when he was fifteen.  He was excited to be in a place that offered freedom and opportunity, but three years later his American dream turned into a nightmare, when he was arrested and charged with three counts of armed robbery in Fairfax and Arlington, possession of a firearm and malicious wounding. 

“They had no evidence, no witness, no fingerprints, no videos, so I thought they would never convict me of anything.”

What they did have was witnesses who identified him in a line-up.  The Innocence Project reports witness error is the single biggest cause of wrongful conviction.

“They took me to a line up, and I was the only person that fitted the descriptions that the victim gave to police and investigators.  I was the only 18-year-old kid, Hispanic, my height and everything.  Everybody else -- they were older men, they were police officers.”

The prosecutor tried to make a deal – one that would mean as little as ten years behind bars, but Rodriguez insisted he was innocent, and he had two lawyers to help him in court.

“Both of them had just finished law school.  They were committing lots of mistakes. Even the judge would tell them, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’  Already told you about this. They were very inexperienced, and you can’t expect much from them.”

In the end, he got a sentence of 108 years – in part because Virginia imposes longer terms each time someone is convicted of a violent crime.  Here’s former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy:

“A residential burglary was classified by the general assembly as a violent crime.  If you had a burglary conviction, then that triggers these enhancement of sentences for subsequent offenses.”

Virginia also has a “three strikes” law – intended to discourage criminals from committing new crimes once released from prison.  Under that law, someone who’s convicted of three felonies is ineligible for parole.  Experts say “three strikes” laws have not prevented people from committing new crimes, but they have increased prison populations and costs dramatically, and they’re unevenly applied.  Rodriguez, for example, had never served time in prison before being locked up for all three felonies, and he was actually considered for parole several times before being told he was not eligible. Now, he has little hope of release.

“I’m pretty much growing old. I send clemency petitions to the governor every year, but I’m still here.”

The commission set up to consider reinstating parole was concerned about people like Rodriguez and has called on the state to review all cases involving inmates convicted of three felonies.  The panel also recommended getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences, so judges have more flexibility in assessing each case.  

- Sandy Hausman, WVTF

Here's the link to the entire series. Rodriguez's story is in part four: 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Robert Frost's "Two Roads"

One of my favorite poems is Frost's “The Road Not Taken”.

For most of my life I’ve read this as a cautionary tale about not taking a wrong turn at some critical juncture in life, lest we forever regret taking one route over another.

Of course some decisions are quite like that, like whether we choose a Godward direction or one that takes us on a purely selfish and/or self-destructive course.

But once we have established the right destination for our life journey, there may be more than one specific path that can still get us to the desired end point.  

According to Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost’s biographer, the poem is actually making light of his friend Edward Thomas, with whom he went on many walks together, who in Frost’s words, was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.” 

In real life, while we can and should prayerfully debate the merits of any particular job or place to live, for example, most life decisions like these have multiple pros as well as cons, which is why deciding is always hard. But while life offers us few truly perfect options, thankfully it does offer us multiple opportunities for making mid-course corrections. 

So having prayed for the best wisdom possible, and consulted some wise mentors, we can move ahead decisively and with courage. The only really wrong path is one where we have turned around and gone in the opposite direction from the good one we had originally resolved to take.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Oh The People You Meet--When You Ride On A Bus, Or Walk Down The Street!

DNRonline photo
Today is your day. 
You're off to Great Places! 
You're off and away! 

You have brains in your head. 
You have feet in your shoes 
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose. 
You're on your own. And you know what you know. 
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go. 
- from Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You'll Go!

Occasionally I take the Harrisonburg city bus from Harmony Square to Court Square for my commute to work. The fare for seniors is only 50 cents a ride, and while it takes me some 15 minutes extra to get to my office, I enjoy taking public transportation when I can. Route 5, with interesting stops at places like EMU, Red Front, Roses, Gift and Thrift, Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community and Friendship Industries, is often underutilized, and welcomes passengers. 

One day last week I reflected on all the good people I wouldn't have gotten to be with had I taken my trusty '96 Nissan pickup to work. One of these good folks was a fellow senior citizen who told me she had recently moved to VMRC from Washington, DC.  She loved her new neighbors, she said, and felt at home among people who were only recently total strangers. We had a delightful conversation, as total strangers ourselves, though I failed to get her name. But it didn't matter. For those moments we were simply like good neighbors who had known each other for a long time.

On my walk from Main Street to my Newman Avenue office I ran into Kirk Saunders, someone I had supervised as a counselor in residence at Gemeinschaft Home a couple of years ago. He walked with me to the little pocket park across from the Massanutten Regional Library, and we sat down for twenty minutes of quality time reconnecting with each other, 

On my later walk from a noon meeting at the Dean House on Old South High Street, I ran across the young adult grandson of my late adopted sister, someone I had wanted to get back in touch with for some time and had been unable to contact. We talked for a couple of blocks together and I invited him to meet with me for lunch at a later time.

On my bus ride home, one of my seat mates was Richard Ritchie, an energetic young employee on his way home from Friendship Industries. When I told him my name, he exclaimed, "My mother knows you! You were her teacher at Eastern Mennonite High School!" And indeed I was able to confirm that Jewel had been a student of mine many years ago. I also learned all about his home, his work and about his grandfather, who had adopted Jewel and made it possible for her to attend EMHS.

When we both got off at Harmony Square Shopping Center, just two blocks from our house, he wanted to introduce me to his father, who was waiting to give him his ride home. Yet another nice person I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting had I taken my vehicle downtown that day.

Oh the good people you meet--when you take a little extra time to walk, or to ride the Route 5 bus!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dear Governor McAuliffe: An Eloquent Letter From Buckingham Prison

Virginia's Governor McAuliffe
I recently received the following copy of a letter sent to Governor McAuliffe by an inmate at the Buckingham Correctional Center, someone who has been a long time advocate of having aging and infirm inmates in Virginia with good behavior records being granting Geriatric release. 

I will add his name as soon as I get confirmed permission to do so, but he wants the following to be circulated as widely as possible, and is encouraging all of us to contact the Governor on their behalf, copying any part of his letter they wish in doing so (see link at the end of the post):

The Honorable Governor Terry McAuliffe
Patrick Henry Building - Third Floor
1111 Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219

Dear Governor McAuliffe:

I am writing on behalf of current and former Virginia inmates and our families to express our sincere appreciation for your brave and selfless efforts in restoring the voting rights of convicted felons.

While reading an article in the May 13, 2016, Richmond Times-Dispatch, I noticed that during your address from the 31st Street Baptist Church pulpit, you stated, "Those who know me know this has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with justice. This has to do with morality."

We commend you for your fortitude, as well as the "heavy lifting" involved in implementing such a controversial policy decision during the current political climate.

Many of your constituents and their families with loved ones who are currently incarcerated ask for you to allow morality to guide you even further by exercising authority over your Parole Board and directing them toward a more merciful and redemptive position by raising their grant rate of parole for long-term incarcerated inmates, and especially geriatric and infirm inmates who have earned the privilege.

As we are sure you are aware, many "old-law" inmates and geriatric inmates are languishing in Virginia's prisons. A large percentage are first-time violent offenders whose transgression occurred decades ago; all have been incarcerated for 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years or more. Many have family, financial and community support, yet the Virginia Parole Board is reluctant to give them a chance at redemption.

Through your recent actions in restoring voting rights, and not just lip-service, it has become apparent that your moral compass points in the right direction. That said, will you please consider a directive to increase the abysmally low parole Grant rate and geriatric release rate in order that men and women, who have been locked up for over twenty years, be allowed to have a second chance? Many deserve a chance to live out their remaining years amongst their families, and make productive contributions to their communities, while not effecting Public Safety and simultaneously reducing our burden on the state.

Your legacy as Governor will already be noteworthy, and with God's help and your continuing resolve on these issues, we are certain it will be exemplary.

Once again, thank you for your initial attempt at restorative justice through the voting rights issue, and thank you in advance for your furtherance in these matters in the near future.


A concerned inmate

Here's the link to email your message to the Governor:

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Yes, God Is Just Like Jesus

I used to think Jesus loved us unconditionally, but God the Father did not.
"The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God..."
- Hebrews 1:3a (NLT)

"Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
    He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation..."
- Colossians 1:15 (NLT)

"Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” 
- John 10:37-38 (NIV)

I grew up seeing Jesus as the tender-hearted and grace-demonstrating member of the Trinity, in contrast to the Father, who represented the harsher and demanding side of God, and who was more about wrath and judgment.

This thinking was partly influenced by some of the views of atonement that became especially dominant in later Christian history, those that portray God and Jesus as being in some ways opposed to each other. In other words, Jesus' suffering and death were primarily about satisfying our Father-God's anger toward us, and of God's need for justice for all of the wrongs we have committed.

In this view Jesus is seen mostly as our chief attorney and bondsman, the only one who could provide a way for a holy God to justly declare our sins forgiven and atoned for.

And that is certainly one way to read the text.

But another is to see God as the very one who loved the world so much that in Jesus God's heart of divine mercy and grace is being poured out in response to the world's most violent evil and worst rejection. So even in his suffering and crucifixion Jesus is none other than the most trustworthy of all representations of what the eternal God is really like.

This conviction was further reinforced by a sermon I heard recently at the worship service we attended with our daughter and family in Rochester, in which Pastor Scott Austin stressed this same conviction that God has always been, and will forever be, just like Jesus.

I don't have all of the answers as to how we interpret every text in the Bible through this interpretative lens, such as passages that exhort God's people to annihilate their enemies, but I'm increasingly convinced this is true.

Here's a song Pastor Austin composed on this theme, one I post with his kind permission:

Jesus, It Is Only You

Jesus, it is only you
I look for, and at, and through
Every shadow, each hard loss
Is cast in light shed by your cross, 
    is cast in light shed by your cross

There is no hymn, no creed nor verse
No prayer I utter, well-rehearsed
No doctrine that is half so true
As knowing God by knowing you, 
     knowing God by knowing you


Only you, only you, Jesus it is only you
Only you, only you, Jesus it is only you
Any moment spent in dread,
Every Canaanite who bled,
My fear and doubt, all war and strife
I see them through your death and life, 
     I see them through your death and life

And when I draw my final breath,
Gasping, grasping life to death,
There’ll be no more to pray or do
But plead and hope and trust in you, 
     plead and hope and trust in you
I plead and hope and trust in you

Refrain (2x):

© Scott Austin 2014

Here's a link to a series of three sermons Pastor Austin preached on this theme, the third of which deals with texts in the Hebrew Bible that portray God as vengeful:

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Politics of God--A Paraphrase Of Psalm 146

In today's poisonous political climate, it's important to take this passage from our upcoming Sunday lectionary to heart. When all of our current chaos is behind us, we will finally realize that only the politics of God really matter.
Rallying Cries At God's Campaign Rallies

Praise Yahweh! Praise Yahweh!
All of us with united voice shout praise to Yahweh!

The Pledged Delegates' Loyalty Pledge

We pledge allegiance to Yahweh as long as we live.
    We proclaim God’s praises with every breath.
We will never place our confidence in other heads of nations;
    We will never trust in them for help.
We know that when their brief time is over,
    that all their vain promises will evaporate with them.
But our unwavering confidence is in Yahweh our supreme commander-in-chief,
    our hope is in the Creator and Lord of all,
Lord of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them,
    who keeps every promise forever.

The God Party's Party Platform

Yahweh brings about justice for the oppressed,
    offers food for the hungry.
Yahweh frees prisoners
     opens the eyes of the blind.
Yahweh lifts up those who are downtrodden
    loves the godly and upright.
The Lord protects refugees and immigrants,
    cares for orphans and the homeless,
    but frustrates the plans of the wicked.

The Lord will reign forever
    and will remain faithful throughout all generations.
Praise Yahweh!

- paraphrase of Psalm 146