1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
8 Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent, a time when the community of faith follows in Jesus’ footsteps to the cross, a time when we consider what needs to die in our lives so that we can embrace the abundant life of God that is ours in Christ’s resurrection.
But if 10-year-old Liz had to explain to you what the season of Lent was all about, she might have said something like: “I’m not supposed to eat chocolate right now because I am remembering that Jesus died on the cross for me, and 40 days without chocolate is what I get for being the one who killed God.” While I was growing up, no one came right out and said that, OK, but I had the deep sense when I was young that the Lenten season was about punishing myself now so I could remember Jesus being punished on my behalf back then. The underlying assumption there was that God needed someone to punish for the harm I’d done, and Jesus was the person for that job. And underneath that assumption was the idea that the only way to address harm in this world is through punishment.
American society is full of signs that we have embraced the idea of punishment as the best way to address harm. This is one of the reasons that the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, while it has around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. (World Prison Population List, tenth edition, by Roy Walmsley.) This is why in Cowlitz County we spend close to 70% of our total municipal budget on policing, jails, and criminal prosecution, despite a long-standing and ever-growing body of evidence that none of these investments heal the harm that has been done or prevent future harm. This is why “cancel culture” on social media has gone beyond rightly holding people accountable to a place of erasing a person’s public presence and casting them out of the community the first time they say something hurtful and harmful. This is why when my friend hurts my feelings, I feel the urge to punish them with the silent treatment instead of being vulnerable with them about the harm I’ve experienced. This is why even my inner self-talk is so full of shame when I make a mistake, because our society and the church have reinforced over and over again that when harm happens, punishing ourselves and others is the right way to respond.
But what I hear in this Psalm this morning is someone longing for another way. “Do not let me be put to shame, do not let my enemies exult over me.” “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” I hear someone crying out to God, seeking a reminder that God’s way is indeed different than the way of our world. God’s way is one that does not cancel, shame, or punish when we perpetrate harm towards others and ourselves. Instead, God’s way is a response of both truth and compassionate care. “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness…” In this Psalm, the person praying reminds us that God’s response to the harm we do, for which sin is another name, is two-fold. God holds us accountable in love by showing us “what is right,” and then God draws us closer, spending time with us to teach us a new way to be, a new path of “steadfast love and faithfulness” to walk, a new way to live.
One of the places I’ve seen God’s way of addressing harm lived out is in the restorative and transformative justice movements. These movements reject punishment and control as the means for addressing harm, drawing instead upon communal processes, truth-telling circles, reparations, and other tools to address harm that happens around them. Restorative justice seeks to make right and heal the harm done. Transformative justice goes a step further, seeking to change the conditions of poverty and oppression that were the root causes for the harm in the first place. I read this week about Ethan Ucker, cofounder of an organization in Chicago called “Circles and Ciphers” that provides a “safe space” for teens “to discuss their conflicts with the community and with each other.” Maya Dukmasova, in her article about Ucker’s organization, writes that one such practice they use is called a peace circle, “a style of community meeting practiced by indigenous peoples around the world…. for centuries. The practice draws on the abolitionist notion that premodern methods of conflict resolution provide valuable alternatives to today’s overreliance on police and prisons. The organizers argue that plenty of cultures successfully addressed harm and practiced nonviolent conflict resolution before the invention of policing in the 1800s…” Through this restorative justice approach, “the desires of the people harmed are prioritized alongside accountability for those responsible.”
Take one concrete example from Ucker: “There was a robbery at this store in the community.” Ucker says. “One of the people at the store whose stuff was taken said ‘Look, I don’t want to call the cops. Is there anything else we can do? … They found on Facebook that this young person was selling their stuff, and that young person happened to go to a school where we’d done some circles, so I knew a teacher at the school and could say ‘Hey, this is where we’re at.’ Eventually…” Ucker says, “robber and robbed were brought back together. That young person ended up returning what he had that hadn’t been sold, and then working at the shop in restitution for everything else,’ Ucker says. ‘Then it turned out he really liked working there, and after this agreement was over, he continued to go there and volunteer. There was a relationship built there.” (“Abolish the police? Organizers say it’s less crazy than it sounds.” By Maya Dukmasova, chicagoreader.com, August 25, 2016.)
Our God is a God of restorative and transformative justice. When we harm others, God’s heart is to tell us the truth, to remind us of God’s good and upright ways in the hopes of wooing us back into community, walking us on a path that will help us learn the way of Jesus. Because as we walk the path to the cross during this Lenten season, we remember that death-dealing forces of punishment died on that cross. Jesus was lynched on that tree for resisting an empire that sought to control people for profit, and instead of lashing out to punish those crucifying him, Jesus poured out his love in the fullest way he knew how – with his very life. Our God could have walked away from us for all the harm we have done, but God gave Godself to us as a gift instead, committed to taking the time to teach us a different path to walk on, a path God blazed long ago, a path of steadfast love and faithfulness. And now we are free – free to welcome instead of exile, free to embrace instead of ostracize, free to teach a healing way, God’s way, instead of seeking punishment, free to imagine a world where absolutely no one is thrown away and where everyone has a place at the table.
So during this Lenten season, may we remember that we have a choice in how we respond to harm individually, as a church community, and as a society. This Lenten season, let’s take time to contemplate the ways we have invested personally, professionally, socially, financially, and spiritually in systems and ways of being that prioritize punishment. Let’s ask hard questions about our commitment to the existence of prisons and policing. Let’s dig through our patterns of punishing others when they harm us and punishing ourselves when we make mistakes. And may that time of reflection lead us to repentance, which simply means to turn around and go in a new direction. May we embrace God’s way of telling the truth, making things right, and walking on a new pathway towards healing. Let’s join God in imagining and building a world where this is possible. And when we realize that this transformation won’t happen overnight, may we be bold, radical, and humble enough to cry out to our God just like the Psalmist to teach us this way of being, a way of liberation. Amen.