Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Punishment and Grace

Ian Harris                    Otago Daily Times                    May 8, 2015

The Australian drug traffickers did wrong. But in killing them, punishment triumphed over grace, writes Ian Harris.

What a way to go! Ghastly, tragic, merciless, yet with a defiant air of resolution, peace, even hope, as two Australians faced an Indonesian firing squad 10 days ago [April 29], along with six others who had also smuggled drugs. They showed it by singing the hymn Amazing Grace as they stood, each tied to a cross with arms outstretched, awaiting the order that would end their lives. President Joko Widodo ordered their execution to send a message of ultimate deterrence: Smuggle drugs and you’ll die. This vicious trade causes incalculable harm, and Indonesia is serving up a vicious response. 

The Australians, Sydney-born Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, of Sri Lankan origin, accepted they had broken the law. If the justice system is all about punishment, they deserved to be punished. But human relationships include those between the individual and the societies they live in. They go deeper than merely staying within the law and taking the consequences if you don’t.

Relationships leave room for change, growth, “amendment of life”, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. They allow for grace – amazing grace – and by all accounts, that was Chan’s experience. As with Sukumaran, the man who was executed was not the man he’d been 10 years earlier. His life had been transformed.

Grace is a key concept in the Christian life-view. It lifts a person’s experience out of the mundane world of reward and punishment into that of generosity of spirit beyond anything anyone could ever say they deserved.

That’s why grace is amazing, and that’s why Amazing Grace was exactly the right hymn for the condemned men to be singing as they stood bound to their crosses. For it was written by a man who today would rightly be condemned as a slave trader.

This was John Newton, a libertine and very much a man of the world when, still in his twenties, he became captain of a ship carrying slaves from Africa to America. At 19 he had been press-ganged to serve in Britain’s navy, deserted, and when recaptured was publicly flogged. Transferred to service on a slaver, he had been brutally abused – the slaves even more so. Amazing Grace, written years later, refers to “a wretch like me”. It was an understatement. An unexpected deliverance from the perils of an Atlantic storm, which Newton attributed to God’s mercy, marked a turning-point towards a new way of life. Getting to know and respect John Wesley and other leaders of the early Methodist movement confirmed it. In 1764 he became an Anglican minister at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, and campaigned against the slave trade. 

Imprisoned in Bali, Chan had a similar transformation. He became a Christian, took a course in theology, and was ordained as a pastor. He led church services and, with Sukumaran, established a drug rehabilitation programme for fellow prisoners. Sukumaran, lured to drugs by the promise of a big pay-off, came to describe his arrest as “a blessing”. Three pastors and a priest who ministered to the eight on the execution field told how they sang Newton’s hymn in unison, “like in a choir”, including a verse that must have seemed written for them:

Yes, when this flesh and heart should fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace

Life beyond death? This was not the place or time to quibble over the reality or otherwise of an after-life. As the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in quite another context, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” This hymn speaks to the heart.

After Amazing Grace came Bless the Lord, O My Soul, cut short by the fatal volley of shots. Clearly, the hymns bonded the singers and gave them peace. With the Australians died four Nigerians, a Brazilian and an Indonesian. Those who put their trust in punishment will take a grim satisfaction from their deaths. But the death penalty is the most callous of weapons in the fight against crime. When prisoners have turned their lives around, as Chan and others had, incarceration has done its job and people of good will show mercy.

A British grandmother, also on Indonesia’s death row, commented: “The men shot dead today were reformed men – good men who transformed the lives of people around them. Their senseless, brutal deaths leave the world a poorer place.” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop added: “They were examples of hope and transformation.” The world needs more of those. 

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