Archives For Brian Stolarz

Because for years, it didn’t.

Brian Stolarz is one of my best friends. I’d do anything for him and he’d take a bullet for me. Brian worked for years to free Alfred Dewayne Brown, also a friend now, from death row in Texas after Dewayne was falsely accused of a cop-killing, his IQ test ginned up, and exculpatory evidence withhold by the prosecution and police. You can read Brian’s story in his book Grace and Justice.

Brian recently preached a sermon on Ephesians 2 based on his experience. Here it is:

Thank you for giving me the amazing opportunity to be here today.  I’m honored.
I’m also not a professional pastor so please excuse me if I mess up. Just know that my heart is in the right place! You are blessed to have a guy like David here. He is a true rising star.
I love this church and all it stands for. I love it so much that I slept on the small couch in the office  last winter during hypothermia season and it was the best night sleep I’ve had in a long time because I felt the love from this place.
So I’m here today to tell you about a personal story that showed me what God’s grace is all about and what today’s sermon is all about.  I’ll also let you in on a secret.
So I’m a criminal defense lawyer.  I used to be a public defender.  I’ve defended hundreds if not thousands of people charged with crimes from stealing a pack of gum from a store to murder.  Some were innocent some were guilty and I learned some very important lessons – no one is as bad as their worst act and and everyone is worthy of redemption and a second chance.  And everyone is entitled to a strong defense.
Let me tell you about one of my favorite clients – Bike.  I was hooked from that day on.
I left the public defenders office and worked for a large firm in dc.  I got a call one day from a senior partner asking me to handle a death penalty case pro bono.  I jumped at the chance.  And I met the client who changed my life, Alfred Dewayne Brown.
Dewayne was convicted of capital murder of a Houston police officer and was sentenced to death.  He professed his innocence the first day I met him and despite the fact that most of my clients lie to me I believed him.  I felt it way deep down. A truth I felt deeply.
I want to say out front that I’m against the death penalty.  One of my personal heroes is Sister Helen Prejean. She taught me that every life is sacred even those on the Row.  I am glad that the Pope has taken a strong stance against the death penalty.  It’s not for the state to kill a person.
Not only am I opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons but also for legal ones.  I didn’t see a lot of wealthy white people on death row or that many white people for that matter.   Most were minorities and didn’t have the funds to pay for counsel.  Sister Helen says those without the capital get the capital punishment.
Many are wrongfully convicted like Dewayne.  Some have died at the hands of the state and later found to be innocent.  It is a disgrace.
Today’s scripture says that we were dead by our trespasses.  And the death penalty is one of those trespasses.  Those who support the death penalty are supporting a system that is unfair and unjust and against the teaching of Jesus to forgive 70×7 and to forgive those who trespass against us.  Killing someone to say that killing isn’t right would make Jesus shake his head.
Fortunately after 8 years of work and 12 years and 62 days of Dewayne being confined he was released.  And how was he released? The prosecutor and the police officer in the case hid exculpatory evidence which was found in all places in the homicide detectives home garage.  Not kidding.  He walked out a free man on June 8 2015. One of the best days of my life after the day I met my wife and the birth of my kids
I wrote a book about it.  Entitled Grace and Justice on Death Row.  For those who have the means you can buy it.  For those who don’t I’m donating a copy to the church for anyone to read and experience.
The case changed not only Dewayne’s life but it changed mine.
 Folks say I saved his life but he saved mine.   He showed me Gods grace. He forgave his captors.  He forgave his trespassers.  He said on the courthouse steps that he has no hate in his heart for what the state did to him.  He is moving forward in his life and doing great.  He taught me so much by this.
He also taught me the value of perseverance even when times are hard.  I was not sure I was going to be able to get him out and I worried I would watch him die.  The testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Dewayne wrote in the book I’m donating to the church – keep going when times get hard.  How beautiful of a lesson is that?
 Galatians 6 says “let us not grow weary of doing good.  For in due season we will reap if we do not give up.”  I didn’t give up.  He didn’t give up.
And here’s he secret I was telling you about.  And turns out the secret has to do with roller coasters.
I love theme parks.  My wife thinks I’m dumb but put me at Busch Gardens or Hershey Park and I feel like a kid again. And last year when I took my middle kid we bought a “fast pass” so that we could cut all the lines. It was awesome.  We rode the log flume 6 times.
You see I thought growing up that I thought I had to store up a bunch of good deeds so when I walked into the pearly gates of heaven I could show my good deed resume and would be a shoo in for the eternal life in heaven.  I even had that thought when Dewayne was released.
I was so wrong. Couldn’t be more wrong actually.  I have and you have already been saved.  We all have a fast pass to heaven already.  We are saved by grace through faith. And the good works we all do or aspire to do? We don’t do them to get into heaven or get God to like us. We are already in his favor-we are as the reading says Gods handy work.  Created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Which God prepared in advance for us to do. He set the stage for us to do good works.
I read recently that grace isn’t grace if its earned. Grace is always free.  Always.
So do good works. Answer the call to do good when the call comes.  Not to get into heaven but to what god has made each and everyone to do and to praise his glory. And preservere when times get hard because grace wins every time.
So it turns out I already I have my fast pass to heaven.   I pray that you do too.
I just hope heaven has cool roller coasters.
May God Bless you today and always.
Brian

Modern Reformation Magazine has featured my essay on atonement and wrath about my friend Brian Stolarz’s work freeing Alfred Dewayne Brown, who is also now my friend, from death row in Texas.

You can read Brian’s book Grace and Justice here. The theme of wrath as it relates to Dewayne’s case is even more pertinent now than when I wrote this as the Houston Chronicle recently broke the story that the DA in the case intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence from the very beginning of the case. To wit, the institutional racism was such they so didn’t give a damn about an innocent black man’s life they were willing to damn him to death.

Here’s the piece:

Like many upper middle class mainline Protestants, which is to say white Christians, I’ve long taken issue with the concept of divine wrath, believing it to conflict with the God whose most determinative attribute is Goodness itself. Whenever I’ve pondered the possibility of God’s anger I’ve invariably thought about it directed at me. I’m no saint, sure, but I’m no great sinner either. The notion that God’s wrath could be fixed upon me made God seem loathsome to me, a god not God.

I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. Or, rather, my friend, Brian Stolarz has changed my mind. When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, thanks to Brian, I no longer think of myself. My mind goes instead to Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client.

Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas. Dewayne had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case; in fact, the evidence which could’ve proved his alibi was hidden by prosecutors and only discovered fortuitously by Brian, years later. Dewayne was released by the state in the summer of 2017.

Meanwhile, Dewayne has a civil rights case pending to seek restitution for the injustice done to him. To seek rectification, biblically speaking.

I spent about a half hour alone with Dewayne this fall as we waited for his presentation, with Brian, to a group of law students. I’ve worked in a prison as a chaplain and interacted with prisoners in solitary and on death row. Like my friend, Brian, I have a good BS radar. Dewayne was unlike the prisoners I’ve met. My immediate reaction from spending time with him was how difficult it was for me to fathom any one fathoming him committing the crime of which he was accused. My second reaction was to feel overwhelmed by Dewayne’s expressions of forgiveness over the wrongs done to him by crooked cops and lawyers, a prejudiced system, and an indifferent society. ‘I’ve forgiven all that,’ Dewayne told me in the same sort of classroom where lawyers who had turned a blind eye to his innocence were once trained into a supposedly blind justice system.

Here’s the crux of the matter, and I use that word very literally: Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, “The Question of Justice,” we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. The cross is more properly about God working justice.

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Rutledge reminds her readers, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s Magnificat, and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God. And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

Rather than forgiveness, Rutledge asserts, we see on the cross God’s wrath poured out against Sin with a capital S and the upon the systems (Paul would say the Powers) created by Sin. On the correspondence between Sin as injustice and God’s wrath, Rutledge cites Isaiah’s initial chapter:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow… Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you…

Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and needs to be put right. The Sin-responsible injustice of the world requires rectification (Rutledge’s preferred translation for ‘righteousness’).

Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how God chooses to do it. God pours out himself into Jesus and then, on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and, in doing so, upon the Sin that unjustly nailed him there.

Summarizing the prophets’ word of divine wrath in light of the cross, Rutledge writes:

Because justice is such a central part of God’s nature, he has declared enmity against every form of injustice. His wrath will come upon those who have exploited the poor and weak; he will not permit his purpose to be subverted. [CITE]

Despite the queasiness God’s wrath invokes among mainline and liberal Protestants, how could one think of Alfred Dewayne Brown and not hear the above lines as good news? The example of Dewayne Brown points out the problem with the popular disavowal of divine anger; namely, what we (in power) find repugnant has been a source of hope and empowerment to the oppressed peoples of the world.

The wrath of God is not an artifactual belief to be embarrassed over, it is the always timely good news that the outrage we feel over the world’s injustice is ‘first of all outrage in the heart of God,’ which means wrath is not a contradiction of God’s goodness but is the steadfast outworking of it.

The biblical picture of God’s anger, Rutledge shows, is different from the caricature of a petulant, arbitrary god so often conjured when divine wrath is considered in the abstract. ‘The wrath of God,’ she writes, ‘is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.’ Put so and understood rightly, it’s actually the non-angry god who appears morally distasteful, for ‘a non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.’

Maybe, I can’t help but wonder, we prefer that god, the one who is a passive accomplice to injustice, because, on some subconscious level, that is what we know ourselves to be: accomplices to injustice.

I did no direct wrong to Dewayne Brown, for example, but on most days I’m indifferent to others on death row like him. The inky facts of injustice are all over my newspaper but I don’t do anything about it. I try not to see color even as I neglect to see it through the prism of the cross. I’m not an oppressor but I am most definitely an accomplice. Odds are, so are you.

Perhaps that is what is truly threatening to so many of us about a wrathful God; we know that the Bible’s ire is fixed not so much on the hands-on oppressors as it is against the indifference of the masses.

As Rutledge points out:

,,,in the bible, the idolatry and negligence of groups en masse receive most of the attention, from Amos’ withering depiction of rich suburban housewives  (Amos 4.1) to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34) to James’ rebuke of an insensitive local congregation (James 2.2-8).

As Brett Dennen puts it in his song, ‘Ain’t No Reason,’ slavery is stitched into every fiber of our clothes. We’re implicated in the world’s injustice even if we like to think ourselves not guilty of it. Rutledge believes this explains why so much of popular Christianity in America projects a distorted view of reality; by that, she means sentimental. Our escapist mentality protects us not just from the unendurable aspects of life in the world but also from the burden of any responsibility for them.

Such sentimentality, however popular and apparently harmless, has its victims. They have names like Alfred Dewayne Brown.

Having a friend like Brian and having met someone like Dewayne, I’m convinced we risk something precious when we jettison God’s wrath from our Christianity. We risk losing our own outrage.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion might’ve convinced all on its own:

If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ.

To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.

 

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2016 — Leave a comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nMy friend Brian Stolarz spoke at my house last night for a book-signing party about his new book Grace and Justice: The Race Against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man.

Elections have consequences. A consequence of this most recent one is that it’s now much less likely the death penalty will be abolished and now more likely that people like Dewayne, without people like Brian, will die unjustly.

Here’s the video. Check out his book here.

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  September 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nMy friend the poet, writer, and undertaker Thomas Lynch likes to say that Christians are those people who show up. Show up, he doesn’t need to add, when shit gets real.

According to Tom’s measure, my good friend Brian Stolarz is one of the best Jesus people this side of the first dozen. Brian showed up for me in ways I can’t begin to convey when I learned I had this cancer, and, before me, Brian showed up Alfred Dewayne Brown, an inmate on Texas Death Row.

My oncologists kept my heart beating and my lungs breathing, but Brian is one of the people who kept me alive when I expected to die. Brian is also the one who showed up when Dewayne was scheduled to die for a crime hardly anyone even bothers anymore to argue he committed.

Brian tells the story of Dewayne’s unjust conviction and his own laborious journey to D’s exoneration in his forthcoming book, Grace and Justice on Death Row: The Race against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man. 

I love Brian like a brother, and I’ve spent a weird amount of intimate time with Dewayne Brown. They’re both honest, and honest about their experience working together and then working towards a reversal of Dwayne’s connection.

Below is an excerpt from Brian’s book.

If you’d like to hear him speak, check him out this Thursday at the African American Hall of Fame Project. 

Intro

I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him. He was a 25-year-old, soft-spoken gentle giant with a 69 IQ living in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston. Polunsky is where Texas houses people before it kills them. In 2005 he had been sentenced to die for the murder of a police officer, and he had been living on death row pretty much ever since. I was working for K&L Gates, a high-powered mega-firm in Washington DC, longing for a case I could be passionate about. I had worked for a couple of years as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York. It was a steady parade of fallible, devious, and occasionally innocent people, most of whom were short on money and shorter on luck. I felt something at Legal Aid—passion for my work.

In and out of the precinct houses, holding cells and courtrooms I developed a more than functional “bullshit meter” about people accused of breaking the law. I can usually spot a lie or a liar better than a polygraph operator. I don’t mean to brag, but just this one time I’ll quote the late Muhammad Ali who said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” I’m not bragging, I’m just saying after one look, I had absolutely no doubt—none—that Alfred Dewayne Brown had not committed the heinous crime for which he had been convicted and for which Texas was going to kill him.

When I left the Polunsky Unit an hour later, I promised Dewayne I would do my best to get him out of there. I also tried to both fight back tears and to keep from being sick to my stomach. I was grateful for the chance to save his life but scared it might be too late.  The gravity of the situation set in instantly. I did not go to graduate school to save lives—that is what doctors do. But now I was given the opportunity to save one, and I was determined to do it. In fact, it became my legal, personal, and religious mission to do so.

But, I could not ward off the thought that I might one day travel to Texas, stand behind a glass window, and watch a group of my fellow citizens carry out a medical procedure to end his life against his will. I was sick thinking I might have to watch. I vowed to my wife that if I watched him die I would hang up the law license forever and go start a pizza parlor. I am from New Jersey, after all.

I had a lot of work to do. At the Houston airport a few hours later, I was waiting for my flight, lost in thought about just how much work it would be, when I was accosted by a friendly, toothpick-wielding woman offering free samples of her cuisine around the food court. Unable to resist, I ordered and devoured some of her best General Tso’s chicken. I cracked open my fortune cookie. “You love challenge,” it said. I laughed and looked up to a ceiling painted with fake clouds. Was this some kind of divine but sick joke? I put the fortune in my wallet, where it remains to this day next to a picture of my three kids.

I know your initial reaction to all of this is to say, “Yeah, sure, all the people in prison say they are innocent.” Hell, even members of my own family didn’t believe me when I came home from Texas and said he was innocent. Believe me, I would be the first one to tell you if he were guilty. Many of my current and former clients were, in fact, guilty of what they were charged with. But, in that one moment, that first time I met him, something rocketed through to the deepest part of me; he didn’t commit this crime. I understand your hesitation. Maybe you have your own BS meter. Come along with me on this ride and you too will see what I saw and felt, what I feel. This man is what I believed him to be from the very second I saw him—innocent. And he would have died if there was no one to stand up for him.

Excerpt from Chapter Called “Family, Faith and Growth”

And we went to church. A lot. I basically lived at my grandparents’ church, Blessed Sacrament in Paterson, New Jersey. If I sat through mass with my grandmother and behaved myself and said all the responsorial psalms correctly, I got one dollar. My grandparents’ house had religious artifacts all over the place, with a huge Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, and a large poster of Jesus over their bed. We went to bingo nights, tricky trays, fish frys, community service projects, and many special events at the church. I was too young to fully realize it, but that parish formed my religious foundation.

Once during the decade-long effort to exonerate Dewayne Brown, I left the prison where he was being held. A church group was passing out bibles to the public and fish platters to the prison staff. The prison staff was “Doing God’s Work,” proclaimed a banner draped over a table.

I asked if I could have a fish platter. They asked me if I was a prison guard. I said I was a defense attorney for one of the men on death row. They looked at me like I was Satan himself and pushed the fish platters back away from my hand. Instead of a platter, they handed me a bible. One woman recommended I read it to my client before he went to the Lord.

I didn’t want to say what I was thinking: that a benevolent and just God would probably not be cool with the execution of an innocent man, or anyone for that matter. I wished I had the right biblical passage I could throw back at her but I didn’t. I wish I had said that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind and that I believed in the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and love each other and seek redemption and forgiveness, and in Saint Francis who taught me that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. I just took the bible and said thank you. That night I read some Psalms and some New Testament passages in my hotel room, and I went to sleep thinking about Dewayne (as I often do) and (as I also often do) my religious upbringing.

I loved growing up in the Catholic Church, first at my grandparents’ church and then my family’s church, St. Mary’s, a Franciscan parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. At St. Mary’s, I met the men who shaped my spiritual life, Father Michael Carnevale and Father Kevin Downey. They taught me about life, love, tolerance, and how to serve others. When I got married many years later, Father Mike came to Dallas to officiate my wedding. He delivered a thoughtful sermon about love and perseverance, saying that “love is the fruit of the struggle,” and then, because he was a wiseass like me, he turned to the crowd and said, “I now present Mr. and Mrs. Anna Stolarz.”

Growing up in a Franciscan parish had a huge impact on who I became and what I value in life. The parish took the foundation I had from my grandparents’ church and formed my Christian spirit. I felt alive every time I was on the grounds of my church.

Saint Francis of Assisi is my favorite saint for his dedication to serving the poor. We have a sign in our home that is an excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis that says, simply, “for it is in giving that we receive.” And I make sure my kids try to live their lives that way in their daily actions and in church service projects.

Before we had kids, Anna and I went to Italy for two weeks and made sure that we stopped in Assisi just to see and feel the holy ground where he lived. And, of course, it is very cool that Pope Francis chose his name after Saint Francis. I was fortunate to get a ticket to the Papal Mass at Catholic University in September 2015, and I was five feet away from him when he processed in.

My time at Catholic University Law School in Washington DC in the 1990s clarified and solidified my desire to continue my religious mission to serve others while using my skills as a lawyer. It was why I became a public defender in Brooklyn, why I always did pro bono work when I was in private practice at the law firm of K&L Gates, and why I do pro bono work today. And I will always do it.

I received an award in 2007 for taking the most pro bono cases for indigent people from the Catholic Charities Legal Network, a division of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington that places cases for needy individuals with volunteer lawyers. In 2014 I received the Caritas award from Catholic Charities, the highest service award the organization gives in service to the poor. And I am very fortunate to have Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington as a trusted client. Father John Enzler is the CEO, and he is one of those unique, wonderful shepherds who is focused on service to the poor and needy and says that when it comes to service: “say yes every time you can and no only when you have to.”

But I didn’t, and don’t, do pro bono work for awards or recognition. I just think it is a duty of any lawyer to give their talents back to those who can’t afford a lawyer. It’s that simple to me. It is the perfect confluence of my legal training and my religious upbringing. And it makes me feel alive inside every time I do it. Pope Francis said that “we all have the duty to do good,” and my duty was to Dewayne. That duty was why I stayed with his case until I hugged him in 2015, why I love him like a member of my own family today, and why I thank God every chance I get that he is out of prison.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Justice-Death-Row-Innocent/dp/151071510X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461681239&sr=8-1&keywords=brian+stolarz

 

Cancer is Funny: Blurbs

Jason Micheli —  September 17, 2016 — 5 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALOther than a headshot for the dust jacket, my book with Fortress Press, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo,  is all finished and due out 12/1. Stay tuned and, if you’ve not already, you can pre-order it here. And if you know someone touched by cancer in some way, make sure they get one too.

One of the humbling humiliating experiences of book publishing, I’ve discovered, is asking other people not only to read your book but also to blurb it. I can only liken it thus: “Will you take me out on a multi-hour date? Oh, and pay for it, too?”

I realize there’s no way to share these without humble-bragging, but some of my reviewers went out of their way to provide not only thoughtful but emotional blurbs for Cancer is Funny. I thought I would thank them by giving them a shout-out here on the blog before you can see them on and in the cover of the book.

Drumroll:

“What gets lost in all the stories about the decline of religion is how many people have left church because they find its leaders uninspired and institutionally minded. Jason Micheli is neither. He is as funny as he is smart and both come through in refreshing, irreverent ways in Cancer is Funny. If you’re spiritual but not religious or if you’re religious but have forgotten how to be spiritual, Jason Micheli reminds us that God can be found in the world beyond the Church, even in incurable cancer. And Jason shows us with raw candor that wherever God is to be found, joy and laughter are possible.”

—Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution

“Jason Micheli is one of the most hip, funny, deeply-theological-without-being-boring pastors in my church today.  Jason is an engaging, always substantive-without-being-showy communicator of the faith.  Now that he’s got Stage Dangerous Cancer Jason’s wit, faith, and genius turns even that tough journey into a pilgrimage toward God.  Only Jason could transform cancer into a source of comedy but also a great occasion to teach the rest of us how to think like Christians about life, sickness, death, and God.  Jason is able to do this because he, as much as anyone I know, believes in a living, redemptive God who is with us, in good times and bad. A funny, faithful book.”

– Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and United Methodist Bishop, retired.

“Jason Micheli is the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. It takes a lot of courage to keep faith with God while you’re saying, “Fuck you cancer, and your little tumor Toto too.” But not only does he keep faith; it deepens because he becomes a theologian of the only theology that matters—the theology of death and life, you know, the theology of when shit gets real. Writing with the wit and brutal honesty of Annie Lamott, Michelli takes his readers on a shakedown cruise of pain, suffering, and discovery where we all meet God, perhaps for the first time. Get this book, bitches.”

– Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religion, Elon University

“Illness creates loneliness but Micheli resists that development by sharing his struggle with cancer. He does so with good humor which is not only a gift because, as he suggests, cancer is only funny in a tragic way, but also the most fundamental quality for a well-lived and faithful life.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University

If smart-ass humor is the best evidence of fighting spirit, Jason Micheli is Charles Bronson of cancer patients. He disrupts all the cliches of cancer chronicles: he’s not old or saintly and peddling comfort or resolution. He’s a preacher who’s not at peace, a GenXer who acknowledges that irony is his security blanket. Staring down the barrel of a life-threatening disease, he proves that irreverence can be the flip side of faith.

— JC Herz, author of Learning to Breathe Fire

“Sometimes you read a book you have to finish. Sometimes you know you have to read it again. On occasions you read a book that makes you think, laugh, drop some tears, & want to grab a drink with the author. Jason has done that, plus I have a list of people who will be getting this book as a gift. If you love solid theology, powerful testimony, & a text you will ruminate over, you will love this book.”

– Tripp Fuller, author of The Home-brewed Christianity Guide to Jesus

“Coming to terms with death ain’t easy. And yet, as Jason Micheli says, none of us is getting out of life alive. Thankfully Jason Micheli has given us a surprising book like Cancer is Funny, which, it so happens, is as hilarious as it is thoughtful and deeply faithful. Cancer is Funny is funny. It’s also personal and reflective, urgently so. It will not only teach you about yourself, it will teach you about God too. A riveting journey through the suffering that, as he puts, God may or may not be doing to him- a question everyone of us has asked, or will some day soon. Don’t be fooled by the title. Suffering, it turns out, can lead to laughter because you can’t face death without rediscovering the wonder of life.”

– David Fitch, BR Linder Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary and Author of Faithful Presence

“Don’t let the title of this book fool you.  It’s about cancer, and it’s funny, but it’s also profound, honest, and deeply faithful.  Jason Micheli is one of the best theological communicators I know.  This book will move and instruct everyone who has a mortal body and a questioning spirit.”

– Dr. Kendall Souled, Professor of Systematic Theology, Emory University

“Cancer Is Funny is a stunning monument to human perseverance and divine grace amid the specter of finitude. The very fact of its construction, like that of the ancient pyramids or the Taj Mahal, is as improbable as it is awe-inspiring and beautiful. The result is a wonder to behold. Jason Micheli is that rare Christian minister who serves up truth unvarnished, live-blogging with graphic honesty his experience of ingesting deadly poisons designed to spare his young life, against sobering odds, from an unforgiving cancer. Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers. There is turbulence ahead. Prepare to laugh and cry. Prepare to live and die.”

– Robert C. Dykstra
Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

“Put down that outdated magazine in your oncologists office! Cancer is Funny will take you on a journey from Jason’s mind all the way to the inner parts of his body that ends up revealing his soul.   Jason lays himself bare so that you can look, laugh and feel better during the often faith-testing, twisted ride that is cancer. What is funniest is that this book will grab you and remind you of what matters in life.”

– Brian Stolarz, Attorney and Author of Grace and Justice on Death Row

 

 

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  June 20, 2016 — Leave a comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nFor the sermon this Sunday, I sat down with my good friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz, and the innocent man he got off of death row, Alfred Dewayne Brown. Dewayne is only the 13th exonoree from the state of Texas. Not only is it a story of Brian’s incredible challenge and the injustice done Dewayne, it’s also a story of the Church- both the big C Church that formed Brian into believing that the death penalty is unethical and our local congregation that sustained him during the decade he spent trying to free Dewayne.

Brian’s and Alfred’s story is told in Brian’s forthcoming book, Grace and Justice. Check it out on Amazon here.

Here’s the sermon:

Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.

 

Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.

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And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.

 

I hear it all the time, mostly at parties and social gatherings where I’m more likely to run into non-Christians. Often I end up on the receiving end of it at funerals, hearing someone’s grief channeled through anger:

‘I don’t need someone else to connect me to God.’

‘I don’t need a church to tell me how to live my life.’

‘No,’ I normally qualify, ‘you don’t someone like me necessarily. But you need someone.’

Moral absolutes get a bad rap in the antinomian landscape we’d rather call postmodern.

As Americans, we instinctually believe it to be our birth right to decide what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. To have an organized religion tell us what is right and wrong- and train us into those beliefs- strikes us as deeply unAmerican; never mind the fact that the organized religion we call America is the institution who indoctrinated us into the belief that we should decide right and wrong on our own.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas repeatedly echoes: rp_faith4.jpg

“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story.”

The consequence of living in a nation where you’re indoctrinated into believing that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story is that you’re more likely than not to attend a church that’s gun shy about indoctrinating you into a counter story.

And so in most contemporary churches, the mood is more often one of comfort than challenge.

When it comes to ethics, the focus in churches is on conversation rather than catechesis. The extent to which churches are shaped by the belief that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story can be seen in the cliches we use to describe churches as moral communities.

We want churches, we say, that ‘live into the questions’ (rather than learn the wisdom of the saints).

We prefer churches where our youth will be able to ‘make up their minds for themselves’ (even though we’ve not trained them into having minds worth making up).

Faith, we say in progressive churches, is about ‘exploring the question’ while in conservative churches we say similarly that faith is about ‘making a decision for yourself Christ.’

The problem with not wanting the Church to indoctrinate you in to its answers of right and wrong is that it ignores the fact that right and wrong conduct is grounded in the kind of people we are, the traits of character we have.

What our American religious ethos obscures is that morality- ethics- is not                        what we do or decide.

It is who we are.

People of virtue, people with good character, moral people are those who tend to do the right thing and to do it rather easily or without effort or agony; to do it naturally.

Bad people, however, habitually do the wrong thing and the worst without even agonizing about it because they no longer have the character sufficient to discern or choose the good.

This is auspicious news, for any parent knows we are not born with the particular traits or character we come to possess. Virtuous traits of character have to be acquired or “learned.”

The moral life is learned, an apprenticed art.

What the Church calls ‘catechesis.’

We become the kind of people we are through only through other people- through practice and training under other people. As Thomas Aquinas taught, we acquire habits by repeatedly acting in particular ways until the attitudes and dispositions related to the act become our own, become reflexive. According to Aquinas, only people with the proper training and mentoring, only people shaped by appropriate traditions and stories, are likely to do the right thing.

Exhibit A: My friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz. images-1

Brian, a lawyer, has written a book, One Big Setup, in which he tells his story advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Brian’s decision to take the pro bono, career-harming death penalty case was, he writes, reflexive.

Why?

Brian writes that he grew up Catholic in Jersey, going to Mass every week; as a result; he grew up just believing- knowing- that the death penalty was wrong.

Why?

Because that’s what his priests and his Church drilled into him. That, and the fact that you’re supposed to stick up for the poor.

And so, when it came to make a decision about advocating for Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian writes that it wasn’t really a decision at all. It was something more like a reflexive yes.

A habitually-conditioned response.

So much so that when Brian looks back with the benefit of hindsight, he’ll honestly say that if he had to ‘choose’ all over again he’d probably decline the case.

To show that this isn’t just an abstract theological excursion, that there’s something at stake in the Church catechizing Christians into the moral life, that there’s something at stake in the Church failing to do so…

brownalfredExhibit B: The Texas Appeals Court just overturned Alfred Dwayne Brown’s death sentence.

(You can read about it here)

The face-saving State will now try to request a new trial for which it now has no evidential basis.

Thanks to Brian.

And the many, many years and sacrifice and tears he gave to Alfred.

So the next time some couple wanting to get married or baptize their baby tells me they want their ‘children to decide for themselves when they grow up’ I’ll tell them about Brian and tell them the stake are much too high to let them let their children decide for themselves.

images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

– One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

– Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

hobby_lobbyWhile corporations are now considered people- religious people- under the law (I hope all corporations start tithing now), prisoners on death row continue to be deemed less than creatures under the law.

They can be killed.

To teach us that killing is wrong (let’s hope they were guilty).

For profit entities that bring you cheap wicker baskets made possible by child labor (not to mention population-control policies which incentivize abortion) are now more of a ‘person’ than the flesh-and-blood people behind bars, the former eliciting more of our empathy and moral outrage than the latter.

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison a morally afflicted CEO and you came to visit me.”

You wouldn’t know- at all– from the media coverage, but while SCOTUS handed down the Hobby Lobby decision activists, Christians and clergy gathered this week on the front steps of the Court to protest the death penalty.

Chances are you’ve heard plenty about the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby and how they’ve been praised for taking a principled stand for Christ.

RNS-CLAIBORNE-COLUMNChances are you haven’t heard anything about this Christian quietly walking across Texas to show his solidarity with those his state plans to kill in the coming months and years.

That you might have only heard about the protest here speaks volumes about the holes in our Christ-centered compassion.

Christian culture is sex-obsessed, singling out a few discrete issues around which to hoist the banner of ‘life.’

Protestants would do well to learn from our Catholic friends who insist that disparate issues like abortion, poverty , healthcare and executions all belong to a single ‘seamless garment’ of life.

My own United Methodist tradition nears schism fighting over our official language labeling homosexuality as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Little commented upon is the fact that our Discipline also views the death penalty as black-and-white at odds with the Gospel, for the death penalty

“denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.” 

Translation:

In the death penalty we stop God from doing what God wants to do in people.

Change them.

That half of all United Methodists and many of its clergy support state-sanctioned killing in violation of our Discipline receives not one iota of the indignant moral outrage these days reserved for clergy presiding at same-sex unions.

Pastors aren’t brought up on charges for supporting the death penalty in the face of church teaching.

Sex is just sexier.

Plus, it requires less of us where Jesus’ requisites are concerned: that we love sinners.

Or at least begrudgingly admit that Jesus loves them.

On the front steps of the Court today you’ll find people who hold many moral and legal reasons they oppose the death penalty:

There is no way to remedy mistakes. 

There is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. 

Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary 

The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

The death penalty is an expression/confession of the absolute power of the State. 

Even the guilty have a right to life. 

CrucifixionThe reasons are many but for Christians there’s a single primary motivating view.

It’s a view, I would argue, that cuts closer to the quick of the Gospel than do the drivers behind the other competing issues which preoccupy Church and Culture:

The New Testament teaching that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.

It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness.

God says in the Old Testament that vengeance belongs to him.

Only in the New Testament do we see how literal God meant it.

For in Jesus Christ God bears the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross.

Here’s my sermon interview with a friend and death penalty attorney, in case you missed it:

 

16 CARAVAGGIO 02 THE SERMPON OF STEPHEN

 * The Stoning of Stephen

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* The Beheading of St. Paul

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* The (Upside Down) Crucifixion of Peter

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The Woman Jesus Refuses to Condemn to a Legal Execution

(aka: The Woman Caught in Adultery )

St Andrew Apostle

* The Whipping and Crucifixion (on an X-Shaped Cross) of Andrew

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* The Stoning (and Clubbing) of James, Jesus’ Brother

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* The Execution (by Arrows) of Jude

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* The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

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* The Hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

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God’s Mercy for Cain by God (Following the First Murder)

 

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* The Execution of Jesus (aka: God Incarnate)

* = Lawful executions of innocents carried out by the official governing bodies of the time

Untitled9This weekend we began our summer sermon series, Songs of the Messiah, during which we’ll look at how Paul uses the Psalms of the Old Testament throughout his argument in his Letter to the Romans.

The texts this weekend were Psalm 98 and Romans 1.16-17, Paul’s thesis statement.

To get at the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in scripture, a word whose meaning can get lost religious-speak, I invited a friend to join me for the sermon, Brian Stolarz. I’ve written about Brian on the blog before.

imagesBrian is a defense lawyer who has written a book, One Big Setup, about his experiences getting Alfred Dewayne Brown off of Death Row in Texas.

I’ll add the text of the sermon when I have it but you can listen to the audio below or in the sidebar to the right.

You can also download it in iTunes here.