taking the words of Jesus seriously

“My life is ruined.”

These words were uttered by Rod Blagojevich to Judge James Zagel on December 7 as he pleaded for mercy.  His life is ruined, with “nobody to blame but [him]self.”

Early on in my spiritual and political walk, I bought into the “law and order” brand of evangelical Christianity, supporting the death penalty and other harsh stances on crime.  Many American Christians, institutionalized to think this way, back tough laws and sentencing with one eye on the Law given to Moses and another on Paul’s reference to the state brandishing the sword to punish evil (Romans 13).  Recall those who cheered the Texas death machine at the presidential debate not too long ago?

As I’ve matured, I’ve rolled back my stances and looked more at the selfless character of Christ.  Now I could not serve as a judge or prosecutor—I think I’d be way too inclined to grant mercy.  I would put myself in the shoes of the defendant.  I would acknowledge that I too have no one to blame but I for my “terrible mistakes, ” as Judge Zagel called Blago’s crimes and pre-trial antics.  Christ implores us to consider our transgressions before lobbing stones at the accused (John 8).  Unlike Texas Governor Rick Perry, I would not be able to sleep at night knowing I could have stopped another person’s death with the wave of a pen.

As you craft your last-minute New Year’s resolutions, ask yourself: has there been a time in your life when you did something for you instead of considering its impact on others?  Have you made “terrible mistakes”?  My guess is that you can come up with several incidents—from today alone.  I sure can.

For me, when I read the red letters of Christ, I see only an ethic of selflessness.  Selflessness pervades Christ’s life and death and the Gospel message.  Christ stepped down into this world to absorb the result of our self-centered pleasure-seeking into Himself.  To borrow lyrics (“Off the Hook”) from the hip-hop group the Cross Movement:

“The Judge stood with the law book.  They all looked and saw what blew their minds as the one who made the law took off His robe and became the substitution.  Off we strolled to the place of execution.  Gave me a pardon, instead let them bruise Him; justified me and let the law accuse Him.  They gripped Him, stripped Him, whipped Him.  They saw thorns and picked Him, they sticked Him; He made Himself the victim.”

During the Christmas celebration we all gazed upon the infant Christ on numerous occasions.  But instead try to picture the Judge who took our humanity and our death sentence—the penalty for sin—upon Himself.  This is the greatest gift exchange of them all.  We bring Christ the same dollar store junk you gave your brother or coworker—a gift worth nothing—and Christ brings a gift worth the world.  Himself.

After spending this one last holiday with his family, Blago is scheduled to report for his sentence this coming February 16.  Would you step in and take Blago’s place in the slammer?  My guess is no.  According to media accounts he will spend more than the next decade scrubbing toilets for pennies.  (And we all know the other horrors that accompany prison life.)  But guess who would take Blago’s place?  Guess who did take his place?  Yeah, you know.  And He took your penalty and mine.  We’ve also made the same terrible mistakes.  They may not have been as public—maybe nobody knows about them.  But God knows.  He’s listening in on our phone calls.  He hears our very thoughts.

Imagine the three federal prosecutors in this case.  My guess is that they feel a real sense of satisfaction.  The judge handed down nearly the fifteen-to-twenty they requested.  But three years of their lives were devoted to what?  Putting a father of two young girls behind bars until he’s almost seventy?  Making a public spectacle that reminds us all why we hate politics and politicians?  You may say, “Blago did this—not the prosecutors.  They gave the public justice.”  But who wins here?  No one does.

I want my life’s purpose to be less about giving others what’s due them; and instead give others what God gave me this Christmas—mercy.  A way out of my self-centered ways.  A selfless example to inspire us all.

Maybe, in the end, this tough sentence will be a real gift for Blago.  Maybe he will see his transgressions for what they are, repent, and receive the real gift of the season—God’s grace for frail and fallen humanity.

And maybe you and I, too, will receive this gift as we begin a new year.  Otherwise, Christmas was vain and no different than the rest of our lives—just another opportunity to serve ourselves.  So to truly honor the gift of Christ, do something selfless this new year.  Let that car pull out in front of you, even if it will make you late.  Give up your place in the retail exchange line to the mother with three fussy kids.  Defer to another in the midst of a heated argument.  Better yet, continue the generous gift giving of Christmas in 2012.  Because homeless Americans don’t stop needing a bed and a meal now that the holidays are over.  Because the developing world’s poor don’t stop needing chickens and goats simply because Christmas is done.  In sum, give others the grace God has given you.  Let that be your New Year’s resolution.  I know it needs to be mine.

Joshua D. Ambrosius, Ph.D., is an urbanist, religionist political scientist who is completing a book manuscript titled A Politics of Selflessness, a rethinking of Christian political theory and action.  Holding graduate degrees in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Louisville, he is currently an assistant professor at West Virginia State University near Charleston, WV.  His latest research on religion and politics appears in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, downloadable for free at http://religjournal.com/articles/article_view.php?id=56.

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