Stanley Williams (1953-2005)
Ten years ago today, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams was executed by the state of California for the 1979 murder of four people. Williams was the founder of the notorious Crips gang, one of the largest and most violent of the many inner city gangs around the country that has caused so much death and chaos in many urban areas. Tookie Williams had been a bad boy and his actions have resulted in many ruined lives.
But, said his defenders who opposed his execution, Tookie was a changed man. He had become kinder and gentler. He even wrote books for children warning of the dangers of gangs. Others disagreed, saying he had not changed. He never expressed any remorse over the four murders, and some believe he continued to direct gang activities even from prison. Also, they said, he never cooperated in any way with the authorities by giving information to help in curtailing criminal gang activity. Who is right? It would be difficult for anyone not directly involved to make a judgment on how much he had changed.
But if a man like Tookie Williams really had changed, that would be of interest, especially to Christians. We believe in the power of God to change lives. After all, three of our biggest Bible heroes were involved in murder. Moses killed two Egyptians who were mistreating a slave. King David had an officer in his army killed after David committed adultery with the officer’s wife. And the Apostle Paul, before he was converted, stood by approvingly as a mob stoned to death Stephen, a leader in the early Church. But all three repented, all were forgiven, and all had their lives changed in dramatic ways.
We believe in the possibility of such change, but we do not want to be naïve. Anyone who has ever worked in prison ministry knows that jailhouse conversions are often phoney. But many times they are authentic, and as Jesus once said, there is great joy in heaven whenever a lost lamb is found or a prodigal son returns home. As Christians we pray for and rejoice in changed lives.
Sixty years ago there was another highly publicized change in a known criminal. Mickey Cohen was a major player in the world of organized crime in the 1940’s and 50’s. He spent several years in prison, but other times moved about freely and became a celebrity. Cohen was a charming guy and loved being in the spotlight.
Mickey Cohen (1913-1976)
One day Mickey Cohen announced to the world that he had become a Christian. Many people were thrilled. This big-time mobster was talking like a Sunday School boy, saying all the right things about how Jesus died for him and has now forgiven him all his sins. Mickey Cohen even had a highly publicized meeting with Billy Graham, though Graham wisely kept the contents of that conversation to himself. This kind of publicity went on until it started to become clear that even though Mickey Cohen was saying he was a firm believer in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he continued to run his organized crime ring as before. Finally, his pastor had a talk with him. “Mickey,” he said, “what are you doing? You are a Christian now. You can’t continue with your criminal behavior– robbing, killing, illegal gambling, prostitution, and all that. You have to obey Jesus now. You have to change your life. You have to live like a Christian.”
Mickey became very irritated with his pastor. He said, “What do you mean I have to change my life? Everyone kept telling me all I had to do was believe in Jesus, so now I do. And you said Jesus forgives me of whatever I do, right? So that’s that. I’m not going to stop what I’m doing. Are you crazy? This is my business. There are Christian football players, Christian cowboys, and Christian politicians– why not a Christian gangster?”
Everyone can see there is something wrong with that. We must not only enjoy hearing about changed lives, we must expect, even demand, such change; not only of others, but also of ourselves. Is Mickey Cohen the only one who has ever disregarded God’s clear commands, thinking to themselves, ‘Oh well, I know I will be forgiven’? Yes, Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, and yes, God loves us with an everlasting love. But if we believe that at all, we will certainly want to know what God expects of us and then be determined to do it. Remember, this is God we are talking about here, and God is big and eternal and powerful, and we are so little and weak and temporary. God does wondrously give his love and forgiveness freely to all sinners, including murderers. But the Bible says God will not be mocked. He will not stand for us abusing, ignoring, or despising his word and command. (continued…)
Luke 15:7 — (Jesus said), “…There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Galatians 6:7-8 — Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Leviticus 18:4 — “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God.”
Luke 11:28 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Save me Lord, you who have the power to save us all. Grant that I may long for and do those things that are pleasing to you and profitable for me. Lord, give me comfort in my anxiety, help in time of trial, solace when persecuted, and strength against every temptation. Grant me pardon, Lord, for my past sins, corrections of my present ones, and protect me against those in the future. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.
–Latin, 11th century