Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dr. "Chip" Skowron and the meaning of justification by faith

There was a lot of Internet buzz in Christian circles in the Northeast about the bus filled with members of a men's prayer group going to Foley Square in NYC for the sentencing of Dr. Joseph "Chip" Skowron. They went, their spokesman said, to support the recent convert and "to pray for mercy and grace."

I knew about the conversion and the bus, but until I read the news accounts I had no idea how truly dreadful Dr. Skowron's financial crimes were, how intentional they were, how extreme and calculated. He was an orthopedic surgeon, a very lucrative specialty, but that was not enough for him. He kept going with the insider trading and the lies, along the way acquiring a $7 million house in New Canaan for himself, his wife and their four children.

The deal reached by prosecutors and defense allowed him a sentence of five years in return for pleading guilty. His family and supporters wept openly in the courtroom. What were they weeping about? the prison sentence? the fall of a highly-placed physician? their own losses? Whom or what exactly were the prayers for "mercy and grace" intended for?

Can there ever be anything wrong with praying for mercy and grace? No. Is anyone too far gone for redemption in Christ Jesus? No. Should we not pray for prisoners? Of course we should. Do we believe in justification by grace through faith? Most certainly.

Then what is wrong with this picture?

Maybe the prayers for mercy and grace, which came across as focused exclusively on Dr. Skowron, should have been hand-in-hand with prayers for justice. Maybe the men on the bus could have made a public statement, not only that they were praying for mercy and grace in Foley Square, but for a wholesale cleansing of the sickness of the financial institutions which have brought the United States so low. Maybe they could have made a point of the fact that they were not excusing Dr. Skowron's egregious criminality. "Mistakes" is the word commonly used today, and apparently that is what Dr. Skowron apologized for. Maybe his prayer partners could have said something about God's judgment upon Sin. even as they bore their witness to God's redemptive power.

St Paul virtually never uses the word "forgiveness," which is surely intentional on his part. The word he uses is dikaiosune, ordinarily translated "justification" but better translated "rectification." The word in Hebrew and Greek also means "justice." Therefore, when Paul speaks of justification by grace through faith, he means not only forgiveness but also being set right.

Dr. Skowron says that he has turned over his life to Christ. That's a good beginning. Fifteen years from now, we will see how genuine this conversion is. Will he continue to refer to his crimes as "mistakes"? Will he still focus largely on his own need for "healing" (an ill-suited word for what he needs--how about repentance and regeneration?) Will he learn to see the victims and the sweeping damage that he has done--not only to his wife and children, but to the entire capitalist system?

I realize this sounds somewhat harsh, but so do the Hebrew prophets and our Lord himself when speaking of those who disregard the "little ones" in order to line their own pockets. There is a lot of sentimental thinking about mercy for white-collar criminals. Where were the buses full of Christian supporters for the dozens of recently exonerated poor black men who fought and struggled for decades on death row to maintain their innocence of the crimes for which they had unjustly been incarcerated?

The details of the Skowron case can be readily accessed on the Internet; here are two links: