Notorious Conversions

What are we to think when drug traffickers and child killers profess Christ?

Moments before Westley Allan Dodd was executed by hanging at the Washington State Penitentiary earlier this year, the convicted serial child killer was given the customary opportunity for last words. Here was a man who had viciously abused and mutilated three young boys, a man who said he would do it again, a man who said there was no hope he would ever be released from the hideous darkness within his soul.

His final words came as a shock: “I was wrong when I said there was no hope, no peace,” Dodd said. “There is hope. There is peace. I have found both in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

According to an eyewitness, the father of two of the boys murdered by Dodd “hissed quietly” when Dodd invoked the name of Jesus.

No one can fault this father for his contempt and skepticism. Until then, Dodd had shown no remorse. He would mutilate and murder again, he said, if not put to death.

Honest evangelicals will admit to the same disbelief when they hear that a Dodd or a Noriega—or 20 years ago a Colson—turned to Jesus and found forgiveness. Though we claim that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13), we act as though the gospel is for really nice people.

When nasty is nice

In reality, it is much harder for the nice to find salvation than for the bad to turn to the Lord. C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is … a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during his life on earth: he seemed to attract ‘such awful people.’ ” Take Zacchaeus, for example. Jesus’ encounter with this tax-gathering cheat is the context for his statement that the “Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Scripture is not only filled with “who would have thought?” conversions, but a fair number of skeptics as well. Saul of Tarsus was a “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” Ananias wondered if such a man could ever be changed by grace. But even this “worst of sinners” was shown mercy and was able to write later with credibility, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

If it seems strange that grace can rescue child killers and drug traffickers, we have not begun to fathom God’s ocean of mercy. Nor have we peered long enough into our own hearts, for even as I write this, I am searching for explanations to the grievous moral failures of several Christian friends. The answer comes only when I truly believe God saved a wretch like me, not just a nice guy with a few problems. Without Christ, we are really no different in God’s eyes from the murderer on the gallows.

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Hearing that a notorious criminal has professed to find forgiveness, hope, and peace in Jesus Christ should not surprise us. Instead, it should cause us to rejoice, as we reconsider the miracle of God’s mercy and grace—wide and deep enough to cover everyone’s sin, mine especially.

Years ago, I met a Methodist minister who worked in the inner city of Bristol, England. Asked what he did there, he replied, “I minister to the last, the least, the lonely, and the lost.” That was precisely the mission of Jesus, who has asked us to do the same.

Guest editorial by Luis Palau, a Portland, Oregon-based evangelist who has spoken to more than 10 million people in 60 nations.

A Tax We Can Live With

Can you name a respectable American industry that:

• kills more than a third of its long-time customers;

• kills, every year, another 53,000 involuntary users of its product;

• paves the way to marijuana and cocaine addiction;

• gets 90 percent of its new customers from the ranks of children;

• spends $500,000 an hour hawking its deadly merchandise?

The answer, by now well known, is the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry can be called “respectable,” however, only in the sense that American politicians—and American religious leaders—still shrink from denouncing it and acting to restrain it. The industry’s money comes from mayhem—not the lurid mutilation of the battlefield, to be sure, but the deliberate ravaging of the human body nonetheless.

Tobacco is known to be lethal when used as intended. About 435,000 Americans a year die prematurely from smoking-related diseases. During the nineties, some 3 million people a year, worldwide, will die from such diseases.

Tax the rascals

With the evidence against tobacco growing rapidly, the international tobacco-control movement is growing, too. And now, among U.S. antitobacco advocates, a consensus has emerged on the next strategy for fighting back: excise taxes, or taxes meant to limit a product’s use as well as to generate revenue.

In January, leading health advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., for a conference entitled “Tobacco Use: An American Crisis.” Shortly before, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the tobacco smoke inhaled by everyone who shares an enclosed space with a smoker to be a Group A carcinogen, a substance known to cause cancer in humans.

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The announcement, adding federal weight to the case against “involuntary” smoking, heightened resolve. But it was not only the energy that was palpable, it was the widening agreement that a substantial increase in federal and other excise taxes would raise revenue and, even more important, save lives.

State and local governments are broke, always looking for ways to raise new revenues. Yet total taxes per cigarette pack, expressed as a percentage of the retail price, have fallen by half since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report gave wide publicity to the dangers of smoking. Taxes then accounted for 50 percent of the retail price; now they account for less than 25 percent.

Among developed nations, U.S. cigarette taxes are, along with Spain’s, the lowest of all. Expressed in U.S. currency, total taxes per pack come to $4.07 in Denmark, which has the highest total, and to $3.26 in Canada. Japan’s relatively modest total is $1.06 per pack. In the United States the total is 46 cents.

The potential for raising revenue is obvious. And one reason to focus here is that the annual cost of health care and lost productivity associated with tobacco exceeds by several times the less than $10 billion collected each year in total tobacco excise taxes.

Cutting consumption

But excitement about increased tobacco excise taxes turns most of all on their proven effectiveness in cutting consumption. Higher prices lower demand, especially among teens, overwhelmingly the key source of new customers for the tobacco pushers.

In Canada, combined cigarette taxes jumped from 46 cents per pack in 1980 to $3.26 in 1991. During that time, cigarette consumption fell faster than in any other major industrialized nation. Teen smoking fell by approximately two-thirds.

Lower consumption meant better health—fewer illnesses, fewer premature deaths. A January 1993 report of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health advances a “conservative estimate,” based on research so far, that “a $2 per pack tax increase, maintained in real terms, would prevent roughly 2 million premature deaths.” It would do this “by discouraging young people from beginning to smoke and by encouraging some current smokers to quit.” The number of lives saved, the report went on, would be greater than “American losses from all wars combined.”

Participants at the January conference in Washington agreed to push for a $2 per pack increase in the federal excise tax on tobacco and a $1 per pack increase for the various states. They called for grassroots support of higher tobacco excise taxes and summoned the churches to involvement.

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But only one religious organization, the tiny Interreligious Coalition on Smoking OR Health, participated. More groups and denominations are speaking out, but many, including some of the largest and most influential, are still silent.

Why? The life-affirming faith of Scripture surely invites a struggle against the death-dealing principalities and powers. The tobacco industry is not life-, but death-affirming. If a higher excise tax, besides raising badly needed money for American health care, can save millions of lives, the churches should trumpet their support like angels.

Guest editorial by Charles Scriven, president, Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.

No Comment Department

According to an Associated Press wire story, “people who want to plant notes to God in the Wailing Wall can now do it by fax.” Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, considered to be Judaism’s holiest shrine, is the site of thousands of prayers each day, and its crevices are stuffed with hundreds of notes seeking divine intervention. The special fax number was set up by the Israeli national telephone company, and a phone company employee will deliver God’s faxes to the holy site.

No, the number is not 1-800-FAX-YHWH. Nor is it 1-800- anything. A call to the number from the American Midwest costs about $3.00 for the first minute.

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