A New Identity, a New Life

Posted on February 1, 2020

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Not too long ago I was listening to a John Grisham novel in my truck somewhere along Interstate 65 on way up to or back from Tennessee. It was a pleasant way to pass few hours “dead” time for me, just dodging cars all zooming along a lot faster than me going my plodding 70MPH, kind of one step ahead of the truckers, although some of those guys in their eighteen wheelers are flying too.

The novel was a good mystery, as Grisham novels tend to be, and among the elements was a maybe-crook, maybe-not-a-crook who was negotiating with the FBI, trading some information the Feds wanted for the witness protection program. Grisham, an experienced trial lawyer himself who knows how to research, described the witness protection program in detail. It got me started on my own research into the program.

For the information traded–their testimony against drug traffickers, terrorists, organized crime members and other major criminals–, the client of the FBI was to be protected for life, given a new identity, and transferred to another part of the country. There he was set up as a person so different from the original as to be completely protected from harm or danger resulting from her testimony. Let’s include the women so they don’t feel left out.

The success rate is astounding. No participants in the program, and there have been over 8500 witnesses in the program since it was established in 1971, have been killed or harmed while under the active protection of the U. S. Marshalls who administer the program.

I then began wondering: what is this like for the witnesses? What if I were stripped of everything I am familiar with and sent somewhere far away to a new life, new car, new bank, new backyard, no friends, new job, and a new church?

Then I switched gears to Scripture. Doesn’t Christianity teach something like this?

Sure it does. Repent and start anew. Reach out and accept the salvation message of Jesus and be “born again.” Ergo, the witness protection program in the Spirit! Only this time you are being “protected” from your old self.  

In the Witness Protection Program witnesses and their families typically get new identities with authentic documentation. Everything is taken care of from housing, subsistence for basic living expenses and medical care.

But I was still left with the nagging sense that I’d hate to be stripped of my old life, my friends, my family, my memories, even those I tend to argue with. A man without a memory comes to mind as lost, and most certainly lonely. Isn’t this what different forms and levels of Dementia and Alzheimer’s produce? An old childhood friend of mine in Peru, with a Peruvian mother and a Swiss father who sent him off to Europe for his university education, called it “el aleman,” or “the German” malady beginning to afflict him mildly. Leave it to a Swiss to blame the Germans.

The witness protection program and the born-again experience share the understanding that your memory, and what you did in the past, is as much a part of you as your present circumstances. When Jesus was asked several times in his ministry–what must I do Rabbi to enter your Kingdom of God? –Jesus invariably said to repent and be born again. He didn’t promise to protect his listeners from past sins and behavior. Rather he pointed them forward. Recognize your sins, repent, be baptized and follow him. The result was as astounding then as it is today.

Compared to what punishment God frequently inflicted on the Hebrews when they strayed from his rule and his words, Jesus didn’t shower his listeners with a terrible retribution laid on the Hebrews by God. Jesus instead preached love, held up hope, and assured his disciples, acolytes, followers of all stripes that it was faith and grace, not following rules, which secured one’s salvation. Sinners repented, tax collectors became honest, and even persecutors, like the Apostle Paul, were turned on their heads by the appearance and promise of Jesus in their lives.

They weren’t whisked away into secret spaces by the U. S. Marshalls of the Witness Protection Program after testifying in court to bring the bad guys to justice. Jesus asked them all—bad guys and witnesses–to accept and act on the truth, then broadcast the Kingdom to others, and spread the Gospel, translated as the Good News, throughout the world. See Matthew 28:19.

If you haven’t already made your New Year’s Resolutions, it’s never too late. Put the old bad self aside—you don’t have to be quite as threatened as those entering the witness protection program—and replace some of the old bad habits with good ones. As I tell my “congregation” in the Tuscaloosa County Jail every Tuesday evening when I join a bunch of other Christian men and women in our ministry, “I’m preaching to myself as well as to you.” Amen.

BTW, if you want to know more, or join, that ministry, send me a note to my email below and I’ be glad to help.

Published as “Witness protection for the soul,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan. 5, 2020.