Shon Hopwood (see the previous post) has had it pretty good, all in all. He came from a nice family. He was a high school basketball star. After his criminal conviction he lucked into the legal business, and is now a famous guy with a full ride to law school (his second college scholarship!) and a bright future ahead as a criminal and prisoners’ rights lawyer.
Shon is now a Christian, and attributes the good things in his life to “grace”, or the unmerited favor of God. But is it maybe a little more prosaic than that?
The first defining fact of Hopwood’s life is that he is a good basketball player. How good I don’t know, good enough to be a high school star in a small Nebraska town. That’s probably not very good in the greater scheme of things, but in the Midwest this is a very big deal, and it made him a popular, respected and well-liked young man, social capital that would serve him well later. His basketball skill also made him popular in prison, which made his life there a lot easier and greased the skids for him.
Hopwood was good enough to get a scholarship to a small college, where he promptly flunked out. He describes himself as “not going to class” and with academic standards for athletes as low as they are, that was probably all he needed to do. This shows lack of ability to discipline himself and plan for the future, and Shon would probably describe this as “sin”. But just as every good thing that happens to you is not grace, every shortcoming you have is not sin. Inability to function at school does not make you a bad person, it makes you a semi-skilled laborer.
Hopwood then joined the Navy and proceeded to drink himself not into merely a stupor, but into the hospital. Shon would probably again describe this as “sin” and that would be more accurate in this case. Along with inability to plan for the future this shows impulsiveness and addictive behavior, which are real bad news. Back home to Nebraska he went, without any education, job skills or the executive function you would expect of a 13-year-old.
Hopwood’s solution to this problem was bank robbery. When we think of a bank robbery, we think of a nervous man slipping a teller a note and walking away with maybe $1,000. Hopwood had watched too many movies, so he did “takeover” robberies where the robbers yell and threaten the employees and customers and clean out all the tills and the safe. In five robberies he got $200,000, a lot of money. Bank robbery is not a long-term career, but Hopwood was not a long-term planner. He was lucky to get away with a lot of money and lucky not to get shot in the process.
The American love of athletes is not Christian, it is an old pagan thing, historically most obvious in Greek culture. The American love of criminals is partly Christian. Hopwood was a nice boy and a star athlete from a nice family, so the idea he could be reformed made him a very sympathetic character to the community he had recently terrorized. He was thus in prison with a great deal of support back home, something few prisoners have. His athletic skills made him popular with other prisoners, something few prisoners have.
That he got involved in writing appeals is not really surprising. It’s something prisoners do, and Hopwood seems like a guy who is always looking for an angle. He had never shown any ability to organize his behavior in any constructive way, but he could see a payoff that was concrete to him. I’m not sure that I buy that he was some sort of legal prodigy. I think he is intelligent, and sociopathic, and thus legal reasoning made sense to him. The American love of the intelligent, manipulative criminal is not Christian, but seems to stem from social chaos- this was first seen post Civil War by ex-Confederate robbers like the James Gang, and became common again in the Depression. His case, or the case he worked on with Seth Waxman, went all the way and now Hopwood is a celebrity and a cause celebre.
Hopwood would describe all this good luck as “grace”, but I would call it “fortune”. I think fortune can be a good or a bad thing; Boethius thought it was always bad, and that it led men astray. I think Hopwood is being led astray. His repentance is shallow and pro forma. He claims not to remember his robberies. This may or may not be true; I think bad people actually have a way of erasing their bad behavior from their memory, because it’s unpleasant and inconvenient and interferes with their self-image. I think they also claim not to remember things, because they don’t want to talk about them. Under pressure, he made a half-hearted effort to contact his victims that amounted to nothing. He sees himself, and others convicted of crimes, primarily as victims. His focus is on the rights of felons and prisoners; his repentance would be a lot more convincing if he was persuading criminals not to stick guns in people’s’ faces, rather than helping them avoid the consequences when they do.
People supporting Hopwood would sternly remind me that I can’t know his true heart and I should not judge him. Maybe not, but I have a passable familiarity with human nature. Like many people who have done bad things, Hopwood seems to regard Christianity as a get-out-of-jail-free card; a way to say, “I used to be like that, but I’m not any more.” Hopwood does not seem to be impulsive and anti-social any more, but he is certainly as solipsistic as the guy who walked into the bank.
It’s a commonplace among evangelical Christians that forgiveness is costly; repentance should be costly as well, or it doesn’t mean anything. Repenting from sin means giving up a strong attachment, something not easily done. Frankly I don’t see Hopwood ever seriously reflecting on the harm he has done to others, because he is in a social system, called “Christianity” but not necessarily Biblically adherent, which makes forgiveness virtually costless. Shon Hopwood has gained the whole legal world, and the whole evangelical/liberal Christian world, but has he lost his soul?