Scammed and Mugged

Romans 12:9-21

Romans 13:8-14


Living in any age is a challenge to practicing our Christian ethics of love our neighbor, where our neighbor is everybody. We can be taken advantage of or be the victim of any number of crimes. How are we to consider the victimizer? But more importantly how do we trust strangers and not be constantly suspicious of them?

It is a sad way to live if we must go through life isolating ourselves from people we do not know or from services we do not understand. Our lives become more isolated, but more importantly our spiritual lives are diminished by that isolation.

I raise this because I and my family of been victims of scams and muggings (hence the title). It takes a lot out of you emotionally and spiritually. It’s important to be very intentional about coming to terms spiritually with our imperfect and sometimes dangerous world.

Just this summer we were victims of an Internet scam. We had four cats. The oldest, a female was not a happy cat with this arrangement. She did not like the two males we had and they definitely didn’t like her. She was the oldest and probably felt her space had been violated. Nonetheless, she was messing up the house terribly. The males often would corner her and attack her. This summer it escalated and we decided to adopt her out.

We went the way of the Internet and posted an ad on a legitimate site that she was available for adoption. We were anxious to get this done since she was so unhappy. We quickly received an e-mail from a mother who wanted her as a birthday gift for her daughter. They lived out West. She was very generous. She wanted to pay us and also donate money to a local animal charity. She was arranging for a pet mover to pick up our cat.

Now here’s the alarm that I missed: She forward me a large check with which to pay the mover who now was transacting business via e-mail. The mom wanted our cat by the weekend, very short notice. She asked that we wire via Western Union the money to the mover. It was a very large amount of money, but less than the check she sent. I naively followed her instructions even though it seemed very strange I had to be her agent and banker.

Then the pick up time arrived and I receive another e-mail from her that she had to postpone the delivery because she had more items to be transported by the mover. She would send me another check to wire to him. I stopped at the point. I had the good sense to refuse this next step.

Subsequent to that communication, I talked with my son who works in the Internet business and said it was all a scam. Very likely the first check that I received and deposit will bounce and I will be out of the money I wired. I contact my credit union who asked for information and that I file a police report. Sure enough the check bounced and I filed a police report. They took it quite seriously and started an investigation.

Now we were upset about losing the money. But more so we thought we were helping this woman by providing her young daughter with a pet. We were pleased that our cat would go to a good and loving family. Now we realized it was all a lie.

How can we now trust anyone transacting business on the Internet? Indeed, how can anyone be so blatantly cold and insensitive to use such a lie to cheat someone else? Behind the faceless, disembodied Internet were real human beings that preyed on other humans. How do they fit into our Christian ethic?

(By the way, we sent our cat to our daughter’s apartment where she is doing very well and has found a new home.)

St. Paul admonitions us in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good … Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer … Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. … never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them … for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And later in Chapter 13, he continues, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another …’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor…”

So where does Paul’s Christianity leads us? It starts with hate the crime and love the law-breaker, and goes from there. Paul is reminding us that God is love and all human beings no matter how wrong in their actions are children of God. And God loves them too.  We are not to demonize the person. We are not to think they are something less than human. Even when someone cheats us, or bullies us, or lies about us, they are still a child of God and by God’s grace will receive God’s love.

We are to stand apart from their wrong-doing, separating the wrong-doer from the crime, condemning the crime and praying for the reconciliation of the wrong-doer. If we succumb to vengeance or to doing wrong to the wrong-doer, then we have stepped out of the love of God. We are no more right than the original wrong-doer. And our spirit and soul are diminished, constrictive … and no doubt we would regret such behavior. Rather we are not to forget that he or she is still our neighbor and we are required to return love for hate.

This doesn’t mean that we let the wrong-doer go free. Indeed, at the start of Chapter 13 of Romans Paul talks about the need for government and how God works through the government, its duty of maintaining law and order and our need to pay taxes to the government. So we are expected to work with law enforcement to deal with the wrong-doer. What we must demand from government, though is justice for that person… for the wrong-doer to be judge by the crime he or she committed, not by their economic status or their race or their gender or their nationality.

But how can we imperfect humans rise to God’s perfection. Well, we can’t. We can only try and do the best we can. We will succumb from time to time. But what God expects of us not to give up, but when we do succumb to vengeance or giving “evil for evil”, God expects us to seek forgiveness and not repeat it. We are to move on always trying our best no matter what we did in the past.

Yet, particularly when the scam is over the Internet, it is very easy to not see a child of God behind the crime. The only contact we had with these “children of God” was the impersonal e-mails. As far as we could tell, it could have been a robot scamming us.

About ten years ago, I was mugged on my lawn. The mugger was capture within a couple of hours and I was able to see him as a real human being with a name, a history (although a very sad one) and family connections. That was a difficult time, but looking back at least there was a flesh and blood human to confront and to make some sense out of the crime: he was a drug addict from a poor neighborhood. He made very bad choices … and it was his choice, one he did not need to make … and now he is in prison.

It was a lot easier to feel sadness and sympathy that this human being had fallen into such a life and be able to pray to God that others would avoid his choices. But with an Internet scam where are the flesh and blood humans? They could be any place in the world. We will never see the humans behind this … although we know there must be at least one, since a human being had to pick up the money from Western Union.

But still there were one or more humans behind this whole upsetting episode. For me it helps to speculate what drove these people to this criminality.

There is a couple of possibilities:

One is that it was people who chose a life of crime who found a way to make a quick buck but could have used their skills for more legitimate work.

Another possibility is that it was people who live in desperate circumstances. They live in a poverty stricken area with little to no opportunity for legitimate work. And they’ve resorted this out of desperation to feed their families.

For one who has made an intentional choice to be a criminal and shunned legal work, we must ask why that choice? I suggest that the life they have chosen is inevitably a life of alienation and desperation, a life of secrets and lies. Such a life cannot be one of joy and enrichment and fulfillment. The good life is a life well-lived not in isolation and alienation from the human community, but engagement with the human community.

The criminal’s life is a de-humanized life. He or she must reduce other humans, their victims, to just objects, not flesh and blood … hence it is so easy to do on the Internet where one does not physically encounter the victim. But when someone de-humanizes another, they actually de-humanize themselves … they become less than what they can be. They cut themselves off from the web of life and their souls wither.

For someone who resorts to crime because of their socio-economic condition, they are hardly better off. We may be able to understand, even find sadness for them, because their condition was against them all along. But crime is always a choice.

For people in this circumstance they very likely have already been de-humanize and de-sensitized by their conditions. And without a doubt it is very difficult to rise out of that. Yet turning to crime simply deepens their de-humanization and they too will be lost to the web of life and their souls wither.

How sad that people resort to such scams and muggings. They leave behind anger and hurt and cut themselves off from the compassion and love of community. Indeed they are children of God still and God will always find room in God’s heart for them. As for we who suffer from their de-humanizing choices, we must have faith that the vast majority of God’s family is honest and true and active members in the web of life. We must not risk our own souls by alienating ourselves from strangers and the unknown. It is always a risk, but God offers us faith and God’s eternal presence.

So when it’s all done and over, we need to carry on. We need to have faith that God’s children are by and large honest and law-abiding. Indeed, we need to be more cautious and informed. But we must not become cynical, believing that the world is fallen past God’s love and care and is just one scam after another. If we let this overcome us, eventually we would just roll over and diminish. We miss the services available to us and the many opportunities of seeing life around us.

Life is a risk. God never promise otherwise. But God offered us faith. God offered us a promise of the divine presence always available to us. God says to us to love our neighbors no matter what and have faith that if we do that, in the long run at the final leg of our journey, we can look back and say we did the best we could to follow in Jesus’ and Paul’s footsteps. We tried to live our lives faithfully and honestly. We cared for people when we could and took the chance that our caring was truly needed. We did not give up.


Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …