On April 27, 2017, off-duty border patrol agent and expectant father Dennis Dickey fired a high-powered rifle at a target packed with an explosive known as Tannerite. It exploded in a huge ball of blue smoke, indicating to the delighted crowd of friends that his child would be, in fact, a boy.
To put it mildly, things went downhill from there.
The explosion ignited a wildfire that wound up consuming 47,000 acres of land, much of it in the Coronado National Forest. The Sawmill Fire, as it came to be known, caused $8.2 million in damages before it was extinguished.
To his credit, officer Dickey reported the fire immediately. He confessed to everything, telling the judge repeatedly that the fire was “a complete accident.”
What a relief. Accidental fires don’t cause nearly as much damage as deliberate ones, right.
No, that’s not true, is it? One might say there is a moral distinction between the two, but that distinction is lost on the victims of the “accident.”
I have a great concern for our society, and this story brings it out. I fear we have been sheltered from the consequences of our actions — by parents, by government, by charitable organizations, and by the kindness and generosity of our neighbors. As a result, we engage in reckless behavior with no consideration of what the ramifications may be, particularly in a worst-case scenario. And in the unfortunate case of said worst-case scenario, we content ourselves with the purity of our intentions. Since we did not intend for disaster to strike (as though anyone ever does anything with the hope of disaster striking), we should not be held responsible for the disaster. Then, relieved, we continue on the same path and frequently create more disasters, none of which will we take responsibility for.
Christians delight in grace, and well we should. The idea of being forgiven for our blackest of deeds gives us hope and strength to endure in God’s service, no matter how ugly or constant our failures. But if we are not careful, we can “continue in sin so that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1). This shows a depressed sense of obligation toward God as well as those we may have wronged through our errant behavior. The last thing in the world that we need is “grace” with regard to the consequences of our actions. Regret is fine and good, but it does not do anything to repair the damage we have caused.
That is one reason why we leave our gift before the altar, as per Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 5:23-25, and make things right with a brother or sister in Christ whom we have wronged. That is why the good-intentioned thief was still required to repay fourfold (Proverbs 6:30-31). That is why the one who chooses, with or without knowledge of God’s rules, to enter into an adulterous marriage must cease his or her adultery (Matthew 19:9). It can be a hard lesson to learn.
The consequences of obedience may seem at first to be unbearable. But they are nothing compared to the consequences of continued rebellion.
Officer Dickey is being required to make restitution for the damage he caused, however inadvertently — a lump sum immediately, and continued payments for several years. That is just and right. Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t put leaves on trees or roofs on houses. Certainly there is a place for mercy, both within our legal system and in our dealings with one another. Thankfully we will stand before a merciful God when the time comes. But the hope of mercy before God’s throne is not a rationale for evading the short-term consequences for our actions here on earth. Hopefully our willingness to be held accountable will be a warning for the future, both to ourselves and to others.