By: Chris Warren.
The other night I was pulled in by a television biography about Michael Franzese, the son of an organized crime boss. Young Michael diverted from a promising career in medicine to work for his father in the “family business,” or cosa nostra as it is commonly called. It was a true story about a man’s life in the mafia, his repentance, and redemption. I am satisfied that Franzese’s criminal career is over; his life of redemption is an unfinished story that others should examine carefully and learn from.
Back in the 1980’s, Franzese had a conversion to Christianity and gave up his decades-long criminal career. This was quite a bit more complicated than simply cutting old ties, getting a straight job, and moving on. No one really “quits” the cosa nostra. In mafia culture, it’s a disloyalty punishable by death. It’s understandable to question Franzese’ sincerity about his new beliefs. Do these guys ever really change? That Franzese knew there was a very real chance his decision would get him killed suggests that he really meant it when he renounced the mafia and his high status in it.
Since then Michael Franzese has at least outwardly lived as an honest, law-abiding citizen, earning a legitimate paycheck as a Christian author and motivational speaker. It seems odd that a guy who made a career as a criminal now maintains a comfortable lifestyle writing books and talking about his time working in a criminal enterprise. His income, while completely legal, has a provenance in mob activity. In that regard, I guess there really is no getting away from the mob.
Michael Franzese is strange collection of conflicts: No matter how deep into sin you go, you can always repent and change your ways. Still, given his background, it’s a stretch to take a guy like Franzese seriously. I respect him for his contrition even as I would be wary of him personally. Franzese is, after all, a convicted mobster. He’s never going to shake that, and forgiveness does not mean pretending that the wrongdoing never happened. All forgiveness means is that the aggrieved will no longer harbor anger. It is mainly for the benefit of the offended.
We who believe the Bible commands us to withhold judgement because we are all unworthy sinners find a difficult moral test in Michael Franzese: Both divine rule and human logic gives us more than enough reasons to cast him off as a wicked man; yet Christianity also says to accept a man’s remorse on the condition that going forward he obeys civil laws and lives an honorable life. The mafia is surprisingly similar to a church or religion: It’s a top-down organization that demands unequivocal devotion, has clear rules, and a penalty system for breaking the rules. Looking at it that way, it’s easy to see how Michael Franzese could easily make the jump to Christianity. Both the mafia and the Church have the same basic internal structure, but with very different end goals and means of achieving them.
As hard as it may be, I am obligated by faith to give Franzese the benefit of a doubt and show him the same respect I would give any fellow believer. It bothers me that he has probably committed crimes for which he was never punished, and the punishment he did receive for known crimes was in my opinion not harsh enough. Still, I am neither God nor the court system, so the decision of whether or not justice has been served is not mine to make. I never thought I’d be in the same “mafia” as Michael Franzese, yet here we are. There is a Power infinitely greater than any criminal organization working deals behind the scenes, transforming hearts and minds, and reminding me that I’m something of a conflict myself: No more worthy than the next guy, even when the the next guy is a wise guy.