I just finished reading Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller, Just Mercy, and I find myself unsure what to think. Not unsure whether it was a good book—it was. Not questioning the moral imperative for justice and mercy in equal measures, or doubtful whether these apply to me, middle-aged mom though I am. I am perplexed, I think, about what to do with this particular dose of wisdom. That our justice system needs reforming I am convinced. That “savage inequalities” persist all around is surely evident. But what to do?
This morning, while I took my kids to the pool, a boy I knew half a lifetime ago struggles under the weight Stevenson quietly and persuasively describes. He is not a boy any longer, but in my memory he is 12 years old, wearing a ratty tee shirt, glaring down at an incomprehensible worksheet. I sit by him at the counter, re-explaining, circling, trying to find a door into that tangled mind to let the light in. I sigh. He cannot read, and my efforts to help him have left us both frustrated. I remember so clearly the look on his face when understanding dawned from time to time, the same expression that widened his eyes when I explained to him the love of Christ. But did he really understand? Because even though he bowed his head with me one day to pray, a few years later he shot a man cold. He is one of the last juvenile offenders in the state of Colorado sentenced to life in prison. He is scheduled for release in the year 2082.
My young friend was one of those kids you knew would get in trouble. That set of his jaw when you called him out? The defiance and anger that simmered all the time? Here was a boy whose sister had been murdered, whose father was in prison, whose ailing grandmother raised him, scraping by. I’m sure he was called a bad kid and worse by the spread-too-thin teachers and social workers who framed his days. I’m sure they said he got what was coming to him. Was it just? Maybe. Was it mercy?
I try to think what would have been a better solution. Surely it is not merciful to overlook murder and mayhem, even if the surrounding story is a sad one. What about the victim? Easy to dismiss as a gangbanger, but truer to say he was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. Mercy doesn’t let wickedness win.
But justice doesn’t perpetuate injustice. We can and should aim for rehabilitation, spiritual renewal, hope. We have to address the gross abuse, wrongful convictions, unfair trials, systemic prejudice and pride of our land. But do you hear it, soccer moms? Here is the list of Things You Cannot Fix. Not a lawyer, law-maker, guardian ad litem? What can you do about the broken, breaking world?
Unflagging love is a brave place to start. Love with your votes, with your voice, with your eyes. Love with humility and second chances and compassion, unfatigued.
“Just mercy.” It’s the paradoxical signature of an equally just and merciful God. Imagine a person totally pure, whose hatred of selfishness, malice, greed, and dishonesty is a terrifying, fiery rage. Now imagine a person wholly compassionate, endlessly forgiving, and joyfully kind. Twine the two together and stand amazed. To uphold both justice and mercy is to be a little closer to Christ.
Isaiah 58 sings it clear:
…if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
I’ve written it before, in Thirty Thousand Days:
To love another person is only possible with Christ. The human heart can conjure pity, fondness, even kindness, but a real love that perseveres in the face of disappointment and does not dissolve into disgust must come from Jesus. Therefore, dare to love your enemy, and you will find your heart filling with Jesus. You will be a holy grail.
A life full of Christ cannot be a life free from suffering. Would you know Jesus? How can you begin to understand a life poured out like wine, a heart tipped out for the lonely world, and stand detached from love? Love will open your life to heartbreak. You will care when there is no rewarding return. You will see suffering and allow yourself to “suffer with,” for that is what “compassion” literally means. You will know rejection, loss, waiting, waiting. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns.
To love our neighbors as ourselves is like signing up to be a Red Cross nurse in the middle of a battlefield. We bandage, bring water, pull up the blankets. All around are the casualties of war, deprivation and danger. But like all the brave nurses in all the bloody battles, we press on, because love is stronger than death, hope shines brighter in the shadows, and joy comes in the morning. If this world is all there is, then we are to be pitied. But the day will come when darkness will flee, and all that is broken will be made whole. We fix our eyes on that day, and for now, we love.