I’m recently reading “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which is a deeply inspiring memoir of the activist lawyer, Bryan Stevenson.
He is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based organization working hard for vindicating or reducing the sentences of wrongfully convicted individuals. The book is about his stories from his years as a legal advocate for the most vulnerable people in America. The stories themselves are strong statements against racial and legal injustice delivered upon the marginalized, and the institutionalized prejudice at work in the criminal justice system.
The leading story of the book is the story of Walter McMillan, a young black man falsely accused of murder. Stevenson followed McMillan’s long way to justice until he finally got exonerated and freed from death row. He also touches upon many other stories. Among them, the most heartbreaking story was about three children of color, who grew up in horrible environments with all kinds of abuse, violence, deficiency, and got unintentionally involved in crimes. Although the crimes were either non-homicidal and even without any reported injuries, they were tried and convicted as adults and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, which is an unusually extreme sentence to such crimes. While they are imprisoned in adult prison, they are broken and devastated by the years of hopeless confinement, rapes, sexual assaults, unattended traumas and mental illness. It’s really hard to read their stories without tears. These stories are in one chapter titled, “All God’s Children.” This title made me shed tears.
From Stevenson, I’ve learned that there are thousands of children like them and thousands of wrongfully convicted people scattered throughout prisons in the United States, legally condemned, unknown and forgotten, with no help. I’ve learned that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in three black male infants and one in six Hispanic male infants born this century are expected to be incarcerated when they grow up. These factors unbearably disturb me. Throughout the book, Stevenson appeals to us…it is mercy that should be the beginning and the end of the legal process of punishment. We need “just mercy” in our system of justice, which gives people another chance, gives people room to be redeemed and changed, besides the due penalty they have to receive. Indeed, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he says.
As Christians, we believe in God who is love, who is ever merciful and gracious. And our prime belief is that Jesus Christ saves us although we are still sinners. Jesus Christ gives us new life, new chance, new light with his unconditional love. As the people who receive this grace, what can we do with today’s biased system of justice? And in our daily lives, what can we do with our judgmental mind that always seeks to identify even small sins and flaws of others without mercy?
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, we learn again who our God is. Ezekiel hears God’s voice demanding him to warn the Israelites who sinned against God. God asks Ezekiel to proclaim, “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us…how then can we live?” Then, carefully listen to what God says to him, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” (Ezekiel 33:10-11) Here we see the God who mercifully waits for the sinners to return from sinful ways. God doesn’t want them to be condemned, but God rejoices when they turn back and live.
In today’s Gospel reading, we also learn again who Jesus is. Jesus teaches us what to do with a member who sins against us. The first thing Jesus asks us to do is “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” (Matthew 18:15) But it is never that simple for us to go first, because we think it is the sinner who should come to us first and beg us for forgiveness. But Jesus commands us to go first, even with a ready heart to forgive and embrace the person again. Jesus says that if the person refuses to listen, go again with other members. If the person refuses again, go again with the church. After all these, then, you may pass judgment. Jesus’ way is simple: in any case of sin, give the sinner a chance, room of mercy to return and to be forgiven before judgment.
Who is our God? Our God is love. God so loved the world that God gave the only Son. And God is holding the judgment until the end of the days. Who is Jesus Christ our Lord? Jesus came to us first, forgave us, befriended us, and embraced us with his unconditional love. He is a good shepherd who leaves ninety-nine lambs on the mountain and goes in search of the one that went astray. Jesus says, “if he finds it…he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:12-14). Our God, our Jesus, never abandons any of us but goes in search of us whenever we are lost.
Believing in this God and this Jesus, what can we do with today’s biased system of justice? I think we should seek love and mercy in any social or personal ways of carrying out justice. And we should demand just love and just mercy that lead all of us to find forgiveness and redemption and to see one another as God’s creature in God’s image and in God’s blessings. Stevenson claims, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” I cannot agree more. Let us remember that our good shepherd wouldn’t mind risking his life to find only one lost lamb. As we follow this shepherd, people will know we are Christians by our love and mercy.
And in our daily lives, what can we do with our judgmental mind that always seeks to identify even small sins and flaws of others without mercy? In his book, Stevenson asks, “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’” Reading it, I immediately revised the question. “The real question of passing judgment on others in our daily lives is, ‘Do we deserve to judge?’” I believe we should practice to ask this question to ourselves at every moment we want to judge others. Do we deserve to judge? Sinners like you and me? Do we deserve to judge? The people who have received God’s love, mercy, and grace for nothing? Do we deserve to judge? Or are we called to love justly? As Christians, we are not entitled or qualified to pass judgment. But rather, we are only called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is searching for the least, the last, and the lost until the Day of the Lord. And out of all the marginalized and the sinners like you and me, out of all the falsely accused and harshly condemned, God calls God’s children and makes with them the kingdom of unconditional love. This amazing grace of God calls us today to join its transformative history. As the redeemed children of God and as the followers of Jesus Christ, let us practice just love and just mercy. Let us hold our judgment and try hard to embrace and forgive others first. And let us build a love-ruling community together in this fear-driven society. May the Lord be with us always. Amen.