Saturday, April 9, 2011

Justice versus Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Matthew 5:7
Something happened this week that put the words mercy and justice into stark relief for me. Justice was administered in a case before a parole board – strict justice. The logic of it was impeccable. The person involved had been convicted of possession of marijuana for the second time, which in Alabama is a felony, no matter how small the amount of it. Then the person had, in a moment of weakness, smoked marijuana at the work release camp. It was pretty cut and dried. He’d blown it. Parole denied, justice served.
Mercy, however, was not present. No amount of pleading or any other facts swayed the board. Not the fact that he had a job waiting for him and good friends and family who would support him to stay away from the weed, and a minister’s support as well. Nor the fact that his son wanted him at his birthday party. The man in charge of the parole board said that if this man were paroled, it would be mercy, not justice. In those words.
It got me to thinking about justice, fairness, mercy. It is all too easy to say that people in prison or in poverty deserve to be where they are. They made the wrong choices, really stupid ones. If they worked harder they could get money. We sit in our nice homes and shake our heads and thank the good Lord we aren’t like them.
But who we are, it seems to me, depends on three factors: First, our genetics, how we are born; secondly, what happens to us, especially in our early years, and third; what we decide to do about the first two.
We have no control over these first two factors. We might be born with a lower IQ into an abusive family, or be fortunate enough to be born with high intelligence into a loving family. We have all seen or heard of people overcoming horrible backgrounds and people going bad even after having every advantage. Somehow they have overcome those first two factors.
So what are we to do as church members to help those in bad situations? Are we to sit in judgment, not allowing them to come near us? Are we to be self-righteous and smug?
Or are we to follow our Lord’s example? Jesus, who hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars. He told them to go and sin no more – but he loved them first.
I’ve heard of some churches that say they minister to the homeless, the addicted, the people in the direst of straits – but they won’t have them actually sit in a pew next to them. Is this love? Latham’s mission is to reach the unreached. That means treating them with dignity, loving them as children of God, our brothers and sisters.
There is a woman in Nashville, an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens, who felt called to minister to the women on the streets there, who through circumstances and bad choices, wound up as drug addicts and prostitutes. She says that when we see such people, we should not think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but instead say to ourselves. “There goes God.” She herself was abused as a child, by a church member, but decided to use this awfulness to give compassion to other women. She says, “These women did not end up on the streets by themselves, and they will not get back off by themselves.” She has set up several houses in regular neighborhoods in Nashville, called Magdalene Houses, where the women live rent-free for two years as they progress into their new lives, working at Thistle Farms, which the Reverend Stevens also set up. They make bath and beauty products from the lowly thistle, a plant which aptly grows beautifully in the harshest of environments. The Reverend Stevens brings the women in and prays with them, and simply loves them back into a safe place, never looking down on them.
Yes, there are laws to be obeyed. Our system of justice cannot be abandoned and all the cell doors unlocked. There is often learning that must be done by people who commit crimes. But justice tempered with mercy is what Jesus taught.
The passage in Matthew is taken from the Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” He did not say, “Blessed are those who make sure everyone gets what they deserve when they mess up.” We are to leave that judgment to God, in His infinite mercy.