The light through the cracks

When one teaches American politics and law, it can be hard to keep from being discouraged. Politics in the United States is fractured and bitter and will be only more so in the coming years leading up to a big election. So for me, summer often means escaping into mysteries. For crime solving there is nothing better than Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, set outside of Quebec.

In her books Penny introduces us to the history of Eastern Canada while her characters solve crimes. But what makes this series so special is that in each book she illuminates themes of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. I have no idea if Penny is a Christian but it seems clear to me that she shares my own struggles with worldview and faith. Can evil be combatted or will it win in this earthly life? How can there be beauty and suffering in the same moment? How do I deal with discouragement in my work? Does God always see the sorrow?

A long time ago, at the beginning of my legal career, I prosecuted small crimes called misdemeanors. I lived in a fairly rough river town and every weekend the jail filled with petty thieves, bar fight instigators and prostitutes. Every Monday morning I had a sheet of new cases to dispose of. Some cases we let go; some we plea bargained, and a few  we tried. Many of the criminal defendants were repeat offenders and I saw them month after month.

I love the law. I love the rules, and I love the mess. And our criminal justice system is a mess. People can be so dumb and also so cruel. Poor people have little access to justice, and there are no easy answers. Everyone is burdened with an overload of cases. We struggled with the stress of being unable to fix the  brokenness that we witnessed. We’d be frustrated with defendants who had done wrong but often had just gotten caught up in a bad situation. Sometimes the police could be vicious and cruel even while they were peacekeeping.

And then, in the midst of the mess, there also were moments of grace. There were times when we could do something that achieved justice for both perpetrators and victims. I saw that criminals could be funny and kind while they admitted wrongdoing. They made me smile even as I argued for jail time.

On my walk home after work I often saw people I had put in jail the month before. “Hey, prosecutor lady!” they’d call. “How you doin’?” They were nice to me and I had affection for them. They did not hold me responsible for what ailed them, and we all knew that we’d see each other in court before the next month had passed.

In that job I saw the best and the worst of humanity. Light mixed with dark at every turn. And this brings me back to Penny’s Gamache series.

There is but one Physician

Her latest book, The Long Way Home, will be released in August. It builds on the theme of an old spiritual, Balm in Gilead. But the last book I read was called How the Light Gets In, which takes its title from a Leonard Cohen tune, “Anthem”. Cohen is a Jewish Canadian poet who wrote the wildly popular song Hallelujah. Christians love Hallelujah, which has been called “perhaps the most perfect song” by Irish singer Bono. It’s interesting that evangelicals love this song so dearly given its sexual overtones and Cohen’s own argument that there are many secular hallelujahs. But at the same time, I love the fact that by God’s common grace we can learn from so many different worldviews. In Anthem, Cohen writes of light, brokenness and pressing through even when we feel discouraged. The chorus repeats the phrase “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

In Penny’s books one of the cracks is always a legal wrong, but another crack is relational. We betray our friends even as we love them. We do what is wrong even as we berate ourselves for taking that step. But we have been blessed with redemption and we have hope. It is through these cracks that  light can enter. These books renew me for another year of guiding students through the study of law, and they remind me that God can use us, cracks and all.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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