“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”– Matt. 25:40
Bryan Stevenson was our 40th annual lecturer in the Geneva Lecture Series at the University of Iowa. Stevenson is an American lawyer addressing the issues of wrongful convictions and the death penalty. In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells of Walter McMillian, sentenced to capital punishment for a crime he did not commit in the 1980s. Woven in with this story are alarming statistics about American incarceration and the stories of others falsely convicted or unfairly punished because of race, poverty, age, mental illness, corruption in the legal system and poor solutions to social problems. The book is powerful, captivating and deeply affecting.
Many of us would rather look away from such brokenness. We would rather look away from the broken lives caught in poverty; look away from racism; look away from prison abuse; look away from the lack of treatment for mental illness. We would like to think that the system works.
When we look deeply, we are disturbed. The realities threaten our pictures of justice. They threaten our national narratives and mythologies. Looking deeply helps us see another’s humanity. As Stevenson tells us the broken human stories, we see a person, not just a criminal. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (Just Mercy, 17-18).
Seeing the brokenness of others helps us see ourselves. We see how history, culture, societal economic standing and prejudice are always present. We see how fear, anger and hopelessness break us. We, as individuals and a society, recognize our fallibility, our humanity.
We see that law and punishment are not the ultimate answer. Law gives a society structure, defends the rights of others and may restrict evil. Punishment can be a just penalty for breaking the law. Yet we, as individuals and a society, must recognize our fallibility. Punishment will not bring change. It does not give a vision for the way it should be.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.– Matt. 5:7
We need mercy. Mercy looks like being there and not looking away. Mercy looks like Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, who befriended a boy in jail, who had shot and killed his abusive step-father. Mercy looks like a family that does not abandon their drug-addicted son, who later becomes a lawyer working for the poor and abused. Mercy looks like Bryan Stevenson.
It is not mercy to judge your neighbour when you do not even know them. It is not mercy to jump to conclusions due to past experiences. It is not mercy to make profit or tax dollars the main criterion for how we treat drug addiction, juvenile crime and mental illness.
In his lecture Stevenson made four points about being merciful. First, proximity. We need to get close to others. Second, narrative. We need to hear their stories, and let them change our stories. Third, we need to bring hope. Finally, we need to do that which makes us uncomfortable, to take risks.
Mercy visits or writes the prisoner. Mercy feeds the hungry and provides clean water in Africa. Mercy gives coats in the winter. Mercy welcomes the alien and refugee. Mercy votes for better physical and mental health care, better prisons, better communities.
Mercy looks and does not turn away. Mercy cares and acts. Mercy gives a job to the ex-inmate. Mercy seeks to give value even to those rightfully in prison. Mercy looks, listens and loves.
We just need mercy. The principles of mercy are those of mission: get close, listen, bring hope, take risks.
Stevenson references Jesus’ story and statement in John 8: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). The judgmental do throw stones. The merciful are stone-catchers, and “it hurts to catch all them stones people throw” (309).
Mercy prays “kyrie eleison;” Lord, have mercy upon us. Then it practices just mercy.
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