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Justice, Mercy, and the Court of Public Opinion Reflections on the Botham Jean Trial

A young man, likely a teenage kid, on the witness stand addressing the felon who has just been sentenced to ten years in prison for murdering his brother under suspicious circumstances. He is saying things like “I love you” and “I don’t want you to go to jail” and “give your life to Christ” and “I want the best for you”. Then he asks the court if he can give the criminal a hug. The judge allows it, and he steps down from the stand.

They meet in the middle of courtroom floor, between the judge and the lawyers. Their embrace feels like a home-from-war reunion that freezes the room and clothes it in warmth at the same time. A place reserved for questions and accusations becomes a place of reconciliation. A mourner embracing a murderer. And they linger there in the tension for more than anyone else can understand.

When the young man leaves the room, the judge descends the bench. After embracing each member of the victim’s family she ducks back into her chambers. Seconds later she emerges with a book in her hand. She approaches the defendant’s table and hands the book to the convict. No one can hear the words she says, but her face is saying the kind of “don’t make me repeat myself” that mamas and teachers and aunties trademarked generations ago.

As the judge walks away, the murderer mumbles through her tears, “She is such a good person.” This stops the judge in her tracks and she turns back to face the felon. “It’s not me who’s good,” she says, “And you haven’t done anything that you cannot be forgiven for.”

The woman is cuffed and led away, clutching the judge’s personal Bible in her hand.

The news reporters are stunned. Shocked. Completely taken aback. Saying things like, “I have never seen” and “extraordinary” and “there is no playbook for this”.

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Mercy has a way of disarming us. Leaving us awestruck, and feeling around for a handbook on how to proceed.

It is our deepest need, mercy. Without it, every one of us is sick with sin—a terminal illness if we don’t embrace the Cure. And though some symptoms of our preexisting condition will still present themselves even after we have found Him, we are still alive. Alive in the mystery. Alive in the light, however flickering. Alive in the brokenness, the hopefulness, the tension.

Like a kid embracing a criminal in the middle of the courtroom.

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Woman murders unarmed black man while he’s eating ice cream in his own apartment. She is sentenced to 10 years in prison. Totally unreasonable. But, this is America.

Brother of the man who was murdered offers forgiveness, and even a hug, to the killer. Totally unreasonable. But, this is the Gospel.

How shall we respond? Hate America and shame the Gospel, of course. It seems that neither one is on our side.

Because if we’re honest, we don’t want justice, we want to be justified in our resentment. We don’t want to see mercy, because we want revenge.

We can scarcely receive mercy because we actually hate it. It rubs against our pride and exposes our unrighteousness. It catches us red handed reaching for our enemy’s throat. We want everyone to be as vindictive and unforgiving as we are. Even God. Because it’s easier to hate Him that way, if He is just like us. Perched atop his soap box in the sky, holding grudges and tallying our wrongs. The God we love to hate.

There will never be a perfect rule of justice in this world. If God himself didn’t get one, nobody else will.

But maybe we are projecting our own self-loathing onto Him. Fortunately, He can take it. Actually, He already did. We can’t crucify him any more than we already have, and he still reigns. So the only thing left to do is surrender.

There will never be a perfect rule of justice in this world. If God himself didn’t get one, nobody else will. Even when we see it come close, we celebrate with clutched fists and venom in our hearts. It is never enough, and it never will be.

Human nature is the number one cause of death among the living.

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” -James 2:13

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I believe in justice. I believe in mercy. They are not mutually exclusive. Both are expressed through the cross.

I chose to write a few things about mercy because that is what struck me as remarkable, almost miraculous in this case.

If we’re honest, we don’t want justice, we want to be justified in our resentment.

Yes, injustice is evil, but it is not exceptional. It is ubiquitous in the world we live in.

Yes, injustice is ugly, but its power is no match for the beauty of forgiveness. Look at the cross.

Yes, injustice is shameful. Yet many chose to shame a young man for standing in its line of fire and choosing to forgive.

Shaming him. As if he had not come face to face with an indescribable amount of grief piggybacked by a heavy load of injustice.

Shaming him. Because he didn’t stand up and scream, “I want justice!” but instead meekly asked the court for permission to hug the person who single-handedly destroyed his family.

Shaming him. As if his forgiveness was a sign that he must not be in unimaginable pain.

Injustice is evil, but it is not exceptional.

People seemed disgusted with mercy, and I wrestled to make sense of that. These thoughts are some of the fruit of that wrestling.

It stopped me in my tracks, compelled me to examine my heart and to write down a few words in response. I flung those words out into this little corner of the internet to complement the many cries for justice, not in lieu of them.

We should absolutely stand for justice, but we should stand in awe of mercy.

Did this essay resonate with you? Share your thoughts!

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