I’ve just finished reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. To give you an extremely brief introduction that really doesn’t do the book – or the man – justice, Stevenson is a lawyer who has dedicated his life to representing men and women on death row, people who were sentenced to very severe punishments as children, poor folks whose court-appointed counsel completely dropped the ball. This book centers on one particular case but also incorporates many other cases Stevenson has worked.
I don’t unreservedly commend to you all of Stevenson’s ideas, but I think the book is powerful and compelling. The most significant, eye-opening thing here is the histories. If you don’t know about these injustices, it’s easy to think they don’t happen. But when you learn about ways that justice has been miscarried and perverted, you start to appreciate that maybe there’s a lot you still don’t know. Maybe just because I am don’t know about something doesn’t indicate that it’s fictional. Knowing real stories about injustice should both soften our hearts toward one another and galvanize us to pursue justice through the law – to make the law an agent of true justice.
All that said, this quote is not about someone’s history – I don’t want to spoil any of the stories for you. This is a powerful concept – the concept of where grace comes from between people.
[I want you to know I’m not spoiling any of the stories in this book by sharing this great quote with you. Read on without fear.]
Whenever things got really bad, and [my clients] were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us….
[…E]ven as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we’re also in a web of healing and mercy…. The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it is most potent – strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.
This mercy to the undeserving that Stevenson is describing is a miniature of Gospel mercy. It’s no surprise, given the way he talks about it, that he is very aware of this fact, that he is a recipient of Gospel mercy himself. We who have been shown mercy are marked by mercy toward others – if we aren’t merciful toward others, we have a disconnect that may indicate that we haven’t received that mercy. And, as my pastor said in his sermon on Sunday morning, for believers, as recipients of such great big Gospel mercy, caring about justice and extending ourselves towards others in mercy are not optional hobbies. It is our business when injustice is done – not to take justice into our own hands, but to pursue justice as best we can through the system and to treat everyone, not just whichever victim we perceive more clearly, with mercy.
Being merciful must include seeing and respecting the personhood of every human (including ourselves) – which includes what Stevenson talks about above, refusing to identify a person solely with one act, or, taking it a step further, one characteristic. We must see the dignity in others and ourselves; brokenness and wickedness cannot completely shatter the imago Dei, the image of God stamped on each human being by our Creator.
Seeing people this way is a challenging thing for most of us, I think – perhaps it’s harder for me to think of myself that way, and harder for someone else to think of others that way. But as people who are solidly loved and whose eternity is guaranteed, we are free to pursue this way of seeing. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal” – no brokenness either. Our job is to bring that healing into the future.
This is not something I am proposing we adopt as some sort of legal policy; instead, I think it is supposed to be the defining characteristic of the way we as individual Christians as well as the church interact with other humans. If other folks think it sounds good too, that’s great, but the call is specifically on us. If we really are just beggars telling other beggars where we found bread and where they can too, this kind of mercy should be dripping off of us.