Several nights ago on my drive home, I was listening to the radio and heard Bryan Stevenson speaking about his work through the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
He used a phrase that triggered a strong response from me: “Each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done.” My first instinct was to say, “Really? What about the murderer? Or the pedophile? Or the rapist? Are they not defined by what they’ve done? Are they not defined by the havoc they have wrought in other peoples’ lives?”
Then I began to think about Jesus’ response to evil doers, to Zacchaeus the tax collector (and by inference, a collaborator with Roman occupation and oppression, a man who extorted as much money as he could from the populace). Jesus told all the townsfolk who had put on a spread for him, “No thanks. I’m going to be a guest of Zacchaeus today.” (Luke 19:5)
To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “I do not condemn you.” (John 8:11) Most tellingly, however, from the cross, Jesus called out to God about his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)”
Now, I’m not advocating a free ride for murderers, or pedophiles or rapists. An orderly society must exact some form of justice if there is not to be total chaos. But what should that justice look like?
In the Presbyterian tradition, here’s what we have to say about the purpose of discipline, “(which) is to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved; to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration … the exercise of church discipline, is for building up … not for destroying, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath …”
For me, this is one of the most difficult demands of the Gospel, justice that is woven through with forgiveness and mercy.
Saint Isaac the Syrian, a Christian writing in the 600s asks: “How can you call God just, when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? … How can you call God just when you came across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, (yet the father’s response) is to run to him, fall upon his neck and give him authority over his wealth? …
“Where, then, is God’s justice? — for while we are sinners Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8) If here God is merciful, we may believe that he will not change.”
God declares that each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done. God does not let our sins define us. God’s justice is mercy. That is the scandalous injustice of God.
The Rev. Camille Josey is the pastor at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church.