Formations 03.20.2016: Justice, Mercy, and the Crucifixion

Luke 23:32-46

"Crucifixion," Hans Baldung Grien (Wikimedia Commons).

“Crucifixion,” Hans Baldung Grien (Wikimedia Commons).

It wasn’t until I found myself reading a book about mercy and hoping for a person to be punished that I realized I’ve been way too comfortable with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Let me back up. The book is called Just Mercy, and the author is lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. It explores a heartbreaking question about our justice system and ourselves: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” And it’s what comes to mind when I look at how Jesus treats the people responsible for his death, who essentially sentenced him to the death penalty.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy practice based in Alabama. The defendants that EJI supports are in the most desperate situations: they are poor, they are vulnerable, and they are discriminated against because of their race, gender, or class. In his book, Stevenson explores the lives of prisoners who have been victimized by corrupt politicians, incompetent legal council, and discriminatory legal practices. He draws from his experience as a public defender as well as his own research to argue that our pursuit of justice should be grounded in compassion and mercy for the poor and marginalized. He introduces his book with an overview of why he believes we need to practice restorative justice in our legal system, explaining the idea in this way:

Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.

The idea of mercy isn’t unfamiliar to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. As someone who has been raised in the Christian church since birth, I was taught forgiveness and mercy my whole life. Jesus sacrificed himself to save us, even though we don’t deserve it. And while I know I struggle to forgive people who have wronged me, or even people who I think are doing wrong to the world, the church has always been there to remind me of this important kind of forgiveness and mercy. The Scripture text for this week is also familiar. Time and again, I’ve been reminded of the way Jesus redeemed and asked forgiveness not only for the people who hurt him, but also for the people who were guilty of other crimes towards others. Yes, they deserved punishment, but Jesus promised them paradise instead.

So when I started reading Stevenson’s book, I was prepared to be completely on board with Stevenson’s idea of restorative justice. I had already been reading about the practice of restorative justice in school classrooms, and I had read a few articles about injustice and corruption within policing practices. I thought that Stevenson’s book was going to be about people who ended up in jail when they hadn’t done anything wrong, or who were facing excessively harsh sentences for their minor crimes. I expected it to be about good people who had made a few mistakes, but who ultimately deserved forgiveness, like people who steal some food to feed their families. And in some of Stevenson’s cases, this is exactly what I saw. The overarching story in the book is the case of a man facing the death penalty for a murder that he didn’t commit. Of course this man deserves compassion in the courts.

However, in most of the cases that Stevenson handles in this book, the defendants had actually committed the crimes of which they are being accused. With only a few exceptions, these people are guilty criminals. They had committed theft, or assault, or even murder. And most of their actions did not evoke my Christian empathy. One man faced the death penalty for accidentally killing a young girl…with a bomb he had placed outside of the door of a woman he was stalking. I had felt sorry for the wrongly accused, for the children being tried as adults, and for the victims of political manipulation. But as I read this particular case, I found myself bristling. Was I supposed to feel sorry for a grown man who invaded a woman’s personal security? Who moved across the county so he could be closer to her after she had rejected his advances? Who mailed a bomb to her house so that when it went off, he could manipulate her feelings towards him by pretending to save her from it? And who was then responsible for the death of an innocent child? As I read this story, I found myself wanting justice for this criminal. Not mercy.

But what does Stevenson do for this violent stalker? Defends him against the courts who were motivated by the same anger I was feeling. Because this man was broken and in need of mercy and healing. Because, as Stevenson notes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea that Jesus’ mercy is always there for us, no matter what we do. And we might even be comfortable with the idea that his mercy is also there for others, no matter what they do. But are we comfortable sacrificing ourselves—our personal security, our reputation, our pride, our dignity, even our families—to show true compassion to people who deserve punishment? Are we really comfortable with what we learn about Jesus in the story of the crucifixion?

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, (Spiegel & Grau: 2014). <http://bryanstevenson.com/the-book/>.

Discussion

• What are the real-world consequences of showing mercy to those who have committed crimes?
• In our justice system, where do you think there is room for mercy and compassion?
• What other examples of “just mercy” have you seen or read about? What do these stories mean to you?
• Do you know someone who often shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it? Share about those who are examples of “just mercy” in your every day life.
• What kind of justice does Jesus’ mercy bring?

Reference Shelf

Crucifixion

Crucifixion was a form of punishment practiced in the ancient world in which a person was suspended on a vertical shaft by being bound and/or nailed to it. Sometimes a crossbar was affixed to the shaft. As practiced by the Romans it was the means of a slow, torturous, and degrading death.

The origin of crucifixion may be found in the practice of impaling “wrongdoers” and prisoners of war on an upright shaft. Evidence of this appears in the Code of Hammurabi which prescribed impalement as the punishment for a woman who brought about the death of her husband (cf. Ezra 6:11). A few OT texts refer to impalement as a Jewish punishment (Josh 8:29; 10:26; Num 25:4). Deut 21:23 (“a hanged man is accursed by God”) makes the basic OT perspective clear. Hanging on a tree as a means of execution was a total disgrace.

Robert O. Byrd, “Crucifixion,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 186.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.

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