A few years ago, I was in a book club that read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is one of the founders of the Equal Justice Initiative. This group of lawyers, interns, paralegals and other justice workers advocate for equal treatment of all in the criminal justice system. This book is centered on one of their more famous cases, the wrongful sentencing of Walter McMillian. McMillian was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Stevenson faithfully records his journey with McMillian and what he learned working towards gaining McMillian’s freedom.
The title of the book is simple and profound; “Just Mercy.” This title captures how we are called by God to act towards all people, to show others mercy. This title came alive for me the night of one of the book discussions. I watched two women who had never really crossed paths before this book club. There was about 60 years between them. As one was talking about the book’s effect on her, she began to cry; the younger women reached out, gently took her hand, and held it while she continued to talk. I thought to myself, “There it is, there is mercy”. It was alive right before my very eyes, and perhaps, if it can come alive at book club, it can keep coming alive elsewhere.
Jesus came into the world to show us God’s mercy coming alive. However, it was confounding for most and offensive for many. Jesus showed us God’s heart towards the world, and God’s heart is concerned with mercy and love. The heart of God is not about retaliation and punishment. But it certainly took a lot of explaining on Jesus part to get this point across. In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He asks, “if you love only those who love you, what good is it?” (Paraphrased from Matthew chapter 5). A great question, what good is it to only love people who love us back? What good is it to only love people who think exactly like we do? What good is it to love only people that believe exactly like we do? To take it even further, what good is it to harbor a grudge against someone who wronged us? What good is it to lock away someone who isn’t guilty but fits the description? What good is it to punish and hate the people God commands us to love even if we think they deserve it?
The answer is that it is no good at all. It is dangerous for those around us, it is dangerous to our spirits, and it is dangerous to our relationship with God to practice hating. It is certainly a difficult task to learn to love our enemies, but it is not an impossible one. It is a hard thing to practice just mercy, but it is not unattainable. We can do it by leaning on God’s love, mercy and grace. We know what these things look like, because God has shown them to us. That night when I saw a woman reach for the hand of another, I think she knew to do that because God has reached for her hand. By practicing this love for enemies, by practicing mercy, by practicing holy hand-reaching, we get a closer to bringing God’s kingdom on earth. We pray every week, “your kingdom come, your will be done”, and we are called to help bring this about.