July 12, 2021
Somewhere between here and Sandusky on Route 18 is a motorcycle club. It’s a little brick building with a black door. On that door it is written, “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness.”
We often do that. It’s a human thing. It stems from our present state all the way back to the origin of our species. Especially in Jesus’ time. Jesus’ land was occupied by a brutal force. The Roman Empire. That fact is one that colors everything.
As our scholar of note, M. Eugene Boring, states, “None of the beatitudes is advice being offered for getting along in this world, where mercy is more likely to be regarded as a sign of weakness than be rewarded in kind.” It makes me wonder if Professor Boring has driven Route 18 and saw that motorcycle club.
There’s that saying, “no good deed goes unpunished.” This feels like a very Thomas Hobbes view of the world. That famous philosopher who said that the life of a human is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Hobbes was a hit at parties. He also penned, “The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
As much as we don’t want to admit it, this is the default position of most. It must stem from the dinner table, especially at dessert time when we saw our sibling getting a slightly bigger slice of pie. Our constant yelp of “that’s not fair” whenever we feel slighted in the least. It seems to be the nature of humanity to walk around with our hand out wishing for an apple to fall into it, and when a lemon does, we complain about fruit falling from the sky.
God created a world where there’s food all over the floor. Where we have bugs that visit flowers and make honey, and we complain about the stinger. Or we plot how to take over their hives for our own purposes. Sometimes we hoard all the food and then scratch our heads and wonder why there are starving people. It’s not a merciful attitude we have, it’s a scarcity mindset. I gotta get mine before you get yours.
A world where mercy and kindness are often seen as a weakness. This is true in our time. In Thomas Hobbes’ time. And in Jesus’ time. It’s what makes Bryan Stevenson’s story stand out all the more. Bryan Stevenson exemplifies Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed are the merciful.
The 2019 movie Just Mercy tells the true story of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson starting out. Bryan Stevenson first case is in the same town where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. The town reminds him of that quite often. “Would you like to see the museum?” What Bryan is doing there is stepping in between. Just like Atticus Finch.
Bryan has just graduated from Harvard Law School. One of his first cases is to represent Walter McMillian, a black man on death row. Walter was given the death penalty for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.
There’s an early scene in the movie where Bryan is visiting another black man, wrongly convicted. They discover they are around the same age and both attended AME churches, historically black churches. When the guard comes in and treats the prisoner poorly, the prisoner responds by singing an ol’ church hymn. “I’m pressing on. The other way.”
The other way is mercy. What we often see in the world is cruelty.
What we discover in the movie is that instead of the police admitting they had no idea who murdered an 18-year-old girl, they found a scapegoat. A black man doing well. Owning his own business. They lock him up and said to the community, “See? Case closed! We keep you safe, you can trust us.”
I know it’s hard to believe. People couldn’t possibly behave like that. Not with how our police department runs with a commitment to community policing. This was brought on by our Mayor and now Chief Ed Kenney. Yet not everywhere is like Medina. We see events like the takedown of Black Wall Street in Tusla, Oklahoma, in 1921. We see our society where blacks make up 13% of the population yet a prison system where blacks make up 40%. Americans make up 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population, and blacks are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
Land of the Free, indeed. And when Bryan comes to investigate, to try to bring justice… you’d think the town that has an Atticus Finch museum would celebrate this. They don’t. They see him as a troublemaker. Unwanted. There are threats. There’s mistreatment. Eva Ansley quips after someone threatens to blow up her house where Bryan is staying, “Maybe people will stop trying to kill us once they realize how charming we are.”
Bryan is changed by his work. By encountering such resistance and the stories of those whom he serves. The first time he visited Death Row, he wasn’t expecting to meet someone the same age as himself. He saw how the tables could have been turned in an instant. So Bryan works for justice. Pleads for mercy. Bryan writes in his book the movie is based on, “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show 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.”
Maybe you know someone who is merciful. Someone who is kind and generous. Someone who refuses to say a cross word about anyone. Someone who will not stoop to considering anyone an enemy. Someone who sees you and when they ask, “How are you?” they want your honest answer.
I am no Bryan Stevenson. I don’t know too many people who hang around the jail talking to prisoners. I don’t know too many who look into Capital Cases and make sure that the trails were fair, balanced, and without corruption. Bryan does that. He’s a hero of our age. I have never made a visit to Death Row yet we follow a man who was lawfully executed by the state. It was a sham trial. They just didn’t like what he was saying. This Jesus of Nazareth walking around saying to be kind. Show mercy. Pray for your enemies and do good to those who harm you. Maybe it was the crowd he hung out with. We really didn’t care for the company he kept. Maybe it was the way he’d point out our hypocrisy. Or mention how our societal institutions were corrupted. The systemic injustice that pervaded the land.
That’s the trick about Jesus’ stories and preaching. About those truth tellers like Bryan who talk about systemic injustice. We can say, “Well, I’m just!” Yes, you might be. Yet we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about the system. The system is set up in a punitive way. You do something wrong, we lock you away. You do something really wrong, we lock you away for a long time and take away your right to vote and make it really hard for you to find gainful employment whenever you get out. It’s a punitive system, not a restorative system. There is little to no reconciliation built in.
It shows that we believe in karma more than grace. You get what you deserve. You reap what you sow. It’s a law of physics, for every action there’s an equal an opposite reaction. This tit-for-tat mindset, this eye-for-an-eye sense of justice seems fair, in a Thomas Hobbes sense of the word fair… but we as Christians aren’t called to stand for karma. We don’t believe it, value it, it is not a focus of our sacred stories.
We stand for grace. God’s amazing grace. In our mind, the good news is that you DON’T get what you deserve. That you have been empowered and liberated and transformed by God’s grace which no one deserves. We haven’t earned it, we can’t earn it. We haven’t sought it out. We are the recipients of God’s compassion, a gift freely given with no strings attached.
We don’t get what we deserve. We are restored, given a hug, a ring and a robe and a party. As much as we understand karma, we need more grace in our lives. We need mercy. We need more mercy for ourselves, our neighbor, our country, our enemy.
Our natural thing is to bring more fight to our enemy. Not to pray for them. To punish them, not to forgive them. Yet there is no shalom, no wholeness in this message. Humanity is reciprocal. Karma-based. The divine is outside of those notions, and so is our wholeness, our shalom.
I guess that same choice is still in front of us. Karma or grace. Taking life or giving life. Bryan states, “Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done; that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice; that the character of our nation isn’t reflected on how we treat the rich and the privileged, but how we treat the poor, the disfavored, and condemned.”
If you haven’t watched this movie, I urge you to do so. If you’re not a movie type, then I recommend his book by the same name. It’s in our church library. It’s in our local library. It is an important read. It’s about Bryan Stevenson and his thoughts on justice and mercy. It’s about all the folks he’s met along the way. It’s about us and our society and how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the condemned. It’s about the beatitude of mercy. Showing kindness in a cruel world. Standing for grace in a world that believes in karma. It is a lament of sorts. But it is a hopeful one. One that reminds us that we are about mercy and not karma. That our systems should be about restoration and correction and not punishment. I’m thankful that Jesus said these words. I am thankful that there’s a whole book of Lamentations in the bible which cries out to God in mourning, in anger, and in grief about the state of the world and the state the author finds themselves in. It’s a hard read, a beautiful read, a necessary read. Just like Just Mercy.
Blessed are those like the Prophet Hosea who knows that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Not sacrifices of other humans on the altar of karma. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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 Hosea 6:6