Justice and Mercy – Mutually Exclusive?

Posted on June 20, 2015 in Justice

What does “justice” mean to you?

In essence it’s the act of making things right. Restoring right order when it’s been disrupted.

We all believe in it, yearn for it. We each know it when we see it. But pick ten people at random and ask them what would make things right after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on Thursday, and you’ll get ten different answers.

Like: the guy confessed already, so give him the death penalty. Or, he was mentally unstable, so get him help. Or, he’s a racist, so his penalty must be harsher. Or, the death penalty is immoral, so give him life in prison.

You get the picture.

Relatives of some the nine victims appeared at Dylann Roof’s bond hearing and did what many would consider remarkable. They forgave him, from their hearts. They chose to not return hate for hate.

Yes, they are hurt. Angry. Wounded for life. Robbed. But since nothing can undo what Dylann Roof did at 9:00 pm on June 18 at Emanuel AME Church, they chose to live out the very thing they were at Bible study to learn. They did what Jesus commands. They forgave as they have been forgiven. They asked God to have mercy on him.

Mercy? On a cold-blooded killer who confessed to the deeds? Why?

The Bible they had gathered to study says, “what does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”

So what happened in Charleston County court yesterday? First, the magistrate judge said not only must the families of the victims be considered in this case, but also the family of the confessed killer. Next, the family members made their dramatic expressions of forgiveness.

And then said they expected the justice system to “make sure hate doesn’t win.”

Did they mean “get even?” Punish the killer? Hurt for hurt? Is that “doing justice?” Many would say yes. I confess, I want to say yes.

The killer’s uncle said he can’t forgive his nephew and will “push the button myself” if Roof is sentenced to death.

A heart of forgiveness seeks mercy. A heart of unforgiveness seeks retribution.

Jesus said these words in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so you may be children of your Father who is in heaven…”

So, what would it look like to do justice and love mercy in this situation? What would it look like for the victims’ families—and society—to love Dylann Roof?

I don’t have clear-cut answers in my heart about this case. Or the many other cases like it. Or in situations when what is legal and what love requires—like immigration—are in conflict. Many are talking about how to prevent incidents like the Charleston shooting from happening again, and rightly so. I have much to say about that in future posts. Still, the perpetrator of this crime must be dealt with.

My novels explore the tension between retribution and mercy, law and love. I’ll wrestle with my questions in this blog for the next couple of months.

I invite you to wrestle with me. For starters, what say you about Charleston?