The Cost of Grace

Posted on August 6, 2015 in Immigration, Justice

NO protest sign“No justice, no peace.”

This ubiquitous protest chant was first popularized in the aftermath of a racially-charged killing of an African-American man and the beating of another in the Howard Beach district of Queens, New York in 1986.

It sounds like a threat. If you don’t make things right, look out. There’ll be no peace for you.

There’s more than meets the ear, though. Much more.

A concept from the Bible understood by Jews and Christians is shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. But shalom carries far more meaning: harmony, wholeness, health, and prosperity. Everything in “right” order. Social justice prevails. Peace is the result.

Shalom is God’s intended existence for all people. Chris Marshall, author of The Little Book of Biblical Justice, says shalom “combines in one concept the meaning of justice and peace. To know shalom requires the achievement of both justice and peace.”

No justice, no peace. No peace, no justice. You can’t have one without the other.

An August 2 article in the Los Angeles Times told how illegal immigrants held in detention in Texas object to the growing use of ankle monitors after their release. The reporter quoted a woman, who was told by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent she must accept the monitor as a condition of release, as saying “No, this is unjust. I don’t want you to put it on.” The ICE agent is quoted as telling her, “We give you free food, free clothing, and a place to sleep. So you just need to deal with it.”

I admit, when I first read that, my response was “You’re kidding. You entered the country illegally, they’re taking care of you, and you’re complaining.”

We can debate whether the attitude of the ICE agent was appropriate. We can debate whether ICE’s choice of technology to supervise a surge of Central American border crossers is dehumanizing.

But this incident, for me, illustrates the mass confusion in our world over justice and mercy, law and love. The tension between these principles fuels my novels, and it’s my personal passion to explore and explode that tension through story.

I recently attended a forum on justice, grace, and law presented by Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. One of the most impactful sessions was a panel discussion on the legal system, grace, and justice. The panelists were the Los Angeles City Attorney and one of his deputies, a leader in the L.A. Public Defender’s office, and a L.A. County Superior Court judge.

I was first impressed by the city attorneys’ heart to see criminal justice as a restoration to the community of what was lost, and their belief that we need punitive and restorative components in our system.

Then the judge on the panel made a profound statement—the greatest enemy of grace in our justice system is time. Staff and budget cuts have squeezed the human element out of the courts, which impedes restorative elements of justice. He posed questions he struggles with daily: How do you treat repeat offenders? How many chances do they get? When does giving grace endanger the community? What is the cost? Who pays it?

The cost of grace.

Is ICE showing illegal immigrants grace by clothing, feeding, and housing them—and then insisting on ankle monitors? Technology stretches the effectiveness of paper-thin resources. It costs far more to detain people than to release them with monitors. They’re given a measure of freedom until they appear before an immigration judge.

What about the cost of refusing grace?

Do claims of injustice by illegal immigrants have merit? How can people who’ve been given relief from the injustice they fled grumble when they’re asked to be responsible to show up for their court hearing?

Because they’re human. They have needs, and they want them met. Their way.

I can be like that. Any of us can.

The ancient Israelites complained when they had nothing but manna to eat and yearned for the food of their slavery. Their clothes and shoes didn’t wear out and they grumbled.

It cost a generation their promise.

We all want grace and mercy when we do wrong. But as the L.A. Superior Court judge said, someone pays a price for offenders to receive grace.

The good news is, someone has. Through him, what we all long for—shalom—is possible.

It’s an offer you can refuse. If you do, there’s a cost.