"And until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even-handed. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices." — Jake Brigance, "A Time to Kill"
When you're young, it's easy to have concrete opinions. You tend to see things in black and white, living in a sort of bubble that shields you or makes you blind to reality. We don't live in a black and white world, we live in a world colored by shades of grey. I don't mean in terms of right and wrong, but rather in terms of the way our principles are put into practice.
There are things that make sense, at least in some way, in concept, that become less clear when put into practice in a flawed, broken world. As you age, your understanding of the world changes — at least it should. Experience, expanded understanding, and an adult sensibility cause you to perceive things differently.
I remember when I was younger and my dad told me that he no longer believed in the death penalty in our country. I thought he was crazy. It was an easy to follow concept, how could he have doubts. I looked at it through young eyes — eyes that appreciated a concept absent the grounded reality that forces you to consider how things are put into practice. My dad saw the miscarriages of justice in our country, and the reality of justice in our country, and he had doubts about our ability to get it right.
We are taught that we are all equal under the law. That might be the intent, or it might just be a noble idea, but it certainly isn't reality. As in all things, race, class, wealth, and social status make us unequal.
My favorite movie is "A Time to Kill," and I think that's a reflection of how I've changed in my view of the world. When I first saw the movie, I was moved by the performances and speeches. I still am. But now, I'm more moved by the questions of equality and justice the story dares to ask.
I just finished reading "Just Mercy," a nonfiction book by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He's spent his career toiling long hours for little money to fight for justice. He's tried to be a voice for the voiceless, and an advocate for the millions we've thrown away in our quest for some misguided sense of justice. In particular, Stevenson has battled to reduce the sentence or gain the freedom of children sentence to die in prison and adults unfairly given the death penalty.
We have a perception in this country that we have the best system of justice in the world, but as in most things perception doesn't always match reality. Reading the stories of people brutalized, denied their basic rights, oppressed, and left permanently damaged by a broken system was jarring. I told my wife while in the midst of reading the book that I thought I would be wrecked by the time I finished, and that's not far from the truth. There were many moments when reading these stories of destroyed lives and victimized individuals that I felt ashamed of our country, and any feeling of superiority we have about what it means to be Americans.
But of particular concern is the stories of people sentenced to die. The main case in the book — the defense of Walter McMillian — should give even the most ardent supporter of the death penalty a moment of pause. Walter was not only unfairly suspected of a murder he couldn't have committed, he was brutalized, sentenced to die, and spent six years on death row despite a mountain of evidence proving his innocence.
When he was finally freed, Stevenson told the court, "Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn't do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state."
What an understatement. I believe in the idea of justice, and I recognize it is important to make sure that dangerous men and women are punished. But if even one person is wrongly executed, that is too many. And by all accounts, we've had far more than one. If the purpose of the penal system is rehabilitation and the betterment of society, we've failed.
I remember being dismayed a few years ago when I was a reporter in California. The state was short on funds, so they laid off hundreds of teachers and made brutal cuts to education. At the same time, the state spent billions building new, bigger, and better prisons.
The Bible says, where your treasure is, so is your heart. We are a country that spends the most on prisons, and has the most people in prison. What does that says bout us? Nothing good. And, as Christians, we should be leading the crusade to change these statistics.
Instead, Christians are often the first to fervently support capital punishment, and the way it's practiced in America. Have we forgotten what Jesus said to the crowd who clamored to kill the adulteress woman? He said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." We are a nation of stone throwers when we should be a nation of stone catchers, as Stevenson rightly points out.
The lesson Stevenson learned through fighting for Walter McMillian is the same we, as a society dedicated to justice and Christ's people dedicated to mercy, should be asking. He said, "…Walter's case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?"
That's the question we should all be asking ourselves.