He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
Before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and the national controversy that ensued, I neither gave much thought to nor was I concerned about the state of our criminal justice system, much less about how the color of one’s skin makes it more likely that a person will fall into this system and be wronged by it. Then Thabiti Anywabwile, one of the pastors at my church, wrote a poignant blog post on his greatest fear about coming back to the States after pastoring a church in the Cayman Islands: That this country would “destroy” his young black son. This post and others he wrote stirred many in our mostly white church to think about how as Christians we should respond to issues of race and injustice, and to seek to understand the fears and struggles borne by many of our black brothers and sisters in the faith. These conversations suggested I give more serious thought to these issues, and then, as we were driving one day, my wife and I had a conversation about statistics she’d read showing how blacks and other minorities disproportionately fall victim to the uneven enforcement of harsh laws that have the power to ruin lives. As we talked, I decided that we should read a book to understand these issues better. Because I had heard of it recently, I first thought of Michelle Alexander’s well-reviewed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, but before I settled on this choice I came across (on Twitter, so you see, it can be useful!) Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), a deeply personal and richly told story by a young lawyer who champions the cause of the condemned. I’m only forty pages into it, and already it’s a terrific read that has educated, challenged, and unsettled me about an issue that deserves more attention, especially from those of us who know a just and merciful God who commands us to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.
Below is a brief but powerful and challenging excerpt:
“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer I get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace” (18).
“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10)
Christ’s call of love and restoration encompasses our humanity in all its totality, and therefore it absolutely is concerned for the physical and material suffering of people. But is this concern evident in your Christian life? Does your budget or calendar show you care about those who are most in need among us? I don’t put forth these questions from a place of having “gotten” this; this is an area I want to grow in and which I want to partner in with my wife and eventually my family. I love how Matt Perman puts it in his excellent book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014):
“Christianity teaches that we are to be concerned for the whole person, not just the spiritual dimension. As agents of the kingdom, we are to bring healing to all realms of life, not just the spiritual realm.
“Further, God’s call is that we make a large dent, not a small dent, in helping the poor, because the needs are large, not small. We live in a world where 26 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In addition to malnutrition and hunger, other giant problems like disease, lack of access to clean water, illiteracy, poor education, and corrupt leadership affect billions. As Christians, we are to attack these problems head-on. God’s call is that we bring the gospel to all nations and engage in the fight against large global problems. Anything else misrepresents the pervasive concern of God, who cares about all suffering and distortions of his handiwork” (313, emphasis mine).