Mercy and Justice
Years ago, first time visiting an inmate at men’s central jail, I was surprised by the attitudes of the other visitors. There wasn’t the melancholy or tears I was expecting, but a lightness, almost celebratory atmosphere. Young women made up and dressed up, parents, grandparents laughing and talking. Big Hispanic man loudly encouraging and praying, two women beside me speed talking, effortlessly gliding between English and Spanish. Family and friends doing what family and friends do. Was a forty-five-minute wait at my assigned window; time to take it all in.
Swinging around on my bolted-down metal stool, a young woman at the opposite bank of windows is talking on the handset to a young man on the other side of the glass. Orange jumpsuit. I see her from an angle, leaned forward and intent—free hand in the air, tone of voice, smile—she could have been sitting across white tablecloth and candlelight. She saw no orange jumpsuit, no offense, only the man she loved. I thought of the prodigal…in an orange jumpsuit…and I realized that she and the father of the prodigal were orange colorblind. Saw no offenses or punishments, only the beloved.
Is that fair? What about the offense, the victims? What about justice? Isn’t God just?
We humans live between heaven and earth. Between mercy and justice, between micro, one-on-one relationships where mercy and compassion are the highest good, and the macro groups to which we belong, where justice and law must prevail. To miss the fact that love must look like justice in our groups and compassion for each individual within those groups is to miss learning how to love in the ever-shifting context of our between-ness.
God is justice in the macro, when viewed where three or more are gathered. But when God views us—it is always micro, as if we are the only person living between heaven and earth. God is orange colorblind too. Sees through our faults like x-ray vision or a young woman at central jail. While we are still beholden to macro laws and the punishments they assign, between God and us, there are only and will only ever be white tablecloths and candlelight.