Passion for Justice, Plea for Mercy

“Moving through necessary justice towards a spirit of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, even for the most vile of perpetrators, is what allows display the scandalous, beautiful, life-changing power of the Gospel.”    

About five years ago, an eight year-old boy named Gabriel Fernandez was admitted into the pediatric ICU where I work, bearing horrific signs of torture and abuse throughout his entire body. He was declared brain dead and taken off life support a few days after coming to us. I can still picture the hospital room where he stayed. The trial proceedings of the accused – his mother and her boyfriend – have pervaded the media, and my colleagues were called to testify of what they saw as our team cared for him. As the trials have unfolded, I have heard many colleagues – both Christian and non-Christian – make comments regarding the accused such as, “They need to rot in hell!” My spirit sat deeply disturbed not only by the crime, but also the reactions to the trials, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.

Now we come to the hugely publicized trial of the disgraced US Olympics physician, Dr. Larry Nassar, as an unfathomable number of female victims have come forward with bold, angry, often bitter statements about the effects his sexual abuse has had on their lives. Again, my spirit sat deeply disturbed by his crimes, and yet as I listened to the tremendous outpouring of angry accusation – which without doubt was justified and absolutely deserving of this long overdue voice – still something deep within me felt incomplete. In cases such as these, are we a people who find our ultimate comfort solely in justice, unleashed with a spirit of fury and vengeance?

It wasn’t until I heard the victim statement of Rachael Denhollander that I realized what has been lacking in both of these cases. Ms. Denhollander confronted Mr. Nassar with the scathing severity of his guilt and sin, and called on the judge to mete out the justice that every violated girl deserved, but she also presented mercy, grace, and forgiveness to Mr. Nassar. It was a powerful proclamation of the Gospel for someone we might easily call the chief of all sinners. “I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”

At the risk of not sounding angry enough about what has happened to the victims of these crimes (though I assure you, my heart will forever burn against what I saw had been done to little Gabriel), I have to ask: How are we as God’s people reflecting the heart of Christ and the Gospel’s work in our own lives if in our public reactions to these cases, we only seek justice for the victims but not God’s far-reaching mercy over the perpetrators as well? Do we ache for souls that have become so profoundly bound up in hellish sin that they commit crimes such as these people have? Ms. Denhollander described Mr. Nassar’s self-created prison with clarity and compassion. “In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.” Seeking justice alone only reflects our understanding of God as far as the Pharisees understood Him. Moving through necessary justice towards a spirit of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, even for the most vile of perpetrators, is what allows us as the people of God to display the scandalous, beautiful, life-changing power of the Gospel.

One final story. When I was a senior in high school, our middle-class suburban neighborhood was shaken up by the unimaginable. A few of my classmates made the terrible decision to murder another teenage boy from a different school after their petty crime dealings with him apparently went awry. The murder happened over winter break, and the guilty parties were quickly arrested and tried as adults. I was a relatively young Christian at the time, and I remember the Mandarin-speaking congregation at my church reaching out to the family of the “ringleader” for the next year after he was quickly issued a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He wrote letters to our church, thanking us for caring for his family. He had become a Christian in prison and he wrote of how he knew he’d received just punishment for his actions, but that he also knew God’s mercy would be over him in this life and beyond.

I remember meeting his younger sister at a winter retreat one year after the crime, and she quietly told me of his transformation after becoming a Christian in prison. “He’s a completely different person now.” She was sober, but at peace. I had only been a Christian for about five years, and I marveled at the Gospel. Fast forward a few years, I got reconnected via Facebook with one of the other accused who had made a plea bargain with the District Attorney to testify against the others, such that he would be set free after staying in Juvenile Hall until he was 25. Our exchange on Facebook was brief, but from what I gathered, he appeared to be following the Lord as well and had settled into a relatively normal life. I told him it was good to connect again, and that God’s grace covers us all. He replied, “My memory of you from high school is fuzzy. I don’t remember a lot, but I remember enough.” I think what he was saying was, I remember you were a Christian back then, too. I took it as a compliment, ultimately to God’s glory. I had seen what the Gospel could do. I wanted the testimony of my life, both then and now, to be one where he recognized God’s grace as a distinguishing feature, regardless of what he had done.

For these two high school friends of mine, justice was appropriately served for their roles in the murder, and yet they were able to discover spiritual freedom and transformation because the people of God showed them the undiscriminating Gospel of love. How incredible that their lives will forever testify of God’s goodness and power. The same can be true for Gabriel Fernandez’s killers, and yes, even for Larry Nassar. What profound hope and joy do we have to offer the world when we as God’s people recognize the need for full justice, but also demonstrate a heart of boundless mercy and forgiveness that can ultimately bring true freedom for both victims and perpetrators alike.

“Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
-Romans 5:20-21

“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
-Micah 6:8