THE INNOCENCE PROJECT
Anyone who has read John Grisham’s fine non-fiction book entitled, An Innocent Man will have run into something called ‘The Innocence Project’. What is the Innocence Project? It is the efforts of a group of lawyers and others to rectify the all too numerous mistakes made by our criminal justice system, especially before the era of DNA evidence. The website to learn more about this righteous effort and the people involved in it is—-http://www.innocenceproject.org. Tonight on the ESPY awards we had the story of Dewey Bozella, who was given the Arthur Ashe award for courage. Dewey was imprisoned in New York for over twenty years for a murder he never committed. The whole time he was in prison he maintained his innocence and used his time incarcerated to: 1) get an education, and 2) get his body fit through boxing training. And fortunately he contacted the Innocence Project who finally found the evidence that exonerated and freed Dewey Bozella. It’s a moving story, which illustrates a Biblical principle “the truth can set you free” quite literally.
Why do I bring this up? Well several reasons. ‘Justice’ in this country is a commodity that all too often is lacking in the outcomes of our system of jurisprudence, and even worse, sometimes it seems it is up for sale. By this I mean, if you can afford a really good lawyer, you are more likely to be exonerated (even if you did it) than a poor person with a court appointed attorney. It shouldn’t be this way, but sadly it is sometimes. This is why the poor often call our system the criminal injustice system. And indeed it is literally criminal when someone who never committed crime has to do the time. I don’t see any lawyers or juries or judges doing time for helping convict people of crimes they don’t commit. It is interesting however that there were laws in antiquity that if you lied in order to help convict someone of a crime they didn’t commit, and were caught doing it— then you did the time for the crime he or she was accused of. Interesting, and it probably put a damper on false witness. Christians who care about justice need to think about these matters, for our God urged his people ‘let justice flow down like rivers…’
The second reason I bring this up is something I was taught a long time ago in seminary, namely that a person who has no capacity for righteous indignation and no will to fight for the wronged and oppressed has no business being a minister. I believe that is true? Calling all ministers— does evil and wickedness and unfair laws and injustice bother you? At all? Having you ever spent any time visiting those in prison? Jesus said we should, you remember. It can change your life and your witness and your ministry if you do. There are saved souls in prison, and those who still want to be forgiven and saved as well. My friend Amy Jill Levine teaches a Bible class in prison on Mondays. She calls them — ‘my felons’, and she loves to interact with them. O.K. so she has a captive audience, but many of them are learning God’s Word all the same.
And the third reason to bring this up is that the death penalty often executes innocent persons. Since the system is far from infallible, and since no one on earth is omniscient, and since the burden of proof must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there are good reasons for a Christian to oppose the death penalty. A person should be truly innocent until proven guilty. And one more thing, as a Christian when you take away the life of a non-Christian, you probably have taken that person’s possibility of redemption away. Have you ever thought of that?
Lastly, a plea for being truly and totally pro-life. I am all for opposing abortion. I am also for opposing capital punishment and war. I believe we as Christians should offer a totally pro-life platform. We should care as much for the born as for the unborn when it comes to life, and we should cry out ‘injustice’ when a born person is wrongly harmed or executed just as much as we do when a baby is aborted. But strangely, we don’t do that very much.
Let me remind each one of us that the Bible says we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. Justice is when you get what you deserve. If you really think about it, if we are talking about the whole sum and substance of our lives, we should not be screaming for justice from God for ourselves, because that will end badly for all of us. But there is a place to advocate for justice when particular acts of injustice have been committed against particular persons at particular times.
Mercy by contrast is when we don’t get what we deserve as sinful folk. And finally grace is when we get forgiveness and good things we have not deserved. So, if we all want mercy and forgiveness, and we all know we have fallen short, how exactly can we ignore the cry of justice when a clear act of injustice has been committed against person? I don’t think we can, and I hope you don’t think so either, for the justice the Bible mostly talks about is the vindication of the wronged and oppressed, not the sort of ‘justice’ meted out all too often to the rich and entitled in our world. Justice should be blind, and at the same time impartial, and at the same time not for sale. Think on these things.