“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, duty, mercy, hope” Winston Churchill
I was recently issued with a parking ticket by the Forestry Commission. Or rather I wasn’t! I parked illegally in a car park which they had recently taken over and, unbeknown to me they had introduced a new parking charge. It seems that at some point in the day I was issued with a ticket which subsequently got lost before I returned to my vehicle. I was therefore surprised when a few months later I received a letter from them with a notification of the fine due. “Unjust”, I thought. Unfair! Lord have Mercy!
Mercy, justice and hope are key themes in scripture which it is hard to ignore. However, even as a Prison Chaplain I often find myself wondering if I have a good perspective on these – a godly, or biblical perspective.
When I think of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Lk 10, I find myself thinking that the ‘good’ Samaritan was considered a neighbour because he showed kindness. Jesus clearly uses the word “Mercy”.
When I think of the coming messiah, the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah, I think about the new life that he will bring, about salvation and life. Isaiah clearly talks about the one who will ‘bring justice to the nations’ (Isa 42:3).
And what about that crucial moment in salvation history, the death and resurrection of Jesus? Do I think in terms of a loving Father’s sacrifice and love, or in terms of a just God who ‘will not falter until he establishes justice on the earth’ (Isa 42:4)?
But perhaps such polarised thinking is not helpful. Perhaps justice, mercy, hope, forgiveness, kindness, suffering, humility and hope are all inter-related terms. Perhaps they are terms which give us an indication as to the means by which we experience God’s passion for justice, a justice that is beyond simply punishment and retribution, a justice that lovingly brings about change. Considering the crucifixion in ‘The Crucified God’, Jorgen Moltmann points out that Jesus “humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him”. We, who once were godless experience communion, or possibly even community with God through the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the ultimate act of mercy, the ultimate act of justice. These are not exclusive, they are expressions of the kindness of God, He is willing to travel through the cross without faltering to offer us new resurrection life that is eternally changed.
And where we have this sort of justice, we have hope. Martin Luther King said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” I love the fact that the first Christians were recognisable as people of hope. Peter, in his first letter, encourages those living as exiles in what is now Turkey to: “…revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Pet 3:15. Hope was such a characteristic of the early believers’ lives that the sense we get from Peter’s letter is that people would stop and ask them about it. “Why are you, of all people, so hopeful?” I wonder what it was about their way of life, their conversations, their worship, their values, that provoked people to ask them about hope?
As we all know, hope saves lives. Since 2014 we have seen a substantial recorded increase in the number of people taking their own lives in prison. The figures initially jumped by 69%, continued to rise in 2015, and then we have heard again recently that 2016 has seen a further 29% rise. But day by day I see Chaplains bringing messages of hope that save lives, going the extra mile, making every contact count in ways that offer hope to the hopeless. My hope, my prayer is that as one people, characterised as those who have experienced this life changing justice ourselves, we daily offer mercy and hope in the prisons we serve. Let us continue to be those who demonstrate God’s real justice; a justice that does not ignore the wrong, but deals with it in a way that changes lives … eternally.
I appealed to the Forestry Commission for mercy, but really without much hope! I knew that I was wrong, ignorance did not lessen that fact, however I appealed to them for mercy and with a refreshing sense of justice they agreed to halve my fine. God has said through the prophet Isaiah that ‘he will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on the earth’. If we are to experience this, then we must surely cry out with all of our being, as we will this Prisons Week - ‘Lord have Mercy’, and expect that with a passion for justice, He will.
Bless you all, and really do take care