The Quality of Mercy

I want to follow up on that last post with an account of a sermon given by a Christian man who is doing what he can to change our broken system. His name is Mark Osler. He used to be a federal prosecutor in Detroit and sent many men, particularly, black men to prison for drug crimes. He did it with the best of intentions, motivated by a genuine love for his home town which was falling apart before his eyes. But eventually, after he left the job to take a position at Baylor University in Waco Texas, he began to question the justice of what he had been involved in. He was seeking ways to bring his work and his faith into proper relationship with each other, and in the process has become one of the most influential lawyers working to change our drug sentencing laws and bring a different sort of justice to people caught up in the drug trade. Justice which is joined with mercy, not justice which demands the sacrifice of the lives of young men of color.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Osler reads before getting to the less frequently cited sentences. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

Osler pauses. “Sometimes,” he says with a grin, “the Bible is not very reassuring for a fairly affluent straight white guy from Edina,” referring to the Minneapolis suburb where he and his family live. “But that is me, and this is one of those times. In this passage, Jesus is talking about turning everything—everything—upside down. The poor will have the kingdom, while the rich will face woe. The hungry will be filled, while those who are full will be hungry. Those who are reviled will be blessed, and it’s bad when all speak well of you. This teaching, this idea of turning everything upside down, is dangerous.”

No theatrics inform the sermon. Osler doesn’t pace and only occasionally gesticulates. He speaks methodically and conversationally, as if the congregation were a jury he has to persuade. “At the very least,” he continues, “when Jesus tells us the world should be upside down from where it is today—‘woe to you who are rich’—at the very least it means we have to ally ourselves with the poor, with the hungry, with the reviled. That’s our team. That’s the side that, as Christians, we’re on, we’re assigned to.”

Osler pulls out a copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson before Dying. He outlines the basic plot, which centers on a schoolteacher in a small black town in 1940s Louisiana, who counsels a man on death row. During this time, the boxer Joe Louis was a hero to black Americans. Osler reads a passage: “As vividly as if I were there, I had seen that cell, heard that boy crying while being dragged to that chair, ‘Please, Joe Louis, help me. Please help me. Help me.’”

Putting the book down, Osler says, “I get letters that cry out like that. Every week. They’re from people who want my students and me to seek clemency for them—desperate men and women serving life terms very often. And they come with carefully handwritten return addresses from those places we warehouse men and women in this country.

“Inside each one, painstakingly written, is a story. And it’s always a tragic story. They think I’ll know a way to get them out of prison after 25 or 30 or 37 years for a narcotics case that almost no one remembers. In the end, probably writing to me is as hopeless as writing to Joe Louis. But I can’t throw the letters away. I have to try to do something. And so I do. I try to get the law to change. I try to get the president of the United States to try to take seriously his constitutional duty of showing mercy with the pardon power. I try sometimes to work with my students to save just one of them.”

The squirming and occasional cough that could be heard early in the sermon have ceased. Some members have their eyes closed. Others look around with concern.

“Because the people who write those letters,” Osler goes on, “are Jesus. Because he said, ‘When you visit those in prison, you visit me.’ He didn’t say, ‘When you visit the innocent person in prison,’ or ‘When you visit the political prisoner.’ ‘When you visit those in prison,’ and these are the people in prison. They are Jesus. And their mothers who write to me and beg that we help their child so that she can see him again before he dies—they are Mary. Dutiful. Heartbroken. Watching their child die.”

There it is: the message Osler has spent years delivering—that mercy has been stripped from Christianity and society and must be restored.

“So we do have to seek social justice, as hard as it is—and it is hard,” he says. “To ally ourselves with the hungry, with the reviled, we have to make ourselves vulnerable. And that’s a hard thing to do. We have to open ourselves up to do things we don’t usually do. That’s part of the deal: that it won’t be safe or painless.”

This account comes from a much, much, much longer article called “The Quality of Mercy” on Osler, his work and some of the terrible effects of our so-called war on drugs. If you have a half an hour to spend, I would highly recommend checking it out.

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