Wednesday, July 8, 2009

M.A. in Just Desserts

“You need a masters degree just to use a cell phone,” he said. If you met Darryl on the street, you’d scratch your head at his comment. A young, intelligent American, Darryl hardly seems the sort to be outsmarted by technology. But after spending 24 years in a maximum-security prison, Darryl is essentially a stranger in the modern world.

I interviewed Darryl in January and was absolutely astounded by his journey. He was arrested and convicted of murder using the testimony of paid, criminal informants. Though no physical evidence linked him to the crime, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

Five months later, one of the key witnesses recounted his testimony and signed an affidavit indicating that he lied about seeing the shooting. And yet, nothing happened.

In this case, like many others, justice was not the key issue. Instead, the courts needed someone to blame and punish, so an innocent man went to jail — and remained there for 24 years, until a not-for-profit organization finally convinced the courts to reevaluate.

But the truly amazing thing — the thing that makes me continue to return to his story — is that Darryl carries no trace of bitterness. I asked him about it, because I can’t imagine being imprisoned unjustly for 24 hours without some degree of bitterness, much less 24 years. He responded that he looks to the story of Christ. Jesus, he said, knew what it was like to be punished for a crime he didn’t commit. And Jesus’ response was to pray for those who killed him. For Darryl, being like Christ means forgiving his oppressors.

Six months after talking to Darryl, his ability to forgive still astounds me. My clergy friends who are active in social justice often talk about the need to free both the oppressed AND the oppressors. And while I like to nod and voice my agreement, deep down, I want to remain angry with the oppressors — even when, during my moments of clarity, I recognize that I am one.

The oppressors shouldn’t be freed — they should be imprisoned. Right? Isn’t that what justice demands?

And yet, it never seems to be what Jesus does. Instead, Jesus invites them to see the world differently. Perhaps it is not unlike when my parents would send me to my room as a kid to “think about what you’ve done.” When I emerged, I was expected to discuss my actions, why they were wrong and what I could do differently in the future.

I’m trying to move beyond the idea that justice is some sort of cosmic revenge. I can’t exactly imagine Jesus throwing a few air punches and rejoicing that some “evil doer” (who is always someone other than us) “got what was comin’ to ‘em.”

And maybe that is what Darryl understands and lives out — that true justice is an act of restoration and, yes, of freeing.