I’m always a little intrigued by how easy it is for us humans to instinctively demand justice, yet how deep we have to dig in order to muster up any inclination toward mercy or forgiveness. What’s up with that? I understand that God has wired us with that desire for righteousness, to see “the crooked made straight and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4). But I also know how much trouble we get into when we presume to dispense judgment without mercy. Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of righteous indignation, our first instinct was one of grace and mercy? What would that look like?
I say all this because I’ve been fascinated by the response to a situation here in Illinois. Many of you probably know that our former governor George Ryan was sentenced to a six-year prison term for a variety of corruption charges that stem from his tenure as secretary of state. Probably the most notable and tragic result of Ryan’s crimes were the deaths of the six children of Scott and Janet Willis, who were killed in a fiery traffic accident caused by a trucker who obtained his driver’s license illegally from one of Ryan’s secretary of state offices. Consequently, many people view Ryan as an accomplice to murder.
Dick Durbin, one of our U.S. senators, recently sent a letter to President Bush requesting that Ryan’s prison sentence be commuted to the one year he has served already. (Coincidentally, Durbin is a Democrat and Ryan is a Republican.) In a truly gracious display that, unfortunately, has been drowned out by the cynical cries of favoritism and “politics as usual,” Durbin writes that the 74-year-old Ryan “has lost his state pension benefits and a commutation will not restore them. He would emerge from prison facing economic uncertainty at an advanced stage of his life.” He also notes that Ryan’s wife, Lura Lynn, is in declining health and would benefit from her husband’s presence. Durbin continues:
“For those who would argue that a commutation makes light of his crimes, it is clear that he has already paid a significant price and will continue to do so as long as he lives. Justice is a sword that should be tempered with compassion. Further imprisonment will not, in my opinion, serve the ends of justice.”
For this, Durbin has taken a major lashing from the public. On the Chicago Tribune website, one commenter opined, “Whatever good opinion I have had of Senator Durbin has just diminished to zero. He has just added to the belief that politicians stick together no matter what the crime. It is time that they not be considered untouchable where justice is concerned.” Responding to the criticism, Durbin said he had been “raised in a tradition of redemption” and that he believed Ryan has already paid a great price.
However, the overwhelming majority of folks seem adamant that Ryan should not be given any special treatment. Again on the Tribune site, in a survey that asks: “Should President Bush set Gov. George Ryan free?,” out of 1,977 respondents (when I last checked), a whopping 1,617 said “No,” while only 360 folks said “Yes.” That’s 82% whose natural and abiding impulse is to go by the letter of the law versus 18% who think the old guy has suffered enough.
Ironically, Gov. George Ryan’s other great controversial act was the moratorium he placed on Illinois’s death penalty because of several dubious cases where individuals were unfairly tried. Then, before leaving office in 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of every inmate on Illinois’ Death Row—167 in all—to life in prison.
What do you think? What’s the proper balance between mercy and justice? Would commuting Gov. Ryan’s sentence send the wrong message, or would it send exactly the kind of message our society needs to witness more of—one of compassion, forgiveness, and grace?
In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey writes:
Because it goes against human nature, forgiveness must be taught and practiced, as one would practice any difficult craft. “Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. What greater gift could Christians give to the world than the forming of a culture that upholds grace and forgiveness?