Our world thrives on division and conflict, doesn’t it? In fact, we’re somewhat drunk on division. And it’s not merely division we love, but the paradigm of a victor who crushes and insults (cf. the Trump effect). Do you recall Conan the Barbarian’s answer to the question “What is best in life?” Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” I’d suggest that, particularly when you watch politics on TV, you’ll find a narrative fairly close to that. Mercy is not a part of our grammar. It’s not a part of our narrative.
During the week Lent began, I had a surreal experience. It was an experience many have, but it was new to me. I was summoned to the county courthouse as a candidate for a jury. Long story short: they passed on the priest in his collar who reminded the judge that Ash Wednesday was the next day.
I had expected to be bored to tears throughout this experience, which lasted the better part of the day. But instead, there were 30 people, each being asked questions about what it means to be guilty or innocent. The attorneys asked all kinds of epistemological questions: about evidence and about how we really know what we know. And the defendant who was accused of a serious crime was there for it all. When the crime was announced it sucked the air out of the room.
Jury selection is called (FYI for non-attorneys) voir dire. It means “tell the truth,” and the implication is that when asked a question during jury selection, the candidate will tell the truth (e.g., Do you know the defendant? Have you ever had this crime committed against you?). Some in the pool told the truth indeed: they had already passed judgment on the defendant on the charge alone.
My mind wandered at times to wonder what it would be like to be in the defendant’s chair. What would the anxiety of that experience be like? What would it be like to know that evidence was about to presented about me and about things I’ve done? What would it be like to feel the eyes of the jury on me? I played this out in different ways in mind, even considering what it would feel like if I knew, going into the courtroom, that I was dead to rights, that I was guilty.
We are in the midst of the season of Lent, the season of penance, yes, but also the season that builds to Easter Day, and is therefore a season of reconciliation. And it needs to be said clearly that real reconciliation does not happen when real sins are ignored or denied. Real reconciliation does not happen when we fudge on the wrongs committed. Real reconciliation does not happen when we “look past it” and find some excuse. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. No, real reconciliation happens when we confess our sins and are forgiven:
If we say we have no sins we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said something quite similar: the only way to find true reconciliation is to tell the truth about our shortcomings, about our faults, about our sins, and yes, the truth about our need for mercy in the face of those very real sins.
In this season of Lent, as we acknowledge our mortality, our brokenness, our very real sins, I give you the words of Martin Luther. In one of his so-called letters of spiritual counsel, Luther wrote in 1530:
When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares you deserve death and hell, tell him this, I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it … for I know one who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is I shall also be.
This is the sinner’s plea. It is my plea. And it is founded on the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).