More than once have Micah staff, volunteers and other caring parties sat in a courtroom with a neighbor in need. We’ve seen them wrongly accused. We’ve watched them rightfully convicted.
The people we care so deeply about have been handcuffed and carted off to jail before our eyes. Some for good reason. Others for misplaced associations.
Countless times have we received letters from jail. People we don’t even know fill our mailboxes with pages and pages of their hopes and desires for things to be different upon their release. We’ve read requests for handouts. We’ve entertained empty stories of salvation. And we’ve heard honest pleas for forgiveness and second chances.
Sometimes we agree with the decisions handed down by our secular justice system. Sometimes we disagree. Sometimes there’s no right to form much of an opinion at all. But no matter what we think to be the truth or lie, guilt or innocence in the circumstances, our call to be present for our neighbor in need is clear.
On the morning of Christ’s crucifixion, the Roman soldiers entertained themselves with a popular dice game. They gambled for the clothes on Jesus’s back, beat him and made him “king for a day,” complete with a crown of thorns, a robe and scepter. In what is now the basement of the Ecce Homo Convent in Jerusalem, you can still see the circular evidence of that game carved into the stone pavement of what was then the Lithostrotos–the courtyard where Pilate had his judgement seat.
The game was pointless. Just another way to advance the humiliation and suffering already bestowed upon the prisoner. And as we know, Jesus’s day as “king” ended when he joined two thieves in a violent crucifixion on the cross. Many of that time, found the work of Jesus, the crime of thievery and plenty of other wrongs against society to be equally worthy of the death penalty. For better or worse, crucifixion was the ancient Jerusalem way of throwing away the nuisance, the troublemaker or anyone else that happened to interfere with someone’s agenda.
Actually, that’s a pretty easy thing to do. String up the bad guy. Lock up the problem causer. And silence a voice that differs.
It’s harder to co-exist; to believe, in spite of everything, that we still remain equals in the kingdom God created here on earth. It is hard work to look in the eye of the convicted man or woman who stands at the mercy of a community armed with stones. And it’s scary as anything to rush to the center of that circle and dare that any who have not sinned would cast the first stone.
Trials are held. Lawyers are summoned, Evidence collected, and verdicts are handed down. But when the crowd dissolves and the stones have been left behind, it is the voice of the one who was present in that moment of judgement that carries any weight in the future story.
Secular justice has a particular way of handling people. It measures human behavior against manmade laws that govern right and wrong. But separate from God’s justice, which calls for all things to be made right again, the verdict is more about the conviction and punishment than the change it might bring about.
How easy we forget the typical practice of ancient crucifixions. Had it not been for the support system that Jesus had around him at the time, his body might have remained on the cross for months on end. Left to rot and feed the buzzards.
When we choose to be present for those being judged around us, we join Jesus at the center his stoning circle–a game of kings. It’s a risk that just might find us caught in the crossfire. But its just the sort of thing that challenges people to think about justice in a different way.
Standing with the sinner, the liar, the criminal and so forth is not about looking the other way, ignoring wrong doing or convincing people otherwise. It’s about making justice means something more than a game of kings.