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A Matthew 7 Mindset to Criminal Justice

Six months ago, I was rushing to bring materials to a church presentation. On my way there, I was pulled over. When the officer asked if I knew how fast I was going, I honestly said I did not know. He informed me that I had been going 47 mph in a 25. I was shocked. It was one of those moments that, even if I was focusing on my surroundings, the rush I was in distracted me from paying attention to how fast I was going. I was completely appalled at myself.

He informed me that I had been going 47 mph in a 25.

The officer then asked what my driving record was. I told him I had never gotten a ticket before, and never been in an accident (which was true). He went back to his car and for the next five minutes, my stomach turned in knots knowing there was no way he wouldn’t give me a ticket.

When he came back, however, he let me off with a warning! Part of it was because I had a clean record, but the primary reason he said he didn’t give me a ticket was that I was driving my boss’s car, who used to be a county prosecutor. The officer said that my boss had done good work for his department, said I “seemed” like I wouldn’t do it again, and let me go. I did not deserve this warning, and leaving that situation I couldn’t help but wonder:

“What if I hadn’t been driving my boss’ car? What if I hadn’t been in church clothes? What if I hadn’t been white? What if I had been one of the 500,000 people in Michigan with a suspended driver’s license for non-driving related offenses?”

And on the list goes. I can’t speak for certain on all of these what if’s, but in my experience working in criminal justice if I had fit into any one of those “what if’s” I definitely would have gotten a ticket, if not been arrested for reckless driving.

It is because of comments like this that I tell this story.

Having had numerous conversations about criminal justice reform with believers in more privileged places, I all too often hear comments like:

“They knew what they were doing,”

or “If they didn’t want to get a ticket, or didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have broken the law,”

or even “It doesn’t matter who they are, they broke the law, and they deserve to be punished.”

It is because of comments like this that I tell this story, to remind us that we all break the law unintentionally at times. We all, at some point, make mistakes that are not just sinful but break the law in the country or state in which we reside.

As Reformed people, this is not new information.

As Reformed people, this is not new information. Yet, there is still a misconception surrounding those affected by the criminal justice system that completely forgets to acknowledge universal sin. This directly contradicts what Jesus calls us to. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

In this passage, Jesus calls us to always think of our own wrongdoing before we approach another person. As a plank is much bigger than a speck of sawdust, so is the importance in recognizing our own sin as compared to those of another.

No one throws another stone because no one in the crowd is without sin.

And again in John 8, in the story of the adulterous woman and her stone-throwing accusers, Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one throws another stone because no one in the crowd is without sin.

Jesus is clear that it is not our job to condemn first, when we ourselves are worthy of condemnation. Instead, it is our job to recognize our faults and go forward to help our brothers and sisters accordingly, with the humility, understanding, and compassion we have gained from knowing the work and hurt it takes to remove a plank from our own eyes. Any comments or legislation, then, that lack this humility and compassion, this Matthew 7 mindest, go against Christ’s teachings and need reforming.

A justice system founded on a Matthew 7 mindset teaches us to always see our own need for Christ.

It is true that not all crimes are done unintentionally. It is also true that a prison sentence can be a necessary form of punishment for some crimes and circumstances. Humility and compassion, though, do not dismiss responsibility but emphasize it, making it as the primary lens through which we see people and safety.

A justice system founded on a Matthew 7 mindset teaches us to always see our own need for Christ, our brokenness greater than or as equal to that of the Other, and humanizes the process of responsibility in approach to punishment. This mindset informs us to desire love and growth for ourselves first, and others second, saying, “I am not worthy of being let off the hook. I do not deserve to be let free, yet I have been by Christ and I will choose to extend this mercy to you as well.”

[Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash]


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