Justice or mercy?
Let me tell you a story.
General Robert E. Lee was a great man. Everyone agreed -- even his enemies. As a young man, he completed his West Point training without a single demerit. He was a hero during the Mexican War and afterward was chosen as commandant of West Point. Lee led the troops who arrested John Brown and his men at Harper's Ferry, and when the Civil War started, he was offered command of the armies for both sides. General Lee's abilities and leadership kept the South in the game much longer than anyone could have guessed.
After the war, he was looking for work. That whole running-an-army, saving-the-Confederacy thing hadn't really worked out for him, and he was considering a change in careers.
He took a job as president of Washington University, where he must have done a good job because following his death the school's name was changed to Washington and Lee University, and it remains the same today. It wasn't a huge challenge for him -- he'd spent years keeping thousands of armed men in line, so a few college students sure didn't scare him. Keep in mind, this was before spring breaks became popular.
He ran a pretty taut ship and the students were all a little scared of him. He was, after all, Robert E. Lee, the greatest general of his age, perhaps the closest thing to a knight we've ever seen in America.
One day a student was caught in some infraction and was sent to General Lee to be dealt his fate.
The General wasn't in, so the student had to sit in the reception area, waiting for him to return. The longer he sat, the more anxious he became. When Lee finally entered the room, he glanced sideways at the nervously twitching lad.
"Don't worry, son," he said. "You will have justice through these doors."
The young man blurted out, "That's what I'm afraid of, Sir. I don't need justice, I need mercy."
We talk about justice a lot in America. It's even a part of our pledge of allegiance. Remember? " . . . and liberty and justice for all." And yet, even with liberty and justice as priorities, we spent almost a hundred years as a country in which quite a few of our citizens did without liberty. If you're talking justice, well, over the years justice has been pretty hard to come by, too.
Sometimes I wonder if we know what we're talking about.
And when we ask for justice, I really, truly wonder if we realize what we're asking for. Here's something to think about. What if someone were to meet your eyes and say in an emphatic voice, "Someday I hope you get just what you deserve!" Would you be pleased? I know I wouldn't, even though that may be a clear definition of justice.
So, as a country and as a people, I think it's a terrific idea that we all work for justice.
But we better pray for mercy.
Copyright 2006 Brent Olson
Let me tell you a story.