“…and justice for all.” How many times have I repeated those words? As a child, it was a daily ritual to stand and face the American flag, placing my right hand over the general locale of my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought about those last three words the other day for awhile and I’ve about decided that I’m not in favor of that. Okay…hear me out before you go ballistic on me. I know it’s un-American to not fight for justice. But, I’m coming to believe that there may be a better way. Let’s just say that justice is not what I hope to receive myself. Let me give you a bit of background for my thought process.
One of my many money-raising ventures as a boy was to deliver papers. When I say papers, I don’t mean the daily kind with news in them; the ones for which the customer paid and for which the delivery boy received the princely profit of ten cents per paper. I mean the “Town Crier”. This weekly advertising circular was delivered across my hometown by an army of children, boys mostly, for the meager price of one-half of a cent per paper (probably more as time went by). In addition, the paper could not be thrown from the comfortable seat of a bicycle, as with the daily, but had to be walked to every single door. We weren’t even allowed to drop it on the porch. It had to be placed on the door latch or knob. This meant that the youth delivering this particular paper had to roll each one and then walk his/her entire route, going up to every single door and leaving the paper. All of that to earn one cent for every two delivered. We were trusted to deliver all of the papers we picked up from the printing office, as well as following the delivery instructions to the letter. The reputation of the publisher depended on us.
I will never forget the day the boy delivering the papers on the adjacent route to mine was fired. It seems that, while I and many others across town were trudging along, delivering the papers one to a house, on the door latch, exactly as directed (250 times for me!), Skip figured out that this wasn’t working out for him. Halfway through his route, the Free Methodist Church sat empty every week as he went by. Cutting through the church’s yard one afternoon, he noticed an opening in the foundation. Curious, he squatted down and peered into the darkness. It was dark under the building, but suddenly there was a light burning brightly in his brain! Every week thereafter (until he was fired), he delivered a few strategic papers to their destinations and then turned his feet toward the church, pausing as he passed to throw half or more of his bag’s contents in the crawl space under the old brick structure. For weeks, the young charlatan was paid for papers he never delivered, until one day a plumber was called to take care of a problem at the church. This required a trek under the building right through the opening which was now full of stashed circulars! A call was made to the publisher and the day of reckoning arrived. Skip was now unemployed, having stolen numerous dollars of Mr.Offerman’s money and deprived his advertisers of the benefits they should have received from the exposure the papers afforded them.
Some of the rest of us who had done our jobs by the book for the pittance we received in remuneration were angry. We wanted justice! This cheater should have to give back the money he was paid for delivering those papers. They had the evidence! Just count the papers he had discarded and make him pay that back! Firing him wasn’t justice; it just freed him from future labor and allowed him to keep the profit from his past fraud.
As I contemplated the meaning of justice the other day, another scene was brought to memory. Around the same time frame, it involved two young men, one of whom shall remain anonymous. These young men wandered around the neighborhood one afternoon, curious about the rumblings and vibrations caused by earth being moved, and the emissions of diesel smoke from an old vacant field nearby. They had played there many times over the years and it appeared that some unknown landowner had decided to capitalize on his property. The graders and backhoes were hard at it, knocking down trees, skimming the dirt off the high spots and filling the low-lying areas. In short, the boys’ playground was soon to become a housing development. And, they weren’t happy. That evening, after the work site had been vacated by the machine operators, the boys returned. A pocket knife cut a gas line or two, oil dipsticks were removed and thrown into the grass, perhaps even a little dirt found its way into the oil fill tube. And, as one of the young men broke out a taillight with a large rock, a neighbor appeared at his door to investigate the noise. The jig was up! Police reports were filed and the two boys were picked up after school a day or two later to answer some questions down at the police station. Those of us on the seedier side have a phrase for what we did there. We sang like canaries.
The owner of the equipment declined to file charges, only requesting that his repair expenses be reimbursed. I don’t know about the other young man, but I spent the next two years delivering papers and mowing lawns to pay back that debt. I’ll never forget my Dad’s reaction. I expected the worst. Dad could ply the belt with the best of them and this one was bound to be a doozy! But as I sat on the edge of the bed in his bedroom, he just sat beside me and looked at me. The hurt written in his eyes and on his face was a worse punishment than any spanking I had ever received. But, no remonstration came, just his sad voice telling me about the financial agreement we were making and then, it was over.
Mercy. Not justice; but mercy. Mercy from a stranger whose property was put out of commission by my shenanigans. Mercy from a father who was devastated by my actions. Justice would have been fair, would have been equitable. But they chose mercy. I was grateful beyond words.
I must admit that I have not always remembered that lesson well. As an adult, one day my father and I sat listening to a news story about some young men who had committed a crime. “They should try them as adults and throw the book at them!” I exclaimed disgustedly. The quiet answer came from across the room, “I’m glad there was a man who didn’t think that way when you were a boy.” His answer has remained with me to this day. We who have been forgiven have an obligation to forgive, but frequently are the first to demand justice.
Am I preaching again? I guess I am. Have you gotten the point yet? Okay then, one more thought and the sermon is over. In God’s system, justice is the standard, but mercy gets the last word. It’s not a bad example for us to follow in our personal lives. I’ll leave the reader to figure out how to apply the principle.
And, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be able to run for president now that I’ve admitted to my sordid and lawless past. My disappointment is profound.
“Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty,
(William Newell~ American hymn writer~1868-1956)
“Reason to rule, but mercy to forgive; the first is law; the last, prerogative.”
(John Dryden~English poet and dramatist~1631-1700)
Original post April, 2012