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Oprah, Bryan Stevenson & The Depths of Mercy

While watching an old episode of Super Soul Sunday today, Ms. Winfrey (gotta put a handle on greatness) was interviewing Dr. Bryan Stevenson, ‘lawyer, social justice activist, founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, clinical professor at New York University School of Law’ 1 and author of ‘Just Mercy’; ‘an unforgettable account of Dr. Stevenson’s pursuit of true justice’ 2in the face of a merciless legal system. It was his book that inspired me to write, Crime, Criminals, & Redemption: What the Bible Says About Certain Crimes and Those Who Commit Them.’ While interviewing Dr. Stevenson, I could tell Ms. Winfrey didn’t really ‘get’ what he was saying, in that it seemed as if she couldn’t grasp the depth of mercy.


For instance, she made the comment there are some who shouldn’t be allowed back into society to which Dr. Stevenson agreed. His retort was that, as a society, do we have the right to kill those individuals. Do we, as a collective legal system, have the right to decide who lives and who dies. He argued the death penalty needs to be abolished because we’ve proven that we clearly have the capacity to house individuals for a lifetime, as evidenced by the uptick in correctional facility expansion. But for some reason, his argument seemed to have taken her aback because no one will argue that those who commit certain crimes should be punished to the full extent of the law. What they will argue is whether that extent warrants death; to which most will agree, it does. But again, what gives us that right?


Jesus said in Matthew 5:38, 39 that, You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’ Notice Jesus didn’t say to sock that person out until they lose what you lost or hurt like you hurt. He said, turn the other cheek which could also mean, show some mercy. But in those instances when someone does take a life, it's hard for many to show mercy because again, most have that eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality; especially when it comes to criminal justice. I’m assuming that Ms. Winfrey is a proponent of the eye/tooth justice because as Dr. Stevenson went on to draw on other examples of extreme cases of mercy he’s experienced, I could tell she was floored, and in that moment, I began to see Ms. Winfrey differently. In that, I realized it’s possible for good people not to understand mercy.


Understanding the Depths of Mercy


I mean there’s no denying that Ms. Winfrey is an extraordinary human being. That’s not even up for debate. But even though she’s an award-winning humanitarian, a multimillion-dollar philanthropist, and is a wonderful woman of color who’s a game-changing history maker, she still does not understand the depths of mercy. Though she is merciful to an extent, the depth and level of mastery in which Dr. Stevenson’s walks is foreign to her. When I realized that I was disheartened because I assumed that because she is all of the above that she would. But judging from her comments and follow-up questions, it became painstakingly clear that she does not. And because Ms. Winfrey is a cultural icon, I still found that hard to believe because the intellectual side of me wants to believe that because she’s so successful, because she’s so intelligent, and because she’s so well read, that she would understand. But again, from an experiential standpoint, she does not.


But before we move on, I must say that I am in no way trying to disparage Ms. Winfrey. She is one of the few people - on the planet - that I truly admire. I merely mention this because all too often we base our humanity on what our cultural icons do. But I have found, in my own experience, that I first need to check with God and what He’s outlined in the Bible before I side with anyone…on the planet. That said, it is my hope that you walk away from this read having located where you are on mercy, in hopes of finding out for yourself what the Bible says about it. But let's move on.


So, what do I mean by the depths of mercy? As with anything in life, there are levels. Mercy’s no different. I know this because even in my own life, I’ve had to extend mercy to those who’ve shown me none. Case and point. In 2011, I was the victim of an unsolved violent crime. On June 19th, fifteen high-powered assault type bullets rang through my bedroom, one piercing my leg. The next day a detective stood beside my hospital bed and asked me if I knew who did it. My answer, no. Was I lying? No. I really didn’t know who shot me because I didn’t see that person. But even if I did, I don’t think I would have revealed who my shooter was. Why? Because as I sat in a pool of blood, me and my son prayed and asked God to forgive whoever had done this to me. Minutes before the police or the paramedics arrived, I’d already forgiven my shooter. So whether they were apprehended, sentenced, or walked free meant absolutely nothing to me because I’d already extended mercy - byway of forgiveness. That’s a level of mercy most don’t understand. And if you’re reading this shaking your head, then you haven’t gone to that depth yet. How could I? Because even though I’ve never pulled a trigger, my words and deeds have wreaked havoc and caused some type of emotional and/or financial injury in the lives of others. So who was I not to extend what God had so graciously extended to me? And this is what I mean by the depth of mercy.


Judgment vs. Mercy


Mercy is much more than not cursing out someone, overlooking pettiness, or being lenient with minor infractions. There are levels, which to most, can come across as being soft, naïve or weak but that is far from the truth. It takes supernatural strength to not want to see the person that attempted to take your life, dead. It takes the power of God to extend mercy to a murderer. But to Dr. Stevenson’s point, who are we to decide whether they live or die? Should they spend the rest of their lives in a cell or be executed? I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide. But before you judge, the next time you sin or do something so unconscionable that you have to go before the throne of grace to obtain mercy to help you receive forgiveness, remember that the same God that extends mercy to you is the same God that’ll extend mercy to those you’ve deemed unforgiveable.


Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ (Mt. 5:43-45) God’s so merciful that the same sun you see everyday is also seen by a ruthless criminal. And the same rain that hits the window of an unjust death row inmate is the same rain that waters Ms. Winfrey’s Hawaiian flower garden. Remember that the next time you decide someone does or doesn’t deserve mercy.


Pray this with me: Heavenly Father, please forgive me for the times I said that someone didn’t deserve mercy because there are times when I don’t. Lord please show me, in Your Word, the depths of Your mercy so that I can pray for and extend that kind of mercy to those who don’t deserve it, just like You extend to me. In Jesus’ name.


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To get your copy of Just Mercy, click here.

To get your eCopy of my book, ‘Crime, Criminals, & Redemption: What the Bible Says About Certain Crimes and Those Who Commit Them’, click here.





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