God's Justice Extends to All Parts of the World - Herron Gaston, MDiv '14

Greetings!  Today's post is a reflection by Herron Gaston M.Div '14 on the criminal justice system and compassionate reconciliation.  Thanks Herron!

Yale Law School Gargoyle of Justice

God’s Justice Extends to All Parts of the World

by Herron Gaston, M.Div 2014

Earlier this year, I was in court standing in solidarity with victims who had experienced police brutality as a part of my Christian obligation and responsibility as a minister.  During this time, I had the privilege of hearing many other unrelated cases.

One man went before the judge charged with drug use. His lawyer said that he had been using PCP since he was 14, growing up in a low-income household with a single mother and an “absent father.”  He had watched his own brother kill himself and, several months later, had been shot in the face.  He had been diagnosed with severe clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he had been self-medicating with drugs.  He had been in trouble with the law all his life because of his drug use. He had a sister and a ten year old son whom he loved very much.  Now, thanks to their support and a drug treatment program, he had been clean for 8 months – since his last arrest, for which he was being sentenced today – and, though he was having trouble finding full-time work, was in job training.  His lawyer asked the judge for him to be given the minimum sentence of two years’ probation so that he could be with his family and complete his treatment.

The judge gave him three years and he was carried away in handcuffs.  The judge told him, “Life isn’t a fairy tale like I’m sure you were told it was as a kid. You need to grow up.”

A second man went before the judge. This one had beaten his wife severely.

He was given probation.

Now a line of people came into the courtroom and sat in the row in front of me.  They looked nervous.  A name was called and one of them got up.  He hugged the woman next to him and the woman to the right of him.  Then he kissed the woman to her right.  Then he hugged the man next to her.  Then he went up. He had smoked marijuana while on probation.

He was given five years with the possibility of parole.  He, too, was taken away.

There were many reasons that this scene was troubling, aside from the simple fact that it is painful to watch human beings being taken away from their family in chains.

Almost every single one of those on trial that day were black or latino; every guard, judge, and prosecutor I saw were white. Every time someone accused of a drug offense was standing before the judge, the bailiff stood close behind them, ready to handcuff them and take them away when their prison term was announced.  But assaults, domestic violence and drunk driving – all crimes that actually hurt people – not one of them received a day in jail.  Towards the end of the day, the room where they were keeping those being detained was full, so they brought them to sit in the court. A whole section of seats was taken up by men and women, all cuffed, all wearing grey sweats, sitting immediately beneath the judge’s bench. 

In my time in New Haven, I have often noted how there is not one, but two worlds: the world of the schoolhouse and the world of the jailhouse.  These two worlds are just down the block from one another. But one is a world of papers and exams while the other is one of chains and cells.  One is well-fed while another is starving.  One world revels in how much of a wonderful community is that can worship and sing and eat and dance together.  The other world is painfully, seemingly irreconcilably divided into victims and victimizers.

I have spent much of my six semesters at Yale trying to spend as much time in the world of the jailhouse as possible.  That world extends beyond the courtroom, to the Green in front of the municipal building where homeless folks try to survive.  It extends down into the Hill neighborhood where people are being displaced from their homes to make room for a “sanitized” zone around the hospital.  It extends into workshops and stores staffed by undocumented immigrants, working 14 hour days for half of minimum wage, living in the constant fear of being ripped from their families.

But as members of the body of Christ I believe we are called to stand on the side of the poor. In fact, Matthew 25 tells us that in order for us to inherit the Kingdom of God- we (as Christians), whether self-professed or called, must receive a recommendation letter from the poor, marginalized, and imprisoned. It suggests that we don’t acquiesce to societal injustice where we no longer feel convicted when we hear or see it, but instead that we stand on the right side of justice to which Scripture calls us. Similarly, Micah 6:8 leaves us with a question, but also provides us with an answer. What does God require of us? God requires us to “do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”  Essentially, that means we must walk in the often uncomfortable spaces where God is walking and stand in solidarity with the least of these, with a spirit of compassionate reconciliation.