The Gray of Grace
By Matt Gordon
This week I attended an interview that featured a former inmate. After serving a seven-year sentence, the man traded out his prisoner number for his old name, got in a car with his wife, and drove. Wherever he wanted to go—he was a free man.
And in that freedom, he’s done some amazing things. In just a hundred days, he’s gotten funding and found partners to help grow a leadership-based rehabilitation program in prisons nationwide. He’s been a distinguished guest at conferences, and he has even stood on a stage in front of a live and virtual audience of around 500,000 people delivering his message of hope, of love, of second chances, and of grace.
It’s a tricky one—grace. Because while I was tearing up hearing this underdog story, I was also stuck at the scene of the crime. This man who is now changing the world caused the world to end for another human. One life seems to be taking off, but it was at the cost of another life . . . a traffic accident that changed everything for two people one ill-fated day.
Grace. What do I do with it? I know the conversation in my heart was complicated. I also know other conversations were too—Should a man who caused the death of another man be given such a platform? Can I support this? Is this right? I began to stack up the information I had, to build makeshift towers of logic and perspectives in my mind, in my heart. Grace—it’s a tricky one.
For starters, there is the perspective of this man in front of me. Tattooed and telling his story, he does not shy away from the direction his life took, from the pain his bad decisions caused. He also opens up about his dysfunctional childhood—wait, I had some of that. He shares about negative coping—I’ve done that. He gives a glimpse of bad religion and shame—check and check. I may lack the tattoos and the prison stories, but he and I had more in common than I’d like to admit. And then he said this:
“The difference between a lot of the people in prison and the ones who aren’t is one or two bad decisions.”
Of course, he is wrong. I would never! I would never cause harm to someone or never do something that bad. But I have violated traffic laws, like he did that day—thousands of times. I’ve done dangerous and downright stupid things, if I’m honest. Mean things, too. Things that, if luck or fate would have played out even slightly differently, could have changed the trajectory of my life. Or what if I’d stumbled into different relationships? Had different parents? Gone left instead of right that one time . . . as I sat there the old quote challenged me: “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
This man sat in a courtroom and was sentenced to seven years in prison for his wrongdoing. The price was set and he paid it in full. Does he still owe me more? He paid the price but is there some unwritten clause about being forbidden from microphones and platforms? Are those who have caused death only offered certain quantities of life—only granted permission to take part in mandated portions of goodness? What is the statute of limitations on our misdeeds?
Mostly, this man doesn’t impact my answers much. My answers to these questions don’t take him into account at all really. More so, my views on repentance, rehabilitation, and grace focus solely on me. For all the deeds I would never do and have never done, I want justice to roll down like a mighty water. Goodness should be offered to people who live like me, think like me, and who have pasts like me. I will gatekeep goodness in a way that says abundant life is offered to those who deserve it. Opportunities will be a true meritocracy, reserved for the holy and unblemished. And the judge for what merit counts and what constitutes a worthy life, well, that will be me. I’ll make that call: judge, jury, and executioner. I can move on from my mistakes—tiny moral accidents—into a better future, learning from foibles and leaving them behind. But for those I deem unqualified, they need to inhabit their shame—it is a death sentence. Forever. Passed down from judge, jury, and executioner.
Grace—it’s tricky, isn’t it?
As the man was sharing and I was thinking of the strident ways we judge all the people around us, I also thought of the man who can judge no longer—at least not in any earthly way. This former inmate hit this man’s car with his. The man hit his head and eventually died. He will give no speeches, take no breaths. It is terrible, and I found myself hurting for his family. And again, the old quote came to mind: “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Any of us could be hit at any time—give no more speeches, take no more breaths.
This man didn’t willingly give his life. But he gave it all the same. This made me wonder: What for? While the optimal outcome would have been for this tragedy not to happen, we do not occupy an optimal world. As it is, this man is gone. Dead. So which is better? That the man who caused this death wallow and fester and become the evil vying for his soul—that he live forever in that shameful day, that bitter moment, and it consumes him? One life taken becomes, over time, two. Or that the man who caused this death finds hope, changes his ways, and uses that hope and those changes to peddle goodness to others who have become death, who have taken life, and offers them a way back to the living?
The second seems objectively better. It is also much, much harder. Grace, after all, is tricky. We all want it and think we deserve it, yet we become miserly when it is time to give it to others who don’t look or live like us.
I referenced a passage in the Book of Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Grace allows justice; it flows into righteousness, too. Earlier in that same chapter, this ancient prophet says this: “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.” Pride always asks for more and more. One more pound of flesh. It condemns and adds a litany of caveats on the freedom of others. Grace, on the other hand, lets good things run wild. It isn’t black and white; it’s a good-and-humble gray that hates evil and loves good . . . sometimes in the very same story.
I hate the tragedy that happened, yet I yearn for a better ending to the tale. I still have much sifting to do, for truth is no simple stroll. There is so much hurt and pain; tragedy abounds. Grace is tricky enough without me standing in its way. When I see it bringing goodness and light, I need to let it do its work, whether I understand it or not.