When bad things happen to “bad” people

My friend, Pete, sporting his ink inspired by similar convos.

Not bad people, but rather a truly great guy, this is my friend sporting his ink inspired by similar convos.

I learned about the impending capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, “Boston Bombing Suspect 2,” as my mother described the event to me on the telephone.  “He is in a boat stored in the backyard of a home just three houses down from Bob’s house,” she said.  (Bob is close friend and colleague.) She added, “They can tell the suspect is alive because he’s moving around in there.”

As she described the rest of the scene, I had trouble focusing.  The words, “He’s moving around in there,” made him less monster-like to me—and more human, even childlike.  I tried to imagine what he might be thinking, coming to full-terms with what he and his brother had done.  I had been told that Dzhokar had also accidentally run over his older brother in the hijacked car earlier in the day.  I wondered if he realized that as well.  And now, as an angry, powerful army—and a frightened city—surrounded him, how could he possibly make sense of it all?  Was he asking, “How did I get here?  How did this happen?”  Was he angry?  Did he still feel justified?

The questions about how to react when bad things happen to “bad” people really first started to plague me when the details unfolded about Osama bin Laden’s final moments.  As people cheered and celebrated in the streets and online, I struggled with the notion of joy at the sad end of a life that many would describe as horrific.  (I will admit, though, that I did tell some of the jokes like “What was bin Laden’s final Facebook post? ‘BRB, someone’s @ the door.’”)

The questions returned as I read the news of people in the UK who scheduled and celebrated parties upon the death of Lady Margaret Thatcher.

And now, as more details emerge about Suspect 2, about Dzhokar, I struggle to feel joyful.

I realize that the emotional conundrum is embodied in the words justice and mercyJustice makes space to emote positively about a sense of resolution, of fairness, of a civilized response to a most uncivilized set of actions.

While the word mercy empowers me to see past the monster and into the soul of a frightened young man moving around inside a trailered-boat, coming to terms with his new reality, with our new reality.

Without mercy, the pursuit of justice runs the great risk of becoming as ugly as its antithesis.  

Mercy makes us better people as we support justice in the very somber, heavy work of standing up to evil in a collective, human response to that which surely was never meant to be.

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10 Responses to When bad things happen to “bad” people

  1. Lynne
    May 14, 2013 at 6:44 am

    When our house was broken into this spring while our daughter was home alone sleeping, the police caught the young men because one of them left behind his wallet. The following Sunday my husband was sharing about what happened and a woman spoke up from the back of the congregation, “Pastor, this is our chance to pray for these young men.” To which my husband replied, “This is their chance to go to jail.”

    Mercy and justice.

    • May 14, 2013 at 11:27 am

      Interesting. We shouldn’t have one without the other, right?

      • Lynne
        May 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm

        I think we have to be the most like Christ to balance the two. As Image Bearers it is possible for us to have both of these characteristics of God flowing through us, but I struggle with the balance.

        When asked if we wanted to press charges, we said, “Absolutely.” One of the young men had been shown mercy in the past, but he still hadn’t changed his lifestyle. It is our hope that consequences now will prevent him from making further wrong decisions later. This IS justice with compassion.

  2. sue
    May 14, 2013 at 8:46 am

    MERCY AND JUSTICE are KNIT together…is what the Scriptures teach.
    KNIT TOGETHER—as woven together in a piece of fabric—can’t have one without the other—without TEARING the whole piece apart and left in ruin. THANKS for your compassionate heart and thoughts so brilliantly presented. I will meditate more on MERCY …as so much is happening in the world around us. Bless you for sharing your thoughts—needed them today. Love, MOM

  3. Phoebe
    May 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for this, Nathaniel. I really resonated with this one.

  4. Sharon
    May 14, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Nathaniel, this is profound. Many will never think beyond the facts and the interpretation of the newscaster and the cry for justice. But there are two distinct perspectives from which we must move. Justice with mercy & mercy with justice. Its the balance that parents try to bring in the home that teachers try to bring in the classroom and that all of us must strive for as we bring to justice those who have done wrong.

    • May 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks for this, Sharon. I concur. It’s important to retain the nuances of our spirituality as we navigate this human experience.

  5. May 15, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Now at 67 as I recall years of living with no purpose other then to exist. Years of street living, though timid and fearful, I just wanted to belong and yet not get my hands dirty doing that. No real friends. As I recall I could count on for direction and advice. 95% of the time if my conduct,
    was illegal I lived in a hellish reality of guilt and shameand willingly accepted the consequences. Yes justice ah how refreshing it was to pay for ignorant malevolent and selfish behavior. Mercy, I pray for now as I approach 40 years of freedom, freedom to live to praise a just merciful God, that many more years, perhaps even forever I, you, we will realize God has a definite plan for our lives and it is framed in the mercy of Christ and the justice of God. Thanks for so many thought provoking and spiritually rewarding blog posts. I love you all. God loves you more.

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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