If we were not currently in the middle of a competitive Republican presidential primary, we’d be actively talking about outgoing Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Earlier this week, Barbour pardoned 215 prisoners, including 17 who had been convicted of murder. The controversy his decision produced was immediate and also unsurprising. Families of victims have been outraged and the wisdom of the outgoing Governor has been sharply questioned. Mississippi’s Attorney General, Jim Hood, has sought block the release of these inmates. Barbour is unrepentant in his own defense.
"The historical power of clemency by the governor to pardon felons is rooted in the Christian idea of giving second chances. I’m not saying I’ll be perfect. That nobody who received clemency will ever do anything wrong. I’m not infallible and nobody else is."One of the strengths of Christianity is in its ability, for those who have transgressed, to be forgiven for past sins. Say what you will about the rest of the religion, but this belief is often an appealing one, especially for those with a checkered past. Americans can often be an unforgiving people, failing to recognize our own flaws as we judge the weaknesses of others. Surely, we would like to have the ability to be forgiven, if we were put on trial in the court of public opinion.
Though we may weigh punishment differently, this from a legal standpoint, in an ideal world each of us might be able to work our way towards forgiveness and acceptance. Most of us have done things before of which we are not especially proud. Should they be revealed to all, we would win no one’s sympathy. Even though we may not have been convicted by our peers in a court of law, winning the right to start again is a concept we would surely embrace.
Forgiveness, in its Christian form, has no stronger example than that of Paul, originally named Saul. Saul made a career out of persecuting Christians. He was present when St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death. Saul supported the killing, believing that the new faith was a destructive new sect of Judaism. At his own admission, he put many early Christians in prison and voted in favor of their deaths. Interestingly enough, these admissions are recorded in the Book of Acts, when he himself was on trial.
Everything changed unexpectedly one day on the road to Damascus.
About noon… as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.'
"'Who are you, lord?' I asked. "And the Lord replied, 'I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. You are to tell the world what you have seen and what I will show you in the future.
Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.
I am sending you to them to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God's people, who are set apart by faith in me.'This story is a common example referred to by many born-again or Evangelical Christians like the former Governor. As a society, we often believe that criminals too often get away with their crimes. Once caught, we believe they don’t serve the time they deserve. Prisoners are viewed as wholly without remorse or contrition, showing themselves to be only sociopathic manipulators.
And the truth is that we’re often not inaccurate in our beliefs, but we also don’t leave the door open for inmates to see the light. Once again, we must, for our own sanity, leave open the possibility that no one is ever damned forever. People of faith would say that it is ultimately not our decision to make whether a person has redeemed himself or herself in the eyes of God.
[Barbour] said the five inmates who served him in the governor’s mansion, four of them murderers, have played with his grandchildren and even watched them while they rode tricycles in the driveway.
Historically, he said, murderers are trusties at the mansion because, experts say, their crimes of passion are unlikely to be repeated.
"I have no question in my mind," he said, "that these guys are not a threat to society."In this matter, can we fairly set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner? Disagree or agree, but the final decision may not be made by mere mortals like ourselves. Soon the limits and longevity of our own hatred and forgiveness will be tested once again.