Sentenced for Life
Cyntoia Brown was brought up in circumstances that would shake up a large majority of us. She grew up in an abusive home with an alcoholic stepfather while her biological mother worked as a prostitute to support a drug addiction.
At 16, Brown ran away from her adopted family’s Nashville home and got caught up in drugs and prostitution. One night, a man who had “solicited her services” picked her up and drove her to his home. At some point, she felt her life was in danger, and she responded by killing him with a gun. Though she claimed self-defense, she was sentenced as an adult to life in prison ineligible for parole until the age of 69.1
At times, I find myself getting overwhelmed as the reality of world issues such as this sinks in.
How the World Sees Justice (Prov. 28:5; Rom. 12:19)
Brown was clearly a victim of human trafficking but the justice system sealed her fate behind bars. Justice is not always won.
Hollywood portrays crusading heroes who appeal to our inner desire to glorify human strength as justice. We want someone to save the day. We want the solution to be easily pieced together, and we want all of the answers to life’s hardest questions. This is what we want social justice to mean. But in this corrupted world, all justice means is that no matter what the cause, somebody will always pay.
When the System Fails (Pss. 58:11; 73:17; 119:126–136)
According to the United Nations, four billion people are excluded from the rule of law.2 That means the justice system has failed to protect these people from violence. One form of violence today is human trafficking, an industry that generates about $150 billion US dollars every year.3
Unjust systems prevail in our society, which can be seen further in the oppression of the poor, persons with disabilities, women, and racialized persons in several countries all over the world. Some well-meaning people have taken to addressing these inequities through violence and other militant means, but their efforts won’t bring about the solution they seek.
This Is Biblical Justice (Isa. 61:8; James 1:27; 1 John 2; Rev. 12:17)
When we look at what justice means in the Bible, we get a completely different picture. The Hebrew word for “justice” is mishpat, which means that we are to treat people equally. The definition extends to more than the punishment of wrongdoing and includes giving people back their rights. When used, it is often associated with taking up the cause and care of widows, orphans, and other vulnerable ones (James 1:27).
In the eyes of God, justice involves becoming intimately involved in the lives of the people you are fighting for. It means seeing pain and oppression the way God sees it. The founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, Bob Pierce, once wrote: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” When you let your heart be broken this way, you come to recognize that it is our duty to do our part to advocate for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed—not to make some kind of name for ourselves but simply because it is right.
This brokenness further means that we should choose to unite ourselves with the bigger cause of God, who is described as being our Advocate (1 John 2:1) in saving people from a lost world and a ruthless prosecutor.
On a grander level, our Father is looking to restore what has been lost in our world: dignity, beauty, freedom, love, and peace. By enacting justice, we uphold God’s moral law and vindicate His name.
Do Justly and Love Mercy (Eccles. 12:14; Isa. 1:17–19; Mic. 6:8; John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:10, 11; Rev. 16:7)
While we may not have the quick-fix solution we often desire as a society, our duty to humanity doesn’t change. Though feeding a homeless man won’t eradicate hunger and taking in a young girl from the streets will not end human trafficking, we do it anyway. True justice means doing right even when the solution is not easily in sight. We may never save the day as fashionably as a movie superhero, but we are still called to “do justly, . . . love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mic. 6:8).
In bringing up the justice discussion, we should never forget a most crucial component—which is mercy. Just as God demonstrated mercy toward us in sending us His Son to pay the penalty for our sins (John 3:16), so must we move forward with our appointed mission as His advocates to bring hope and healing to a dying world.
As you look at all of the oppression in the world around you, what causes might God lay on your heart? How might you seek to get involved?
1. Christine Hauser, “Cyntoia Brown, Trafficking Victim Serving Life Sentence for Murder, Will Get Clemency Hearing,” New York Times, May 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/us/cyntoia-brown-clemency-granted.html. In January 2019, the governor of Tennesee granted executive clemency to Cyntonia Brown, commuting her life sentence to be eligible for parole in August 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cyntoia-brown-clemency-granted-by-tennessee-governor-bill-haslam-life-sentence-commuted.
2. Magdy Martinez-Solimán, “Justice and Development: Challenges to the Legal Empowerment of the Poor,” UN Chronicle, December 2012, https://unchronicle.un.org/article/justice-what-we-need-post-2015-world.
3. “Human Trafficking by the Numbers,” Human Rights First, January 7, 2017, http://www .Humanrightsfirst.org/resource/human-trafficking-numbers.