Tomorrow a large portion of the Christian world celebrates Good Friday, remembering the day that an innocent man died so that the guilty could live and live abundantly.
It seems appropriate, then, that today my attention is glued to the news story of Anthony Belton’s trial, a guilty man who murdered a gas station clerk. That clerk happened to be my friend Matt. Back in 2008, early in the morning on August 13, Belton robbed the gas station convenience store where Matt was finishing up a third shift. After Matt handed over all the money in the cash register, Belton shot him in the back of the head.
The following week, hundreds of people flocked to his funeral, so many that the building could not contain them all. I heard story after story from people who described Matt’s generosity, his gentleness, the way he always had time for people, the way he reached out to people. In a quiet, unassuming way, he had impacted so many lives.
Now, nearly four years later, Belton is finally on trial. Yesterday he was (not surprisingly) found guilty of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. The trial has moved into the sentencing phase and Belton very likely faces the death penalty.
This grieves me deeply. For the past three and a half years, every time I think of this case, this trial, this man, something in my spirit groans for mercy. Even in those first few days after Matt was shot, as we tried to process through what happened, I felt deeply compelled to show grace to Belton. I had recently finished reading What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancy and felt that, in some way, this was the final exam of what God had been teaching me about His amazing, radical grace.
I have found, though, that suggesting mercy for a murderer unleashes some vicious opposition. The comments on news stories about the trial are filled with statements like:
“Excellent News. Another POS off the streets.”
“Show him the kindness he showed Mr. Dugan.”
“He is a waste of taxpayer money.”
“There’s nothing to debate…….lights OUT.”
“Lights out punk.”
Oh Jesus. Mercy.
What grieves me even more, is that this “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” attitude is so prevalent, even within the church. The same people who gushed about Matt’s generosity, compassion, and love for Jesus, staunchly demand justice and death for Belton and react in disbelief that I could suggest anything different.
Why is mercy so hard to fathom?
To offer mercy to a murderer…that’s radical, I know. But do we realize how radical the grace that we received is? Do we believe that it is somehow less radical because we have not robbed a store or shot a man to death? Have we deluded ourselves into believing that there is a hierarchy to transgression, that we are basically good as long as we have not climbed to a certain rung on that ladder?
Jesus tells us otherwise. In the same chapter that He overturns that justification of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” with the call to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, He tells us that anyone who has been angry with their brother is as guilty as a murderer:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [a term of contempt, which means something along the lines of “You idiot!”] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).
I have been angry. I have been hateful. I have been desperate. I have been guilty, deserving of judgment, even of death. I would be deluded to pretend otherwise.
But yet, I have received mercy. I have been showered with love, life, and good gifts, even beyond what I need or ask for. Do I deserve this, simply because I have managed to make it twenty-four years into my life without killing someone?
Life is my right, yes. But not because of my innocence, in myself. Not because I am basically a good person.
No, life is my right because of an innocent Man who died so that I might live, who shed innocent blood to cover my guilt, who took the judgment and death I deserve upon Himself so that I am washed clean and set free. There is nothing about this that trivializes my guilt. Likewise, advocating for mercy for Belton does not trivialize what he did. What it does is speak of the great love and mercy I have been shown that compels me to go and do the same.
And so I am praying fervently, with tears running down my face, for the courts to spare the life of guilty man. Please, join me.
Update: This afternoon (April 6) Belton was sentenced to death. He is scheduled to be executed on August 1. Though I am obviously grieved by that sentence, I am believe his life is in God’s hands as much as ever and am still praying that he encounters the Lord deeply before that time.