“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin does not know his father. He grew up on the side of town where most of the boys did not know their fathers. Martin is a 20 something year old black male living in a place where more black men are sent to prison than to college, a place where people with his color of skin are sent to prison at 5 times the rate of a white person just like him charged with the same crime. *See Justice Policy Brief on TX Imprisonment & Race
Martin is sent to prison for the first time before he is 20 years old for delivery of cocaine. He is not any kind of big time dealer, just a street level kid selling drugs. He was lured into the drug business by the promise of “big money” and a sad perception of “success” that he feels he cannot reach going down any other path. He is sentenced to 8 years the first time he goes down, and he does his time. Martin is released back into the free world, but now he is a convicted felon, the prospects of getting a job for a black man who is a convicted felon with no education are even worse than before. He works at a car wash for a while, but the work is not consistent and he again falls back into the circle of low level drug dealers. He sells small amounts of cocaine, marijuana, and he learns to cook crack. One evening he gets a call from one of his usual buyers and he meets them in a dark parking lot outside of a gas station. Little does he know it’s a “set up” and he is being recorded by the local drug enforcement unit. He does the deal, and minutes later he is back in handcuffs in the back of a cop car.
One of his suppliers bonds him out of jail within a few days, and he is back on the street again. Now he is “beholden” to the supplier, even more than he was before, he has to go back to selling to pay for his freedom. He walks outside the local food mart in his neighborhood, a neighborhood known for narcotics sales and prostitution…the local cops drive by, roll down their windows and say “Martin! When we gonna see you back in cuffs! Won’t be long.” Within days, Martin is arrested again for delivery of cocaine.
I was appointed to represent Martin after the first drug deal….and then several more arrests and charges came after that. Every time, somehow, someone would make Martin’s bond, I’ve always been suspicious that it was whoever was above him in the drug chain. And regardless of what I told him would happen “with the next one,” and even though he knew he would just end up back in jail awaiting a lengthier prison sentence than before, he would get out and go back to selling drugs and pick up another pending charge.
Eventually Martin had so many pending felony drug charges that no Judge would agree to set a bond to release him. After years of representing Martin, I went to visit him in the jail. Martin was in a state of mind I’d never seen him before. Martin who is a very bright, and usually cool, calm, and collected young man was beside himself with fear and anger. He told me that he’d just received news that his girlfriend was pregnant, with a son. A son that would grow up without his father just like he did. Martin was facing 25 years in prison to life for numerous drug crimes — non-violent drug crimes. He was angry, he pounded his fists against the glass window between us, he screamed, he cursed, he called me names and yelled out. He needed to be angry with the world, with me, with himself. He cried and he screamed. I cried. I sat there and tried to get him to calm down, eventually I left shaken and knowing that I would have to try to communicate with him another day.
I’ve spoken to friends, family, and colleagues about Martin and his breakdown that day. Much to the surprise of many of my friends and family who hear this story, Martin was and always has been one of my favorite clients – he is a talented musician, a bright young man – who in different circumstances, with different guidance, might’ve gone to college to be something other than a drug dealer. Martin will most likely never get that chance to be anything outside of the walls of a prison and his total breakdown in front of me in the jail was just an outpouring of him realizing that his life was essentially over. As I watched this usually “tough” young man completely unravel in front of me, my heart broke – there was nothing I could say to him to “make it better” in that moment, there was nothing I could do “to make it go away.”
Many people would look at Martin’s circumstances and they would harp on Martin’s “choices” and that he “made his bed” and he just has to live with his choices now and “lay in that bed.” To a certain point, I have to agree that Martin has made some poor choices, but what breaks my heart and seems completely unfair is how his choices were not the same choices that I had growing up….you see I had two parents who loved me at home, I did not hear gunshots outside my bedroom window as a child, I did not grow up knowing that more people like me would end up in prison than anywhere else, I did not grow up seeing drug deals in my local park, I did not struggle to get jobs to help my mom pay her rent and I could not help her pay the bills, so I finally gave up and starting selling like everyone else I knew…no, that was not my world. I had different choices, much easier choices. And we can talk about choices and consequences, and I think Martin should face some consequences for some of his poor choices, but I must disagree with the level and severity of the consequences and the life ending punishment he now faces.
It pains me that we are not trying to solve this problem. It hurts my heart that more of us are not trying to figure out a solution for how Martin’s son will not end up just like him. Why do we just sit back and stare in hate and judgment? It angers me that many of us think we are on a “level playing field” because that is simply NOT TRUE. I have to be honest that one of the things that briefly drove me away from my own community of faith for a time several years ago was some of the hate and just the spirit of unforgiveness that I felt surrounding the Christian community. I don’t mean all Christians, but it saddens me to see the stigma that is sometimes is attached to the Christian community. A spirit that is not one of love and forgiveness, but rather of hate and judgment.
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The “as I have loved you” part is the heart of what I dream for in my own soul and mind, but often fall so short of, myself included. I think of the loving Father God I know who opened His arms and with eyes of total compassion said, “I know what you’ve done, I know all of your screw ups big and small and you are forgiven and I do not love you any less.” The Father of the Universe knows the darkest places and sins within me, and HE loves me despite MY greatest sins, and does not want to give up on me. I pray that as Christians we not lose sight of loving those we might think are “least deserving” of our love and forgiveness. And I pray that we LOVE them with more love than we think they deserve because that’s exactly how our God loves us. Perhaps if we approach drug crimes and their punishment with eyes of love and compassion, then maybe just maybe, we will realize that the harsh punishments that once seemed “just” are in fact the opposite. Perhaps then we will come up with a creative solution that does not involve building more prisons and so many sons growing up without their fathers for generations. Let us forgive, let us love, let us love like our wonderful God loves us….a depth of love and forgiveness that is unending.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35