An Arrest and Victor Hugo

I just saw someone arrested.

I was walking towards the grocery store when I noticed a man on the ground surrounded by 4 other men. I initially thought he was hurt, so I walked over and asked if I could help. The men raised their eyebrows, “no thanks, we have it under control.” It was then that I realized the four of them were pinning him down. I walked several feet away and continued to watch. The man’s jeans were pulled down to his knees, and I wondered if they’d come down during the struggle or if the very reason he’d been pinned was for sexually aggressive behavior (only two weeks ago there was a report of sexual harassment in the same complex). I asked others watching if they knew what happened. One person reported that he’d been caught stealing. Five minutes later, two police officers showed up and arrested him without incident. They were calm, and he didn’t seem to resist but looked at his feet as many people stared.

I finally went into the grocery store and asked an associate if she knew what happened.

Apparently, he had stolen underwear.

A lump immediately formed in my throat. Underwear? Four big men pinned his body and face on the ground for underwear? He was handcuffed as dozens of people watched for underwear? I’m not condoning his actions, nor am I going to condemn the guys who pinned him down… I didn’t see what happened, and maybe he’d gotten violent and it was necessary. As far as I could tell, the two police officers handled everything as peacefully as possible. And I don’t know, perhaps the guy isn’t in any sort of hardship and steals for the thrill of it. But the potential possibility that this man felt desperate enough to steal underwear—and then was humiliated and arrested in front of so many people—is just sad.

The sales associate had watery eyes as she continued, “It makes me sad, you know. That someone saw him stealing and called the police instead of just offering to buy them for him. He was probably in a really tough spot to be stealing underwear. I used to work at another store where a little boy was trying to steal a loaf of bread and peanut butter, so I called him to the counter and paid for it and made him a sandwich. Some people just need a little compassion.”

We both sighed and I walked away.

Our conversation left me thinking. What does compassion look like in these types of situations? It can’t be to overlook stealing (which hurts whoever was robbed). But perhaps it is to confront it and then offer a remedy. Maybe instead of calling the police, the customer who witnessed it could have called the man out on his actions and appealed for him to stop. Maybe they could have inquired about the man’s situation and even offered to pay for the underwear.

There are certainly redemptive purposes in consequences. Sometimes God, in kindness, allows us to face the fallout of our sin. He does this as an act of rescue, showing us our need to repent and preventing us from diving even deeper into destruction. But sometimes the best redemption happens when mercy is granted. Which is better: for a man to never steal again because he fears arrest, or for a man to never steal again because he’s been arrested by mercy?

Isn’t this what makes the story of Jean Valjean so powerful? For those who aren’t familiar with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, there is a pivotal point in the story when Jean Valjean, an embittered ex-convict, is shown hospitality by a local bishop. Rather than appreciating the bishop’s welcome, Valjean robs him. He is caught and brought back to the bishop’s house so that he can be condemned for his criminal actions. Much to Valjean’s surprise, the bishop covers for him: “Ah! here you are! I am glad to see you… I have you the candlesticks too, which are silver like the rest… why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” The bishop could have (rightfully) reclaimed his property. Instead, he covered Valjean’s offense at great cost to himself. It was this single demonstration of mercy that completely changed the trajectory of Valjean’s life.

It’s impossible to contemplate the bishop portrayed in Les Miserables without noticing how his actions resemble our Savior’s. When Valjean was dragged before him, accused and guilty, the bishop pardoned him and offered him a gift of even greater value. It is a moving portrayal of the lavish forgiveness and love found in our Savior. Like Valjean, we should have been met with anger but instead we were met with compassion. Like Valjean, we should have been condemned but instead we were forgiven. And like Valjean, we were offered a gift we didn’t deserve—he received two valuable candlesticks, we’ve received adoption and an eternal inheritance.

When we see others caught in sin, may the compassion shown to us always compel our response to them.

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