I spent this morning in a room full of pain. It is not a space designed for comfort, physical or otherwise. The wooden benches are hard and the heat is stifling even on a frigid January day. An aisle separates the “sides” in this judicial proceeding — the victim’s family and friends on the right, defendant’s on the left, like some sick joke of a wedding. It lacks the majesty of movie courtrooms: no dark wood panelling, high ceilings or gold inlay. Just a drab little box of a room with scuffed linoleum floors and a microphone that doesn’t work. It hardly seems a worthy setting for the drama unfolding.
I have come to this most unprepossessing place to hear sentence pronounced on the man who killed my friend. I sit in the same seat as I did during the trial, although at least this time, I have a soft down coat to cushion that unforgiving bench. The same cast reprises its roles: the young prosecutor, the bumbling defense attorney. The victim’s grieving husband, brother and friends. The defendant and his grieving wife and children. The judge, whose words will change so many lives. We meet again, in the same room where a few months ago, I willed myself to stay and see the autopsy photos, where I listened to the defendant deflect all blame for taking my friend from us all.
Something is different, though. I notice for the first time the words in large, gold block letters that hang over the judge’s head:
IN GOD WE TRUST
Funny, they must have always been there, but I just now see them. In God We Trust. I look at the red eyes of my friend’s husband, at the sagging shoulders of her brother, then at my husband’s hand holding mine. I look across the aisle at the defendant asking for mercy and the women who love him weeping, and I wonder what those words mean, here in this room full of pain.
In God We Trust. Is the State of New York and its legal system declaring their trust in God? To hear courts tell it, no. In response to legal challenges over the years, courts have declared these words have no more than “patriotic or ceremonial character” and “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” Ok. As far as the government is concerned, these words are just a quaint, patriotic, meaningless decoration.
But for me and for many of us here today, “In God We Trust” isn’t just some patriotic trope. These words are the only oxygen in the room.
We came praying, trusting God for justice, although what that would look like depended on which side of the aisle you were sitting on. Was it God’s justice or man’s that we witnessed here today? I don’t presume to know. But I do know that, regardless of whether God “answered” our prayers for justice, we trusted Him enough to pray in the first place, knowing that answered or not, God would still be with us.
We trusted God for comfort in our grief, although for some that grief was over a brutal, untimely death, and for others it was over a life irrevocably changed by having caused that death. We put our trust in God to help us absorb whatever blow the sentence would inflict.
After the sentencing, one of the defendant’s relatives approached my friend’s husband.
“Can you forgive him?” she asked.
“Yes, I forgive him. This is what our faith teaches us.”
“May I hug you?” she said, tentatively, tearfully.
They hugged and I was in awe of this God in whom we put our trust. This is a God who fills a room full of pain with strength and solace. We trust this God who sits next to us on those hard benches, whether we are grieving violence done to us, or the violence we have done to others. We cling to the God, who, in the words of one of my favorite hymns is “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”