In an article titled “From Prison to Ph.D.: The Redemption and Rejection of Michelle Jones,” the New York Times is reporting that Harvard University has reversed course and is now rejecting a convicted murderer’s application. In 1996, Michelle Jones was sent to prison for beating her four-year-old son to death in 1992. Initially accepted as Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s history program twenty-five years after the murder, the administration has made the decision to override the department.
Largely sympathetic to Michelle Jones, the NYT article has prompted a large outcry on social media from people on both sides of the political spectrum. As the New York Times issued a series of tweets promoting the article, responses like the one below began popping up.
In many ways, this is an unusual case, not the least because of Harvard’s administration’s decision to step into departmental affairs. The New York Times reports that:
While top Harvard officials typically rubber-stamp departmental admissions decisions, in this case the university’s leadership — including the president, provost, and deans of the graduate school — reversed one, according to the emails and interviews, out of concern that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets or parents of students.
Another aspect that has helped lodge this story in the consciousness of social media users is the drama surrounding an inmate who forged ahead regardless of her circumstances, earned her bachelor’s degree, and published in an academic journal. Jones exhibits a level of resiliency, grit, and determination as she strives to better herself and rise above her circumstances that mirrors the character traits that fill the folk tales of classic Americana.
However, the horrendous nature of the crime has swamped the other parts of the story. As the tweet above reveals, many people are appalled at the thought that Michelle Jones could be allowed to continue her education, especially at such a prestigious university. The entire affair raises questions about justice, forgiveness, and restoration.
With the acknowledgement that I am not privy to the ins and outs of Jones’ confessed murder of her son nor of the legal system’s handling of the case, I’m afraid that the negative responses reflect an ungracious spirit coursing through our nation. Like me, the vast majority of the people responding cannot claim to have the necessary knowledge of the case that’s needed to pass strident judgments.
Yes, a mother murdering her child is a horrific evil. Yes, a twenty-year sentence seems low, in fact, so low as to be a miscarriage of justice (she was sentenced to fifty years, but released after twenty because of good behavior, including her continued education). Those things can be held as true while at the same time seeking to extend grace and forgiveness while rooting for another human’s restoration to society. For Christians, this should be a no-brainer since our perfectly holy God has graciously forgiven us and restored us back to life and a relationship with Him.
Oftentimes, when talking about the sins of others, we forget (or simply refuse) to acknowledge how heinous our own sins are. The Bible teaches that all sin is worthy of death. Even if an individual managed to live his entire life committing only one sin, he would still be under God’s just judgment and worthy of everlasting death. This is a core doctrine of Christianity. Sadly, the ugliness of sin before our holy God is a core doctrine that is often ignored when talking about ourselves or talking about sins that we don’t personally find as disgusting as other sins. The utter ugliness of sin is usually only embraced when we’re confronted with sins that society finds abhorrent — for example, a mother murdering her child.
Many of the heroes of the Christian faith were heinous sinners by human definitions. Moses and King David were both murderers. The Apostle Paul led the persecution of the early Church, which included overseeing the martyrdom of Christians. Acts 7:54-60 tells of the stoning of Stephen, and relates how Saul (later called Paul) held the coats of those hurling the rocks at him. Closer to modern times, the great hymn writer John Newton was a slave trader. If you think Newton’s trade didn’t involve the deaths, or rather, the murder of children, you should study up on the slave trade.
As a general rule, Christians love dramatic conversion stories, often for the wrong reasons, to be sure. But even within the misplaced love for exciting, lurid tales, Christians recognize that the redemption of gross sinners serves as an illustration of the infinite nature of God’s grace and love. If a murderer repents of his sin and places his faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that sinner is forgiven, given new life, and restored back to God.
One of the things about grace often overlooked by progressive “Christians” is that grace cannot be divorced from justice. The reason that Jesus had to die is because sin had to be punished. God can’t overlook sin; to receive God’s grace, the sins of Christians had to be paid for. All of the Christian heroes listed above saw justice enacted on their sins. Some, like Moses and David, paid an immediate price. All of them had their sins’ punishment paid for by Jesus.
Rooting for Michelle Jones doesn’t mean that an individual believes that the murder of her child should be simply overlooked. However, without knowing all the legal ins and outs, a good starting point is being thankful that a once troubled, abused human being has not wasted her years of punishment. Grace, mercy, and forgiveness say that Jones should be applauded for her hard work and her accomplishments. After all, it’s not like she didn’t pay the penalty for her sin that our judicial system saw fit to hand down. Whatever quibbles a person has with the judicial system should be taken up with the judicial system, and not brought to bear on a human being trying to become a productive citizen within the parameters of the judicial system.
Grace, mercy, and forgiveness also don’t mean that judgment should be withheld. It is good and right to pass judgment on Jones’ crime. Sin should never be excused, but it can be forgiven. Operating from a limited perspective, we should acknowledge that a sin has been committed, a price has been paid, and a woman is trying to give back to society. And we should root for Michelle Jones to succeed. Doing so may reflect the understanding that we have of our own sin and of the grace and forgiveness offered by God through Jesus Christ.