President Barack Obama now holds the record for the single most generous grant of executive clemency in United States history. On Aug. 3, he bested Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1935 record by commuting the sentences of 214 federal prisoners, mostly nonviolent drug offenders who received unduly harsh sentences as a result of outdated “mandatory minimum” standards. That brings his career total to 562—the highest number of commutations by any president since Calvin Coolidge.
For people like me, who appreciate policymakers' leniency in the aftermath of poor life decisions, that's more than just an interesting statistic. It's a hint that America may someday shed its sordid reputation for imprisoning citizens at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. Even though it regrettably comes in the twilight of his career (as all such politically risky initiatives must), Obama's unprecedented show of mercy may inspire others to finally discover punitive alternatives to long-term incarceration.
In his letter to inmates, Obama describes clemency as “one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States.” And indeed it is. It's one of the chief executive's few truly unilateral privileges. Unlike vetoes and executive orders, which are subject to judicial review and can be reversed, presidential pardons and commutations are absolute. Not even Congress or the Supreme Court can overturn them. That's rather interesting to me, because we have checks and balances on everything else our leaders do. Judgments can be appealed. Legislation can be vetoed. But clemency is unassailable. The purest power of the highest elected official in America is an act of grace. That makes my inner patriot stand just a little taller.
The purest power of the highest elected official in America is an act of grace.
It warmed my heart this week to read one inmate’s letter of gratitude to Obama. I wept as the story of a reunited family in north Texas kindled bittersweet memories of my own release from prison, when a parole board’s mercy spared me three additional years of separation from my loved ones. What a poignant opportunity this ought to be for Christians, to reflect anew on the transformative power of the Gospel—to revel once more in God’s sovereign clemency through Jesus Christ.
In God’s economy, after all, none of us deserves a second chance. Our cases are as hopeless as the thousands of clemency petitions that never reach a president’s desk. Yet in his unfathomable grace, God takes the initiative to commute our sentences and pardon our offenses—even before we know how to apply for his mercy. And the best news of all is that his fiat is absolute. Nothing in heaven or earth can revoke it.
But with all privilege comes responsibility. Headline-worthy or not, our testimonies of grace are meant for sharing, to point hopeless people toward a generous God who sets prisoners free from the punitive excess of their sin. We are called to multiply the grace we have received by sacrificially reaching out to those who deserve our scorn with the liberating power of forgiveness. Any time we do, we exercise the most profound authority that Christ grants his followers: that of introducing those most desperate for eternal clemency to the One who has already exercised the prerogative in their favor.