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This Easter, I pray for pardons.

For millions of people across the world, Easter represents the power of resurrection, redemption and hope. So it is only fitting that the Easter holidays coincide this year with the beginning of Second Chance Month. Each April since 2021, the Biden administration has uplifted a call to prioritize criminal justice reform and the clemency process in the United States. To date, however, President Biden has only exercised his pardon power to grant 13 pardons and 124 commutations, less than 1 percent of the thousands of pending applications.

A pardon is an act of grace. But such acts of grace should not be so rare. For most of American history, presidents have used the power of pardon generously, with each administration granting clemency to at least one out of every five applicants from 1897 to 1981. Many administrations, including the Truman and Kennedy administrations, granted clemency to more than a third of applicants. President Reagan granted 12 percent of applicants clemency. Only in recent years have presidents begun to use their pardon power sparingly, with only 2-5 percent of clemency applications granted. Worse still, President Trump granted pardons to oppressors, such as Joe Arpaio, an anti-immigrant former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., rather than the oppressed. 

The Bible teaches us that God’s mercy is abundant (Ephesians 2:4-9). So too should be the mercy we deliver to each other. In the words of civil rights champion Bryan Stevenson, we “ultimately judge the civility of a society not by how it treats the rich, the powerful, the protected and the highly esteemed, but by how it treats the poor, the disfavored and the disadvantaged.” As President Biden once again makes his case to the American people that he is battling for the soul of our nation, we look to his use of his pardon power.

By exercising his pardon power more robustly, President Biden has the opportunity to paint a stark contrast with his predecessor. He already recognizes the important symbolic value of clemency, as demonstrated by his offer to pardon people with simple marijuana possession convictions and his invitation to states to do the same. But there are thousands of people with criminal records whose applications for clemency have been languishing in the federal system—people who are currently in prison serving overly harsh sentences and people who have been released long ago but live with the looming threat of deportation, barriers to employment and housing, and other forms of civil death.

No doubt, many of these clemency applicants have worked hard to redeem themselves in the eyes of the law. But it is important to remember that the pardon power is not, and should not be, solely about individual redemption. The pardon power is about America’s redemption. It is an opportunity for this nation to address its own sins of racism and oppression. From the War on Drugs to the War on Immigrants, Republicans and Democrats alike have rushed to pass harsh legislation in times of fear and uncertainty. Communities of color have disproportionately suffered the consequences. We cannot heal these wounds unless we tend to those who currently bear the burden of our racialized mass incarceration system.

In the Christian tradition, Easter embodies the paradox of Jesus, unjustly sentenced and denied state pardon, yet freely offering humanity a pardon through his sacrificial death, opening the path to resurrection and new life for all. We must learn from this example. This is why I pray for pardons, now.

In his sermon “Questions that Easter Answers,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that, even after our darkest days, “one day justice will rise up.” From civil death, a pardon offers resurrection. From incarceration, a commutation offers freedom. For all who suffer needlessly due to our nation’s reactions to fear, demagoguery and pain, clemency offers hope. Let this Second Chance Month mark a break from the scarcity of justice. To truly be a nation of second chances, let us witness an abundance of justice through the meaningful and robust exercise of presidential pardon power. 

Rev. Terrance M. McKinley is pastor of Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

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