The Scriptures are undeniably clear on this point. In the first book of the Bible, God observes that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21, NIV). When David, a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), is found guilty of murder, he honestly confesses, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). In the New Testament, Paul affirms that we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3, ESV) born into a fallen world “groaning” to be set free from the bondage to which human sin has subjected it (Rom. 8:19–22).
Such facts don’t comport with the popular notion that children enter this world “innocent” and later become corrupted by negative influences. In contrast, the Bible teaches that from a very early age, we must be taught to restrain our natural selfishness and to resist our inborn tendency to hurt one another for personal gain. That’s not to say, of course, that all children who come from rough neighborhoods, experience disillusionment with formative role models in their lives, or suffer from a deficit of positive attention at home are bound to become homicidal deviants. It’s only to say that there’s nothing fundamentally more evil about Juan, Jarad, or Antonio than any of the teenagers in our church youth groups. More importantly, there’s nothing fundamentally less evil about any of us.
The question at the heart of Lear's film, then, isn't whether these children deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Undoubtedly, they do. Rather, it’s whether we're willing to take a second look at these “monsters” and see something of ourselves in their plight.
The simple fact is that there's no such thing as an “adult” crime, just as there's no such thing as a “respectable” sin. Apart from God's unmerited grace in Jesus Christ, none of us would have any hope if God had elected to deal with us the way our legal system deals with juvenile rapists and murders.
As people who know better than any the transformative power of grace, we have every cause to support an approach to justice that holds offenders accountable while still leaving room for the possibility of redemption and restoration. There are plenty who would say that the final scene of these teenagers' lives has already been written, and they've walked out on the rest of the show. They Call Us Monsters dares to suggest that there are plenty more unexpected plot twists yet to be revealed, if we're willing to stick around for the whole production.
Johnathan Kana is a freelance writer, composer, and armchair theologian who met his Savior in a profound new way when he found himself rediscovering the Bible in the seminary of hard knocks. He is a regular contributor at Think Christian and journals on themes of restorative justice at his blog Redeem Your Time. He lives with his family in central Texas.