Liberty and Justice For All, part 1

In a March, 2009 Tokens Radio Show interview, Brad MacLean, a former corporate lawyer who now serves as an advocate and attorney for death-row inmates, and one who opposes capital punishment, related a letter that he had once read that illustrated the reasons behind his career choice.  An article in The New Yorker had put together various arguments for and against the death penalty.  One particular argument opposing the death penalty asked the readers to consider, before supporting capital punishment, whether or not they could throw the switch for the electric chair.  A rabbi wrote a letter to the editor responding to that particular argument.  He said that after considering the horrible, heinous nature of the crimes committed by some of the murderers on death row, he had no doubt that he could enthusiastically pull the lever that would kill one of these inmates.  Then the rabbi went on to write:  

And that’s the reason why I oppose the death penalty.  I don’t want to nurture that part of my soul that would want to kill somebody else out of revenge.

And that’s the reason why I oppose the death penalty.  I don’t want to nurture that part of my soul that would want to kill somebody else out of revenge.

That is an incredibly challenging thought. And, I am not particularly interested in it for its merits regarding the death penalty debate. That is an issue I am torn over, but not one I feel adequately prepared to discuss at this time. Rather, I am more interested in what this rabbi’s comment has to say about our judgmental nature and our view of justice.

MacLean, elsewhere in the interview, would relate some staggering facts about our American criminal justice system. In particular, he said that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world (including the massive nations of China and India…although one could argue that many incarcerations in these countries may not be reported). MacLean and the interviewer (Lee Camp) both highlighted the slanted definition we in America put on the word “justice.” What we call our “justice system” is primarily concerned with punishment.

Why do we think that for a victim’s rights to be protected that the aggressor must be punished, or even killed? Do we have such a narrow view of “justice” that the only way it can be ultimately attained is by punishing the criminal?

In the same interview, MacLean and Camp discuss those opponents of MacLean’s position who would say that by advocating for the rights of death row inmates he is neglecting the rights of their victims. MacLean’s response was to say that he does not believe the rights of the aggressor and victim are mutually exclusive, and I would add that the fact that people see them as such is another indicator of the problem we have with being judgmental–or what MacLean calls our “punitive” society.

But, again, my concern at this point is not so much with the capital punishment debate as it is with this question: Why do we think that for a victim’s rights to be protected that the aggressor must be punished, or even killed? Do we have such a narrow view of “justice” that the only way it can be ultimately attained is by punishing the criminal?

More importantly, if that is what “justice” entails, then what does that say about the Gospel, and about God? If “justice” means the guilty must be punished, then the Gospel is the most unjust concept in the history of the world. And, as you may know, “justice” is another option for translating the word that is often rendered “righteousness” in the Bible. So, then, if “righteousness” (justice) means the guilty must be punished, then the Gospel is the most unrighteous (unjust) concept in the history of the world.

Though God certainly will punish those who do not repent, nevertheless, the Bible is very clear that God wants all people to be saved from punishment, and reconciled to Him (and one another) through Christ. But, that is far from being unjust. It is the true meaning of justice: peace and reconciliation.


8 thoughts on “Liberty and Justice For All, part 1

  1. A very good post. Well thought out and examined. Your examples are excellant. Would all those people that support the death penalty really throw the switch? Many would, but many wouldn’t because then they know that they could be stepping to the other side. Playing God but acting like the Devil. Again also don’t many of us also believe that we could throw the switch with no problem if it were our child or spouse that was murdered. It’s a compex issues in a complex world. In many ways our culture should review it’s issues of death because we say “I don’t believe in killing except for war and vengence.” Isn’t that cognitve dissonance.
    A good site to visit regarding Moral decisions is John Haidt has worked for years to develop real understanding of Moral reasoning and the Sub-psychology area of Moral Theory.

    • As I indicated, I wasn’t specifically talking about capital punishment, but using it as an example of what I see as a greater problem….

      However, as far as the death penalty goes I don’t think I could throw the switch…even if it were my wife or daughter who had been murdered.

      And, in general, one of the problems I see with capital punishment (though I am not sure I am entirely opposed to it given its support in Scripture) is that it just perpetuates the problem. The reason we put murderers to death is because we view life as sacred…..but then we take a life to make that point. That ought to create some cognitive dissonance. And if it doesn’t we need to check our moral compasses.

      Thanks for the comments and website recommendation. I’ll check it out.

  2. Clint, excellent article. I think your last point has implications for traditional atonement theories (i.e., substitutionary atonement as a primary theory, etc.)

    • Mark, I think one of the problems with the primary objection to substitutionary atonement is its narrow view of justice……the whole argument is that it cannot be just for Jesus to take the punishment we deserve. But, that view of justice–that the criminal must be punished–is exactly the shallow view of justice I was questioning in the article.

      Not that substitutionary atonement doesn’t have its problems in this same vein. It also seems to hold the same narrow view of justice…that justice requires that punishment must be dished out somehow, to someone, so Jesus took it.

      I am intrigued by what I believe was C.S. Lewis’ alternative view of atonement and the sacrifice of Christ….as metaphorically illustrated in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe… was not God calling for a substitutionary death to satisfy “justice,” but the forces of evil with their punitive view of justice (Satan is the ruler of Death, which is the punishment for sin). To defeat them without any pretext of injustice or cheating, God had to satisfy their (Satan’s) calls for death.

      Or perhaps He didn’t have to, but He used their desire for death against them by giving them Jesus….who just came back to life and defeated them and death.

      Anyway, it’s a concept I would like to explore more fully when I get a chance.

      • I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying in the first paragraph there, but I think Lewis’s portrayal is helpful. Edward’s ransom must be paid to the white witch, not to Aslan. God is not demanding his ‘pound of flesh’.

      • Mark,

        What I mean in the first paragraph is that those who object to substitutionary atonement often do so by saying that it would be unjust for Jesus to take our place, just like it would be unjust for me to go to death row in the place of a serial killer. But, that objection only perpetuates the narrow, punitive view of justice by saying that justice requires that the truly guilty person be punished rather than a substitute. If that doesn’t make sense I’ll try to email you a better explanation.

        As far as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe…..exactly….it was the Witch calling for punishment to satisfy the “deep magic from the dawn of time”….but then Aslan overcomes through “deeper magic” and breaks the altar (that represents the power of the “deep magic”).

  3. Well, you’ve got me scratching my head again. I was rather comfortable with my (shallow?) view of atonement. On the other hand, Satan is the accuser, the liar, and the owner of sin. I guess I need to keep thinking…
    As for capital punishment, I am split down the middle.
    Thanks for tackling deep issues.

    • Hey Bobby,
      God’s word makes us scratch our heads a lot, doesn’t it? I think the easy way out is to say, “Christ died for our sins.” And that is certainly true (Paul said so). But, it is much harder to work out exactly why He had to, and how atonement works.

      For me one of the big questions is this: if Death is God’s punishment for sin, then why is it also the last great enemy to be defeated? Death doesn’t seem to be God’s invention or idea, but Satan’s….or, perhaps, like Satan, it is a creation of God gone wrong. But, in any case, if Death is the enemy of God, then Jesus dying to satisfy the requirements of sin and Death is not satisfaction of God, but of Satan.

      This is where the courtroom scenes seem to come into play….Satan the accuser, Jesus the Advocate, and God the (impartial) Judge. Satan is calling for Death, Jesus is calling for Life, and God is hearing the case………..and then we realize that the Judge is not so impartial after all because He sent Jesus to be our advocate to save us from Satan’s accusations.

      I might have to write some posts about this soon…

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