John Grisham has made his fortune writing legal thrillers. Some eighteen of them. Up until his most recent work, "The Innocent Man" (Doubleday, 2006), which is yet another legal tale, he had never attempted writing a work of non-fiction. But the story of Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz, both wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Ada Oklahoma in the 1980s was too powerful too resist, apparently.
In his personal comments at the end of the book he admits that this particular case, where a mentally ill person is convicted of a murder he never committed, brought him into the seamy and unseemly world of 'legal' injustice. He puts it this way "The journey also exposed me to the world of wrongful convictions, something that I, even as a former lawyer, had never spent much time thinking about." (p. 356)
This is a surprising admission considering that Grisham is both a former lawyer and also a Christian. Surprising because of course we know how fallible humans are, and so lacking in either omniscience or even good judgment about so many things, including life and death matters. But perhaps it is not so surprising since conservative Christians are often some of the staunchest proponents (and opponents) of capital punishment. Obviously the pursuing of the writing of this particular book was something of a wake-up call for John Grisham. My hope is that it would be a wake-up call for all Christians, especially in the wake of yet another highly publicized case of a total miscarriage of justice on '60 Minutes' last night-- I am referring to the prosecution of three Duke Lacrosse players, whom the DNA evidence exonerated from having raped the plaintiff, an 'exotic' dancer. In the end it was the DNA evidence which exonerated Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz as well.
Any time this kind of mess happens, where there is such a huge miscarriage of justice, it raises the question about capital punishment in general, especially when the statistics suggest that many, many cases exist of persons on death row who are not there because they are guilty of the crime. What they are guilty of is having bad legal representation, or even worse they are guilty of being poor or mentally incompetent to defend themselves. Sometimes as well, they are 'guilty' of being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And here is the moral dilemma put bluntly-- Is it ethically a worse thing to have a criminal justice system that lets a guilty felon go unexecuted (being given instead perhaps life in prison without parole) or to have a system which regularly executes people who are not guilty of a capital crime? Which is a worse miscarriage of justice, the former or the latter?
In my view, condemning even one innocent man or woman to death is frankly one too many. It cannot be written off as collatoral damage or just the price of swift justice or the like. It is a horrible sin and crime, perpetrated by a 'justice' system itself against some of its own innocent citizens, and as the Bible says, such innocent blood cries out to God for redress of this situation. Never mind that the criminal justice system is supposed to uphold 'justice' for all, even the poor, even the mentally ill, even those who are not of the same ethnic group as most Americans. As so many statues of Lady Justice remind us, justice is supposed to be blind to any considerations which might skew justice being done. Justice denied to anyone, is justice denied potentially to everyone. And it is perfectly clear to all who are observant that those with more money and better lawyers have much better chance of being exonerated of a crime than those who have neither, whether the exoneration is just or injust.
At this point you may be objecting and saying-- "But now we have the hard scientific evidence of DNA which eliminates the guess work in capital cases". Under these circumstances shouldn't we think that capital punishment becomes more infallible and permissable a kind of punishment? On the one hand, while DNA evidence can provide conclusive evidence that someone DIDN'T do something, it cannot prove that someone DID do something. Take for example the classic case of a prostitute who is raped and murdered. DNA testing can show who did not have sex with the woman in question near the time of her death, and it can also show who did. But the person who has sex with a person may not have killed her. DNA doesn't prove who the killer necessarily is unless there is other evidence as well.
Suppose, as in the Duke case the testing shows multiple persons had sex with the woman in question, some of it consenual and even legal, some of it not? Suppose it shows that none of the accused had sex with her. That should exonerate the accused from the crime, but it does not necessarily incriminate all those who did have sex with her. In other words, there are very few clear cut cases where the DNA can nail one and only one person for the crime committed. Hair samples are also notoriously unreliable evidence, as are saliva tests as well in at least 20% of all cases (read Grisham's book). In other words, there is rarely a slam dunk case on the basis of such 'scientific' evidence, even today. Juries can be blinded with science and rush to judgment, but Christians need to think things through thoroughly and carefully and prayerfully.
But what exactly does the Bible say or suggest about such issues? If one examines the Mosaic Law code, two things are clear. The lex talionis "an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand,... a life for a life" was a law given, as Jesus was later to suggest, due to the hardness of the human heart. In context the law was meant to limit revenge taking not license it. In other words, the phrase in question could be translated "only an eye for an eye, only a hand for a hand.... only a life for a life". The issue of capital punishment then, as now, was taken as a separate issue from war, and the killing that happens during a war. Capital punishment has always been part of a system where the basic assumption is that the society in question is at peace and under the rule of law, but has problems with some isolated individuals who are criminals who had to be dealt with.
But the second thing to be said about the Mosaic law code when it comes to this issue is that the ten commandments make perfectly clear that God's highest and best for his people was 'thou shalt not murder', a commandment that Jesus reiterated. In context this commandment refers to pre-mediated murder or execution by one of God's people. It does not refer to accidental killings, nor does it refer to actions of war. It refers to God's people pre-mediating and carry out a killing, whether one is a private citizen or a public official. For either such person, this banning of murder is absolute. And of course capital punishment, it must be admitted, is indeed a form of pre-mediated killing. It falls within the Mosaic ban, whether we are happy to call it murder or not. It is just one legally sanctioned form of killing in some places in the world by some legal systems.
And that brings us to what Jesus requires of his own followers in these matters. The issue for the Christian is not what is 'legal' or 'permissible' for some secular government to do which is not obligated to follow the Gospel. The issue is what should Christians do who are so obligated.
Here dictums like turn the other cheek, practice non-resistance, love your enemies, follow Jesus' own example, remember Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by it, and so on, come into play. But lets take one particular teaching of Jesus-- his teaching about forgiveness. The issue is how Christians should respond to being wronged, even criminally wronged. Paul is clear and succinct about this matter in Rom. 12.17ff.-- "do not repay anyone evil for evil...Do not take revenge, my friend but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Paul then goes on to quote Prov. 25.21-22: "If your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, In doing this you will heap burning coals on their head." This is sometimes called killing them with kindness, but in fact what it is is breaking the cycle of revenge-taking by blessing someone who curses or harms you. Paul's final warning is "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Of course this is not a natural human response of a fallen human being. But it is one that a Christian by grace can practice.
Jesus is equally emphatic on this point in Mt. 18.21-22. Peter asks whether he should forgive someone who sins against him, and he magnanimously suggests up to seven times. After all its a good big Biblical number for perfection. Surely seven times would be enough.
Jesus answers "not seven times but seventy seven times." Now what is not normally noticed about this is Jesus is alluding to the famous dictum of Lamech in Gen.4.24 which reads "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." In other words, Jesus is saying his disciples should practice as much forgiveness, in effect infinite forgiveness, as Lamech swore he would practice revenge taking.
The basic principle is this-- vengeance should be left in the hands of God. And perhaps it needs to be said that what this means is that Jesus disciples should not take revenge on anyone. Those to whom God has forgiven everything unconditionally should practice unconditional forgiveness as well. And of course it needs to be said that sometimes revenge taking has nothing to do with justice. Sometimes it is just a retailiation against someone, anyone, for being wronged or harmed in some way. There is a reason why Jesus requires us to pray "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". The lack of doing the latter can impede our receiving the former. The two dimensions of forgiveness, received and offered, vertical and horizontal, are intertwined.
One can also argue on the basis of what follows Rom. 12, namely Rom. 13.4 that while individual Christians should not take revenge, non-Christian governments can be the instruments of God's wrath. This is true enough, but what Paul is talking about there is not capital punishment at all but rather the right of the tax police to carry a defensive weapon, and indeed to enforce the law. Nothing is said here about the use of lethal or deadly force, even in the case of the government.
How do I sum up the Biblical evidence? First it must be freely admitted that different Christians and equally good scholars will weigh these texts, and which ones seem more important, differently. That is true.
In my view following the example of Jesus (who would not even sanction one of his disciples chopping off the ear of someone prepared to lead him off to an unjust crucifixion) means that we must take the Sermon on the Mount, and teachings such as we find in Rom. 12 with utmost seriousness as commands of the Lord and of his apostles. In other words, the commitment not only to non-violence, but the commitment to forgive and do good to those who harm us is top priority.
We need to leave vengeance or justice in God's hands. We are supposed to be agents of grace and forgiveness in a world already too prone to using violence to solve its problems. And for me, this means I cannot support, nor could I participate in an act, whether legal or personal, which involves taking away another person's life and thereby probably taking away their opportunity to repent, be forgiven and be saved.
Whatever your views on this matter, read and ponder Grisham powerful book. It reveals how sin and self-centered behavior and our obvious lack of omniscience plagues even the best of human institutions.