Criminal justice or Christian justice?

January 12th, 2016

On the heels of the non-indictment in the killing of Tamir Rice and with the buzz over the Netflix documentary series, "Making a Murderer," the words “truth” and “justice” have been in the air, but the ways in which the criminal justice system understands truth and justice are different from the ways in which Christians might understand truth and justice. For Christians, truth is not only historical factuality, what actually happened, but truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. And the biblical justice of God making people whole, of the peaceable Kingdom of God, seems a far cry from our American system of courts and trials and penitentiaries where justice is about retaliation and seeking punishment for a committed crime and where the victims of crimes are often re-victimized.

As a person steps onto the stand in a court room to testify, he or she swears “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” To quote Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) Two people can experience the same situation in two completely different ways, and facts can be manipulated. People and places can be misidentified and misremembered. Still, police and investigators and lawyers pursue the truth through physical evidence and witnesses — what really happened?

Ideally, discovering the truth leads to justice, to recompense for the victim and punishment for the perpetrator. If and when we are wronged, we turn to the justice system to right that wrong. Yet, in many of the recent killings by police and historically in cases of rape or sexual assault, the justice system fails to act. People cry out for justice for Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and others, and justice turns away. Victims of sexual assault seek help from the places where we are told to go when a crime is committed and are too often re-victimized, made to repeat over and over their stories, criticized for their clothes or level of intoxication or what part of town they were in.

In "Making a Murderer," defense attorney Dean Strang encapsulates the theme of the series in one quote, “Most of what ails our criminal justice system lie in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges and jurors that they are getting it right. That they are simply right. Just a tragic lack of humility in everyone who participates in our criminal justice system.” Whether or not Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach, he was never presumed to be innocent. Even the prosecuting attorney Ken Kratz says in his closing argument, “Reasonable doubt is for innocent people.”

Often, we put our hopes in the justice system as if it were handed down from on high, failing to adequately account for its very human failings, for its ability to be corrupted and manipulated despite safeguards to the contrary. Similar to the institutional church, the justice system is made up of fallen human beings who can game the system for good and for ill and for reasons that might be completely justified in the minds of individuals.

Ultimately, our search for truth and justice must begin and end with God. When we put our faith and hope in human institutions, we will inevitably be hurt and disappointed. They will fail to rise to our expectations and the expectations of those who founded them. In the failings of human institutions, we are reassured in the person of Jesus Christ who conquered the governments and court systems and the death penalty through his resurrection. We should not cease working to make our human institutions that seek justice and truth better, but we may be comforted in our disappointment knowing that God’s justice and truth will reign in the fullness of time. 

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