Dancing With Goat Heads

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I think, somewhere back there, I have shared just how much I despise the American justice system. This catches some people by surprise – they equate the American justice system with everything that is good and holy in the world – right up there with apply pie, mom, and baseball. For those who know me the best, it should not come as a surprise that I have a somewhat different take.

The American justice system is the goat head in the garden of life. It does what it was designed to do (cause incredible pain), it multiplies its pain prodigiously, and it puts out a cute little flower to hide its insidious little weapons.

Let me cut directly to my conclusion here: nothing short of the biblical concept of justice will ever count as “justice,” and the American system is designed to make that justice an impossibility.

Basic civics lesson here. The American justice system is built on the principle of adversarialism (I think I made up a word here). The point is we have a prosecution team (the State) and a defense team. The prosecution is intent on achieving a conviction, the defense is intent on avoiding that conviction. As we have seen in far, far too many cases throughout our entire history, the prosecution can and does act dishonestly, and the defense can and does act dishonestly. Innocent individuals are convicted, and guilty individuals are acquitted, and as far as the judicial system is concerned, nobody cares. If a jury reaches a decision, the “system” worked. There are certainly those outside of the court system who care deeply if a wrong verdict has been declared, but the number of innocent people in jails and prisons and the number of guilty perpetrators walking our streets is stark evidence of their relative inability to effect any significant changes.

The problem IS the system. And as long as the system keeps grinding out verdicts, nothing is going to change, and there will be precious little “justice” in our country.

Now, how would a biblical system of justice look different from our current system? For one thing, instead of focusing on “winning” or “losing” a case as the adversarial system demands, both the prosecution and the defense would be focused on arriving at the pure truth of the case. The idea that our adversarial system is designed to get at the truth is the greatest, and most damaging, lie of our justice system. Currently our prosecution teams do all they can to avoid certain truths from becoming evidence – and the defense teams are just as vigilant to avoid letting other truths from being known. Judges, the so-called arbiters of truth, routinely prohibit certain truths from being heard by the jury. If you ever participated on a jury and thought you were getting all the facts – whoo boy, were you ever lied to.

A system based on identifying the truth of a case has profound implications both for the innocent and the guilty. The innocent would have no fear of the judicial system (honestly – how many minorities think our current system is fair?). On the other hand, the guilty could be treated in a much different fashion. Have you ever stopped to notice how in the God’s perfect plan there are no prisons, no jails, for those guilty of crimes? Thieves were to repay what they stole, plus some “interest.” Those guilty of taking a life, albeit with no intention, were allowed to live in a modified “house arrest” (were able to live in a city of refuge). Those guilty of intentionally dishonoring human life (murderers, rapists, kidnappers) were simply executed.

Today our prison mentality has turned the judicial system into a growth industry. There really is no “justice” when a person is sent to prison. There is no restitution, there is no personal interaction between criminal and innocent victim. It is all sterile, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.

To me, no greater example of how this could change the life of an accused and the lives of the victims is the current case of the Dallas police officer facing charges in the death of a young man. In our current adversarial system, we (the public) will – without question – never be told the truth of what happened. The prosecution will tell “their” truth, and the defense will tell “their” truth – but the goal of each will be to “win” the trial. Regardless of the outcome, I will have very little confidence that justice will be served.

In an open-ended search for truth and genuine biblical justice, both sides would sit facing each other, and the accused would be allowed to explain and defend him/herself. Critically, they would be allowed, and even encouraged, to confess their guilt. The victims (or their survivors in at the case of a death) could challenge the presentation of the accused’s story, and ask questions. They would be permitted, and even encouraged, to extend forgiveness and work with the guilty to arrive at an equitable restitution/punishment. The judge would preside to make sure everything was conducted in a civil manner as befits a civilized culture. And, mark this: there would be swift and severe repercussions for perjury! (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) Prosecutors would be severely punished for manufacturing incriminating evidence or concealing exculpatory evidence, defenders would be severely punished for manufacturing mitigating evidence or concealing evidence of wrongdoing. In sum: the purpose of the preceding would be to determine the truth of the situation, and if guilt is present, to determine the appropriate restitution and, if needed, punishment. The most important goal would be to maintain the cohesiveness of the community.

Without the quest for truth, any exercise in a judicial preceding is simply an exercise in futility. We as a people could do so much better – if we had the will to do so. I’m afraid that is the problem. We are all so wrapped up in vengeance and revenge and retribution that we cannot see that we are dancing barefoot in a field of goat heads.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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