Reconciliation

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the sad state of our American justice system. To recap: I believe the problem is the system itself. It is built on an adversarial foundation in which both sides try to “win” the case, and the truth of the situation at hand gets lost in the war. The goal of our current system is either vengeance or revenge (in the form of a conviction and incarceration/execution) or acquittal. In this system neither the victim nor the accused is served any kind of justice. Even if there is an acquittal, the accused is forever branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of having been arrested and tried for whatever crime he or she was supposed to have committed. As one famous defendant said following his acquittal, “What court do I go to to have my name cleared?”

Biblical justice, however, had an entirely different goal – reconciliation. In God’s plan there were no jails, no prisons. An accused was brought before the town elders, multiple witnesses were required to proclaim guilt, and there were steep prices to pay for perjury. Once “convicted” the guilty had to make restitution to the victim or the aggrieved party – thieves had to replace the stolen goods, plus and additional amount of “interest” or “punitive damages.” In the case of actions that were so egregious as to dehumanize the victim (pre-meditated murder, rape, kidnapping), the guilty was simply executed.

Notice that in every case except the last, the goal was the reconciliation between accused and victim. The goal was the repair – as far as was humanly possible – of the relationship between individuals and between the accused and the community he or she violated. In the case of premeditated murder, rape, or kidnapping that restoration was impossible. In God’s justice system there is a line that, once crossed, cannot be restored. When you devalue human life to the point that you intentionally take a life, destroy a person through sexual assault, or kidnap them, then you sacrifice your own life. It is elegant in its simplicity. We have corrupted it by trying to make it more “humane.”

When our founding fathers created a system built on an adversarial foundation, and where the goal is simply to establish a legal standing, they eliminated the possibility of the judicial system working toward reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to function, a different foundation needs to be laid.

  • Critical for the process of reconciliation to work there has to be the genuine offer of the possibility of forgiveness. The offer has to be genuine (not simply a legal fiction), but it cannot be considered to be automatic.
  • The other critical component for reconciliation to work is the prospect of an honest, complete, and unpretentious confession of all guilt. Once the door of forgiveness has been opened, it is absolutely necessary for all accountability to be expressed in genuine repentance. There can be no room here for self-serving confession (“I’m sorry you were offended” is the worst confession ever uttered).
  • The final critical component would be for each party to then agree upon what steps are necessary and proper for the restitution of relationship between the guilty and the victim, and between the guilty and the larger community. Forgiveness does not mean that in most situations there needs to be some form of restitution or punishment. Maybe it would be the full restitution of items stolen. Maybe it would be a public apology. Maybe it would be public service for the victim or for the community. What ever the decision, it would have to be agreed upon by all sides and it would have to be measured. Just as an example, our current system of incarcerating individuals for the mere possession of illegal drugs is both inhumane and unjust. It serves no good purpose at all – except to make some individuals very wealthy (lawyers, judges, prison builders).

A justice system built on reconciliation would look radically different from our current system. I think it can be done, though. I think it has been done before.

I think it was started by a man hanging on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago.

Maybe those who claim to follow that man should think about reconciliation before we demand revenge. Just a thought.

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.