God’s bodykins, man, much better: Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? (Hamlet II, 2, 500-501)
In addition to proclaiming God’s message to God’s people, Israel’s prophets traditionally also fulfilled the role of intercessor on behalf of the people with God. Moses interceded for Israel after the Golden Calf incident, for example (Exod 32:11-13), arguing that, although the people had flagrantly violated their covenant relationship with God almost
immediately, God’s reputation as deliverer and for faithfulness to God’s promise depended on sparing the people and renewing the covenant. Years later, Amos repeatedly pled with God to spare the northern kingdom of Israel because it was “so small” (Amos 7:2, 5).
Although not technically a prophet, Abraham, the first major figure in the Bible to intercede with God on behalf of a people, stands as a model. Genesis 18 relates the incident involving Abraham’s intercession for the populations of Sodom and Gomorrah. While visiting with Abram and Sara to announce the impending birth of Isaac, the child of the promise, God decided to send messengers/angels to the twin cities so that they can determine whether the rumors God has heard about the sin rampant there merited punishment. Since God had chosen Abram as the avenue for bringing blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3), in effect appointing Abram as ‘ambassador for human redemption,’ God decided that it would be inappropriate to act against Sodom and Gomorrah without at least informing Abram of plans (Gen 18:17-19). In reaction to the news, Abram boldly called God to faithfulness to God’s character. What if the populations of the cities included a significant proportion of innocent people? “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?….Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:23-24). God conceded Abram’s point. The two finally agreed that, if there should be as few as ten righteous people among the population, God would spare everyone (Gen 18:32). Incidentally, the number of innocent proved to smaller, but God’s messengers/angels arranged the evacuation of all of them before destroying the two cities. Abram and God settled on a definition of justice that risks sparing the guilty if necessary to protect the innocent.
The prophet Jonah represents a marked contrast. Sent to preach to the population of Nineveh, the sometimes capital of the Assyrian Empire, known to Israel as conqueror and occupier, Jonah fled toward Tarshish (Spain?) in the effort to avoid God’s commission. Jonah’s determination not to preach in Nineveh led him to ask the sailors to cast him overboard to his fate. Of course, God had other plans. After a sea voyage in the belly of a big fish that God appointed for the purpose, Jonah found himself again on dry land and again under divine commission. This time he did go to Nineveh, although the message he delivered there is probably the worst sermon ever preached. In only five Hebrew words, Jonah proclaimed, “In forty days, things change” (Jonah 3:4). Then he went outside the city to see what would transpire. When the Ninevites repented and God forgave them, Jonah was indignant. ‘I knew that you would do this,’ he complained to God. ‘You are eager to forgive people. That’s why I didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites in the first place’ (Jonah 4:2). It was probably also the reason for the minimalist sermon Jonah preached. Jonah’s definition of justice called for people whom he hated to get everything that they deserved.
Whom should we emulate?
Sunday’s local newspaper included a front page story about newly revealed DNA evidence in the case of Keith Allen Harward, convicted of the horrendous murder of Jesse Perron and the heinous rape of Perron’s wife in 1982. Harward has spent the last thirty-three years in prison for the crime. The new evidence points squarely at Jerry Crotty, who died ten years ago while in prison serving time for his third conviction since the 1982 crime.
Harward avoided the death penalty because of a legal technicality in the definition of “aggravated” murder. Who knows what may have happened to him otherwise. For me, his case and scores like them in recent months and years raise questions about our determination, like Jonah’s, to see the guilty punished – even if we risk including the innocent.
Since the 1980’s, the law-and-order impulse in our society has manifest itself in “three strikes” legislation, mandatory sentencing even for non-violent crimes, the burgeoning population of those incarcerated (as recently as 2014, the US had the largest incarcerated population in the world; see http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/09/17/3568232/the-united-states-had-even-more-prisoners-in-2013/), and an eagerness to impose and carry out capital punishment.
Fortunately, because of the legal technicality, the state of Virginia could not execute Harward. Although it is difficult to imagine how the state can now possibly make it right with Harward for the thirty-three years of his life he has lost, the state was at least unable to take his life. “We’re sorry,” means nothing to the dead.
A number of practical reasons argue against the continued use of the death penalty. According to a University of Colorado study conducted in 2008, 88% of America’s criminologists doubt the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/study-88-criminologists-do-not-believe-death-penalty-effective-deterrent). Prosecuting death penalty cases costs taxpayers significantly more than do other prosecutions (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty). On the other side of the cost equation, the quality of defense representation also varies by cost; even in capital murder cases, it seems, one gets what one pays for. A rash of recent botched executions involving experimental drug combinations raises questions concerning whether the method passes the Constitutional “cruel and unusual” test.
With the words of Abram and Jonah ringing in my ears, however, these and other potent, practical reasons occupy secondary status. With Abram, I want to define justice in terms of the protection of the innocent. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” can never be certainty. After all, only God and the accused can know with certainty. The act is irreversible; the risk is too great. Unlike Jonah, I am ashamed when hate, spite, and vengeance motivate any of my actions. They are ugly emotions that damage the person who harbors them as much, or more, than they damage their object. Does converting vengeance into a public motive transform its character? To quote God’s question to Jonah, “Does your anger do you any good?” (Jonah 4:4, my trans.) Shakespeare’s Hamlet had a better idea: “Use them after your own honour and dignity” (Hamlet II, 2, 502; my emph.).