Bedeviled by (In)Justice

I continue to be fascinated by the unending spate of televised sensational trials, re-trials, detective stories and mysteries “based upon actual events” that account for a robust portion of primetime viewing (myself included). I am wondering if the reason for this fascination resides in the invisible theme that connects these cases: the irrevocable sentiment that “justice must be served.”

More surprising, at least for me, is the number of such cases that involve people of a clearly defined and self-acknowledged religious allegiance. For example, in the case of Jodi Arias — a sordid affair in which she currently stands trial for the brutal murder of her one-time boyfriend Travis Alexander — both she and her lover were active members of Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon). He was deemed an outstanding representative of the faith. She admits to killing him brutally, but insists she did so in self-defense as a result of his ongoing dehumanizing sexual irregularities. Alexander’s family wants justice, while Arias wants mercy.

Then there is the case of the Christian man, Chris Coleman, who murdered his family. He grew up in a Christian home –his father is and remains a pastor — and served as a member of a security team for a well-known televangelist. This gentleman was convicted by a jury of his peers of strangling his wife and two young sons as they slept in their beds so he could freely resume his affair with his wife’s best friend without the televangelist firing him for adultery.

And so the wheels of justice turn — or those of injustice — as the case may be. There is no corner on the market for those who cry out for justice, just as there is no telling who will become the perpetrators. The field is wide open when it comes to members of the human race — be they social elites, down-and-outers; bankers, judges, police officers and church-goers — who are capable of debased acts of all manner of cruelty.

The conundrum becomes intractable for the Christian who is beckoned to forgive “seventy times seven.”

I recently read the book God Is Not a Christian, by Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was a key architect in South Africa’s nonviolent transition from the brutal apartheid regime to democracy. Apartheid was “a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation . . . , under which the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule was maintained” (Wiki).

Apartheid was peacefully overturned in 1994. The key element that enabled the transition to be affected without violence or military intervention, was the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC): a public accounting by the perpetrators (the white elite) of their crimes against individuals and groups within the black majority. This public testimony was rendered in exchange for amnesty after the new (predominantly black) government assumed power.

The peaceful overthrow of Apartheid marks a stunning historical turning-of-the-tables that remains a model of the evolution of nations even today, South Africa’s ongoing societal struggles notwithstanding. Bishop Tutu, in his book, has come as close as anything I have read to date about reckoning with justice (and injustice) in a way that renders dignity both to the perpetrator and to the victim. He writes of the testimony before the TRC of a one-time member of the Apartheid regime, describing his crimes as part the protocol for applying for amnesty. The testimony spares no details:

“We gave him drugged coffee and then we shot him in the head. We burned his body and whilst this was happening–it takes six to seven hours to a burn a human body–we were having barbecue and drinking beer.” (p.43)

In this individual’s desire to receive amnesty and to bring reconciliation, despite the horrific nature of his crimes, the barbecue cannot be ignored nor forgotten. The cries of the victims of such crimes should not and cannot be dismissed in deference to “letting go of it” and “moving on.” For there to be true reconciliation, as Tutu demonstrated in the work of the TRC, the crimes must be answered for, which is why this gentleman was enumerating the full measure of his violation. It takes six to seven hours to burn a human body — I know that because I burned one and while burning it I decided to drink beer. These are the kinds of things that must be spoken aloud and must be seen for what they are before there can be an honest reckoning about how to “move on.” Without such reckoning amnesty means nothing, which, is another way of saying forgiveness means nothing.

There is an invisible thin line tightly strung between amnesty and the barbecue that won’t move. It can’t move because it is fixed, eternally fixed, strung to echo just the right note, the perfect tension that elicits — in indeed must elicit — just the right chord of concilatory justice. It is not the hammer-hitting kind of justice, but the authenticating kind — the necessary counterweight that balances out the measure of grace that is implied in amnesty. Justice, in fact, defines the grace.

Whether in the case of national and international atrocities, such as occured in South African (and those occurring unrelentingly all over today’s world); or in the trials being held local courthouses of small towns; or in the privacy of a home where injustices occur regularly with no public hearing to determine guilt or innocence; the notion that the gravitas of a crime against a victim must be jettisoned in deference to “forgiveness” and “moving on” entirely misses the power of both amnesty and the essence of justice. To ignore what was done by one to another dehumanizes both the perpetrator and the victim. This, Tutu argues, “victimizes the victims a second time around by asserting either that what happened to them did not really happen or, worse, that it was of little moment.” He concludes, speaking of the perpetrators of the evils rendered against his countrymen under Apartheid, “these people were guilty of monstrous, even diabolical, deeds on their own submission, but–and this was an important but— that did not turn them into monsters or demons. To have done so would mean that they could not be held morally responsible for their deeds. Monsters have no moral responsibility.”

Christians are neither called nor obliged to absolve monsters. They are called to forgive human beings, who, by nature of their humanness, carry moral responsiblity. To dismiss this element robs them of their redemption, and their redemption is the only avenue to peace.

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.