Just? What Is Just?

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A post over at the Godless Mom blog got me thinking about that question, especially when it comes to the biblical worldview.

Her post titled, “This Jesus Lover Is a Perfect Example of How Religion Eliminates Critical Thought” (the title begs the question somewhat) prompted me, as a religious person to think critically about her criticism and see if it reflects any actual critical thinking. She begins,

Unless you’ve been reading my blog with your eyes closed, you know I am dead set against the death penalty. So much so, that I consider myself an anti-death penalty activist.

I was curious if she was consistent with her position and so I searched for articles on abortion, but couldn’t find any that expressed a coherent, well-defined position. Now, you may ask what does one thing have to do with the other, which is an interesting discussion in itself, but it suffices to say, without going outside of the point of this post, that I find an inconsistency with people opposed to the death penalty but who support abortion, especially taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand-for-the-silliest-of-reasons. But let’s continue this examination.

She sets up a thought experiment:

If there was a way to try and prevent most, or even some, violent crime, would you want to know, even if part of it was putting an end to the death penalty?

Clearly, if there was an effective means to prevent violent crime, I would want to know, but what does that has to do with the death penalty? Let’s see if she answers the question.

For most of us, the answer is yes, of course. For others, preventing more victims of murder is a secondary priority only to seeking out retribution and vengeance. More bodies is an acceptable side effect when it comes to what we love to call “justice”. Some of us love the death penalty more than we do the idea of reducing crime rates, fewer victims, less dead.

Her thought experiment seems to equivocate “violent crime“, which is a vague term anyway, with the death penalty, even though we could make a logical distinction between the two. As for the assertion that, “preventing more victims of murder is a secondary priority to seeking out retribution“–which is one thing–“and vengeance“–which is another–seems to be doing some logical gymnastics that I have never seen before. If “murder” is what “violent crime” is referring to, then we need a definition to work from.

Webster’s definesmurder” as

the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought

So, there’s a distinction, implied by definition, between lawful killing and unlawful killing. This is why I brought up the issue of abortion, because, even if the unborn is a human being, which means that it has certain intrinsic value and rights, she would argue that it is legal to kill that person, because of their age and geographical location, but there’s others who, because of age and location should not be. All that I want to point out is that there’s a distinction but no difference being demonstrated there. But most people don’t think that critically or self-reflectively. And, let me be clear: I am not saying that Godless Mom is pro-abortion, she could be opposed to it, I simply could not find anything that demonstrates a position on the question from a search of her blog, rather I want to point out that those who are against the death penalty are, by and large, from my experience, pro-abortion. And I want to call them to consistency.

But what about the assertion that it’s simply about “retribution and vengeance” and not about “preventing more victims of murder”? I’m sorry, that’s simply an argument from emotion. She seems to be essentially saying that the person who opposes her doesn’t care. Who is she to judge the motivations of others? But let’s define our terms again by turning to our trusty Webster’s dictionary, which defines retribution as,

recompense or reward

and

something given or exacted in recompense; especially :  punishment

My guess is that Godless Mom believes that those who commit violent crimes should be punished, the only thing that she seems to disagree with is what that punishment should consist of, so she places herself right in the middle of those who desire retribution. But what about vengeance?

Our trusty Webster’s defines vengeance as,

punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offense :  retribution

Wow! Who’d have thunk it? Again, if she believes that violent crimes should be punished, she believes in vengeance. So can we just call her a hypocrite and get on with our lives? We could, but we need to press on as she does, writing,

More bodies is an acceptable side effect when it comes to what we love to call “justice”. Some of us love the death penalty more than we do the idea of reducing crime rates, fewer victims, less dead.

I’m going to call that a straw man because I would argue that we do care about victims, both past and future. This is simply more emotional argumentation. We can look at crime statistics and deference programs and any number of examples of just how bad making an argument in that manner is. But the question comes down to what is just when it comes to meting out the punishment for an offense? That depends entirely upon the presuppositions brought to the argument. 

She goes after an article at The Gospel Coalition written by Charles Colson as part of a in-house debate. Colson’s argument comes down to a question of proportionality, boiled down in what is known as the lex talionis, summarized in the common phrase, “eye for an eye”.

Godless responds to what seems to be an acceptable proposition, saying,

You see, if anyone were to assert, to me, that the response to an offense needs to be proportionate, I would immediately ask why.

Good question. I like good questions.

What are the benefits of this? Does it act to reduce crime? Is there evidence that this does not increase crime, at least? I would not just accept the statement without question. I need reasons. I need evidence. I need to know why.

I agree with those questions. The problem is that she doesn’t like Colson’s answer, which is,

Justice in God’s eyes requires that the response to an offense—whether against God or against humanity—be proportionate.

She replies to his simple explanation by saying,

Essentially, Chuck, what you’re saying here, is that your belief in God has eliminated your need to know the reasons why. You said that at one point in time, you had all of these questions mulling around in your head. You were against the death penalty because you saw the flaws in the system and you had your doubts about it acting as a deterrent. But since finding Jesus, you don’t need those answers anymore. All you need is the divine command of god to tell you what’s what, even if it doesn’t make sense as it manifests down here, on mortal earth. You have surrendered your critical thought, given up your reason and your curiosity and your need to know what best suits our world, in favour of, as Hitch so eloquently put it, a celestial dictatorship.

The problem is that is not all of Colson’s answer, that was just the beginning, because he goes on to say,

The issue boils down ultimately to just deserts. Indeed, just punishment is a thread running through the whole Bible. … Punitive dealings provide a necessary atonement and restore the moral balance disturbed by sin. Purification, one of the most central of biblical themes, reveals to us both the temporal and eternal perspectives on humanity.

He goes on to say,

The death penalty ultimately confronts us with the issue of moral accountability in the present life. Contemporary society seems totally unwilling to assign moral responsibility to anyone. Everything imaginable is due to a dysfunctional family or to having had our knuckles rapped while we were in grade-school. We really have reached a point where the Menendez brothers plead for mercy—and get it!—because they are orphans, after acknowledging they made themselves orphans by killing their parents.

Seems to me like Colson has actually been thinking about the matter, being consistent with his Christian presuppositions, namely that as a bearer of the image of God man is held responsible for how he conducts himself toward his fellow image bearers by God either through his assigned agents (civil magistrate/government) or the natural consequences of the action. Has Godless Mom been thinking?

She gives us a definition of justice, defining it as

Justice, as it is defined, is the administration of fairness.

Well, technically, but Webster’s defines the term as,

the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments

as well as

the quality of being just, impartial, or fair

It seems as if she’s conflating definitions, but she gives us a scenario to apply her definition.

A loving, attentive mother is murdered, brutally, left dead and bloody to be discovered by her two young children who will forever suffer from the PTSD they have from that day. Her killer is caught, also a parent of two young children. Expedited through the justice system with guilty pleas and ample evidence, the killer is put to death in front of an audience, including his now teenaged children. One of his teenaged kids struggles for years with what he saw at the execution as the corrections officers and medical techs struggled to find a vein and his father writhed, foaming at the mouth, in pain. The kid eventually kills himself. As does one of the hard working corrections officers, who could never manage to fall asleep without seeing the face of a dying man and those of his children watching him leave this world. The officer also had two kids.

One crime. Four bodies. Six orphans. 

She then asks a series of questions

Was this “justice” fair to the corrections officer whose task was to be part of a team that ended a life? Was justice fair to the killer’s child who committed suicide? Was it fair to the reporters who witnessed the execution who went home with PTSD? Was it fair to the medical staff present who had to suspend their hippocratic oath to carry out the punishment? What if the killer had suffered from an untreated mental illness and, had he been treated prior to the crime, would never have committed it? Is it still fair to have carried out this punishment? What if, like Cameron Todd Willingham, evidence surfaced after the execution that he was an innocent man? Is that fair, Charles? Is it fair to fatherless children of the corrections officer? Is it fair to the fatherless children of the killer? Is it fair to all the other victims of crime in that state who need support services but can’t find them because funding was cut in order to keep death row kicking along? Is it fair to the law enforcement agencies in the state who continue to have their resources limited by budget cuts, while the state still spends billions on the expensive capital system?

I’ve just got one question that seems to be overlooked: What about the mother of those two children? Was it “just” for her to be murdered? We can sit here and ask a number of what-if questions, but my concern is for the woman who was murdered and her children have had their mother taken from them. Where’s their justice?

If her argument is that we don’t want to cause anyone any undue discomfort, let’s start back at the first link in the chain. Is she arguing that the man should not be punished for what he did? No, she’s not, she says,

[When] one opposes the death penalty, they are not advocating for no accountability. There are other punishments.

Then the question that needs to be asked is, are those “other punishments” just?

She goes on,

[There are] other ways to be made accountable for your actions. One does not have to die to face accountability.

I think that she’s, once again, setting up a straw man because she seems to be confusing accountability with punishment, something I think is clear here,

That, I’m afraid, is a solely theistic idea. If there is no god, there is no accountability after death. All you’ve managed to do, is stop a heart and begin oblivion for a killer. He’s not being burned for eternity thinking, “Well, shucks! Probs shouldn’t have done that!”. No, he’s nowhere. There is no reflection on his crime. There is no accountability, no lesson learned, no punishment.

Okay, quick logic check here:

  1. If there is no god, there is no accountability after death.
  2. (Her assertion) There is no god.
  3. Therefore there is no accountability after death.

Well, that’s a logical fallacy.

Now, let’s say that was a valid argument: it still would not follow that because there is no accountability after death, that one should not put a killer to death. The killer goes into oblivion. So what?  He doesn’t get to reflect on his crime. So what? They don’t, “learn a lesson”.” So what? He’s the end result of a mindless, unguided process with no intrinsic rights or values, just like the woman that he murdered. Why even bother with things like holding people accountable or punishing people especially since there’s no god? Darn those pesky presuppositions.

Colson, consistent with his presuppositions, rightly says,

Society should not execute capital offenders merely for the sake of revenge, but to balance the scales of moral justice that have been disturbed.

Godless Mom calls this “word salad”, remarking,

It has no real meaning; no way of manifesting itself in the real world. It’s a deepity: something that sounds really good coming out of your mouth, or being slapped down in a blog post, but when put to the test of rigorous thought and questioning, it bears no fruit. There is nothing to this sentence.

No meaning? Given the necessary presuppositions of your worldview, your statement means nothing. Colson isn’t arguing that. She goes on, saying,

The data is clear: the death penalty does nothing to reduce crime, with some criminologists claiming it can actually have the opposite effect.

straw-man

Thank you for finally pulling out your straw man and setting it ablaze for all to see, because neither Colson nor any advocate for the death penalty makes that argument. In fact Colson makes that point clear in his article, saying,

Personally, I still doubt the death penalty is a general deterrent…

Colson’s argument has nothing to do with whether the death penalty is effective in reducing murders, especially since, as Colson notes, that it is, “…so seldom invoked.” Colson’s argument is in regard to the in-house debate between Christians concerning the death penalty, not about whether it’s a deterrent, or what it should be applied to, but about the justification from within the Christian worldview.

Godless Mom belittles Colson, and by extension any Christian who agrees with him, saying,

[It] sounds like you were, at one point in time, a truly reasonable man. Now, you make the perfect poster boy for why religion is harmful. Before it, you were full of questions, curiosity, healthy doubt and skepticism. You were concerned with what was true, and not what sounded prettiest. After it, you became a good little soldier, marching along in time with your fellow believers, chanting the passages of a 2000 year old book as the reason you must deny your own doubt.

Well, Courtney, aka Godless Mom,

To be concerned about truth requires a starting point for truth. The Christian begins with the Bible, what God has made known by means of revelation as his (or her) starting point. If it is true that human beings bear the image of God, then everything that God prescribes after that necessarily follows from that presupposition. She’s right, it is “marching along in time”, it’s called being consistent with your professed worldview.

But she cannot resist firing up the straw man. Colson never denies the fact that he has doubts, in fact he discusses them right out of the gate in the essay. He’s not calling for the death penalty to be applied indiscriminately, but for every situation to be measured on its own merits. What Colson is clear about, and what Courtney seems to miss, is that he doesn’t let his doubts cover over what God says (yes, that’s present tense).

But, let’s think for a minute. In another post, she discusses how much is spent prosecuting a capital case in comparison to a non-capital case, and for good reason: you want to make sure that you do due diligence because of the “irreversible nature of capital punishment”. She argues that life imprisonment costs less than pursuing a death penalty case. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that’s true, and it can be demonstrated as such. Should we do away with the death penalty because of a few dollars? How, exactly, does that follow?

On average, the cost of housing a prisoner is $70(US) per day. That comes out to $25,550 per year. Let’s say that prisoner lives 50 years once incarcerated, that’s $1,277,500, providing that the cost of housing that prisoner doesn’t increase. That doesn’t sound like much. But when you consider that there’s approximately 160,000 serving life sentences (most of which top out at 25 years), that’s $639K per prisoner. Now, not all are there for capital offenses, but that’s $102 Billion dollars. If we take the average court cost of “half a million”, to prosecute a capital case, which makes that a bargain compared to housing someone for life, a 2 for 1 bargain. From a pragmatic, and utilitarian point of view, that’s a steal.

But here’s something that Courtney didn’t think about: who pays for that? It’s you and me, with our tax dollars. Now, if our murderer, in her scenario, was a young man, let’s say in his early 20s, and he lived for 50 years, that means that the government would be extorting money from the victims of his children to feed, clothe, house, and provide medical care for the murderer of their mother and the murderers of other peoples mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. How is that just? 

This post is getting very long, so I need to wrap things up. Ultimately the question comes down to 2 points: what is murder and how should it be punished? God has spoken as far as I am concerned on both counts. Courtney wants to put this as a test for the existence of God and I am happy to oblige. If God does not exist, then there’s no such thing as “murder”.

But as to the question that her scenario begged: if such a scenario did occur, because God exists, that man, if he did not repent and trust in Christ, would pay the debt owed to God for every life taken in that chain, from the mother, to his own child, to the guard, because God is just when we are not. Can I prove that? I’d have to present some exegesis. But I think that I’ve pretty well demonstrated that Courtney, Godless Mom, really needs to lay off accusing people of not thinking critically when she is demonstrating that she isn’t.

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