Saturday, May 18, 2013
The Ungodliness of Christian Mercy: the Kermit Gosnell Edition
Last summer I devoted a blog post to the Aurora Illinois shooting, and in particular to the gunman James Holmes. The focus of that post was not on the shooting per se, but on the strange fact that we as a society go out of our way to safely detain someone who carefully went out of his way to annihilate everyone. My aim was not to laud this position so much as to point out how odd it is that we ourselves do not see it as odd. A more reasonable position actually would be to mete out the same justice that the gunman himself meted out when he opened fire on those defenseless moviegoers. Yet that is not what we did. The authorities went to great lengths to give this man the justice and mercy that he clearly denied others.
Whatever you think about this kind of justice/mercy, it is undeniable that without Christ such a remarkable approach to law and justice would be inconceivable. The only thing comparable to this unconscionable approach to law enforcement is the equally unconscionable suggestion that one should show restraint in wartime. In fact, there is even a criteria that the Church has developed over the last two thousand years as a means to determine whether a military action is considered "just" or not. And in the event that one does engage in war, there are even certain rules that if broken constitute "war crimes". But think about it this way: how strange is it to suggest that amidst all of the blood and chaos that surrounds war, that two enemies might actually regard certain behavior as "out of bounds?" Once again, such restraint can only be envisioned in a Christian ethos, though that very same Christian instinct also has a rather practical element to it as well. If two nations are going to fight, so be it, but God forbid that they preserve nothing of their humanity in the process, God forbid that they simply turn into mindless animals who fight for no other reason than the desire to maim and destroy a fellow human being.
Which brings me to the primary purpose for my writing this particular post. In another stunning example of the "ungodliness of Christian mercy", I present the "star" of the Pennsylvania "House of Horrors", the man who played judge and executioner for countless born and unborn babies (not to mention several women whose death he was responsible for). Indeed, the same man who mercilessly decapitated babies born alive as a result of botched abortions is now the beneficiary of the mercy he so callously denied others. He himself (through his lawyers) appealed to the judge for a stay of execution and because our justice system values mercy it was granted. Yet the very man who now demands mercy from the court, never once, it seems, let the cry of any baby move his heart to offer the same. So he is alive as a result of a set of values which he himself rejects- a remarkable conclusion wrought by the mercy of heaven and the pitiful irony of hell. If we were in a country like Saudi Arabia, Mr. Gosnell (I call him that because he is no doctor) would doubtless be decapitated, and perhaps since he killed so many, such a decapitation might be performed with the dullest of blades. Now that sounds more like good old fashioned justice to me.
However, just as Abraham's hand was stayed from slaughtering his son, so Christ has stayed our own hands from imposing on the criminal the same cruel and unusual punishment that he himself has administered. On the surface, this seems like madness, and in many ways it is a miscarriage of justice. But there is a method to God's "ungodliness". A society that simply returns horror for horror is not exactly above what it claims to abhor. Indeed, it is one thing for evil to befall the man who has done evil, and quite another to condemn wicked behavior by behaving in the same wicked manner yourself. How can a just man torture a wicked man and not in some sense become what he detests? Surely the man who seeks justice is better than the criminal, but how much better; especially when he attempts to carefully devise ways to drive another human man mad by inflicting excruciating psychological and/or physical pain upon him?
Another rationale for such punitive restraint is less for the sake of the criminal and more for the general welfare of society. Far from endorsing such behavior, the legal system at its best seeks to make a clear distinction between the behavior of the one who has utterly abandoned the highest morals ideals, and the one whose aim it is to uphold them. To witness sanity in the face of insanity is not only comforting (seeing as insanity is never described as such), but it re-enforces the notion that it is better to be above the horror than to become as small and detestable as what you are condemning. Let us also not forgot how hypocritical it would be for a society that permits abortion on demand to then claim false outrage at the man who simply carried out our twisted logic to its natural conclusion.
Lastly, such legal restraint makes sense, especially when you consider the longview of civilization. If retributive justice is the only way a society guarantees its citizens behave well, then you are not exactly creating a society that is founded upon real Christian freedom. In other words, people may avoid crimes as a result of the government's Draconian methods, but they are certainly not doing so based on a genuine desire for goodness. If fear is the only motivation for goodness, then you are creating a slavish people who are good, not "for goodness sake", but because their master threatens them with lashes. Moreover, in such a society, what chance would/could there be for genuine conversion and redemption. An eye for an eye can go on ad infinitum like some infernal game of Pong if you let it, but a justice system with real mercy built into it, lays the groundwork for the possibility of genuine healing. Whether on the battlefield or in the courtroom, there is no end to the potential "back and forth" unless there is some opportunity for magnanimity on the part of the court, and some room for rehabilitation on the part of the criminal. Mere retributive justice may prevent crimes in a superficial sense, but it certainly does not alter the mentality of the criminal. Indeed, such a society is founded on legalism and not virtue.
So even while we continue to detest and loathe the behavior of someone like Kermit Gosnell, and even while we might want to dismember him in the same fashion that he dismembered all of those little ones, our faith requires us to show remarkable restraint. However "ungodly" such restraint may seem, it is far less ungodly than the alternative. Do we wish to live in a society that is less barbaric than its criminals, or do we prefer a justice system like the one in Saudi Arabia that still crucifies its criminals for things like armed robbery (see below)? Do we wish to live in Rome or Riyadh? Do we want Sharia law, or the Constitution? Or to put it another way, how much blood, torture, and death, would be required in order to offer full atonement for all of the crimes and wickedness that we see in the world today? Such a display would indeed look something like hell on earth. Thus, while justice is necessary, there is, thankfully, a tiny window of escape out of the asylum of pure justice, a trap door of redemption for a criminal and a world that seems only capable of seeing red.