Cross shaped justice in a messy world

As I was driving home yesterday listening to the talkback radio response to the guilty verdict handed down to Daniel Morcombe’s killer, and the shocking history of depravity in that man’s past, I was shocked by how quick we still are to form lynch mobs – albeit via the waves and frequencies of the radio and telephone networks. Caller after caller expressed the heart felt belief that this undoubtedly evil man deserves death.

I can’t help but feel the heart break of Daniel’s parents and siblings. I can’t help but count the cost for his family as I ponder what justice might look like for them. For Daniel. As I flicked on the TV and saw family photo after photo of a smiling boy, taken from his parents, brothers, and friends far to soon in a heinous act of twisted violence, I couldn’t help but look across at my own children and wonder what it would be like to seek justice on their behalf. Justice. Punishment. Retribution. Where should we draw the line?

This world is broken.

Life is complicated.

Life in a broken and messed up world where people are capable of such atrocities – and let’s never forget that the perpetrators of crimes are human too – is complex.

Life in our broken and messed up world is often unflinchingly and unapologetically, invasively, offensively up in your face. We are confronted with the stark reality that people are capable of inflicting horror on others for their own broken, messy and twisted ends.

There is no excusing what that man did to that boy – and to his family. As I heard the victim impact statements my heart rightly cried out for justice. As I’m sure yours did too. Such is the essentially human response to tragedy, violence and brokenness. We all want justice… until we’re in the firing line.

But is justice in this case – or other cases like it – for the perpetrator to taste death?

Should recidivist criminals – those who commit the same crimes over and over again, or whose crimes degenerate further each time – be forced to pay for their brokenness and ability to inflict darkness on others with their own lives? Will that really protect us from our broken world and the broken and dangerous people who occupy it?

The judge who sentenced this man to life in prison with a minimum term of 20 years recognised that the cost and impact of his actions will carry on into the next generation. Perpetuating this brokenness. The cost of a crime like this is widespread, the victims are legion.

“When I talk about your upbringing, of course it reminds me of other victims of your crimes; your family, your siblings and most terribly of all your own children, who will forever be associated with you and your name.”

Will this man’s death undo this brokenness? Will any man’s death be enough to fix what is wrong with our world? A world that produces actions like this over and over again. We are a little insulated if we think this man is in any way unique. His crimes horrify us. But he is not alone.

It is, I think, only in an approach to life framed by the Christian Gospel that we can truly begin to comprehend these questions, and to answer them.

Does this man deserve death?

The answer is yes.

This man deserves death.

Unequivocally. His actions in this instance – and in past instances – are worthy of death. He deserves death.

The catch is: so do you. So do I. And not just because that’s what the Bible says we all deserve, generally, for rejecting God. For choosing evil – if not in the way this man did, at least in a way that makes us culpable for playing a part in creating a world where things like this can happen.

Paul spells this out in Romans (you might want to check out our series The Verdict if you’re curious about how this all works). First he tells us that we’ve all committed a crime against God – we’ve all participated, together, in a crime worthy of death.

“… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23

It may seem odd at this point to compare the rejection of an omnipotent God with the callous murder of a defenseless child – the power imbalance associated with our understanding of the relationship between criminal and victim just isn’t there when we’re talking about us shaking our fists at God – but hear me out. Paul is pretty clear about the verdict we deserve for this turning from God (in Romans 1 he explains that turning away from God is basically the root cause of all the wrong stuff we do as people).

 “For the wages of sin is death” – Romans 6:23

I said above that it’s only Christianity that helps us begin to approach what this man has done in this case and answer questions about where justice might be found. This is, I think, true for several reasons.

It’s only through a Christian view of the world that we can truly begin to comprehend how a human being could act in this manner – the ability to embody evil so fully.  Other views of what it means to be human suggest that our default is to be good, and it’s only when circumstances around us push us in a direction – or worse – we willfully reject this default and choose evil – that we do horrible things. Christians see the human condition in a different light. We see the human default as opposing God, and promoting self. Humans are fundamentally self seeking, and have the capacity for great evil at the expense of others. In Genesis, where the Bible explores the question of human nature, we see God assessing the fruits of a broken world when it comes to shaping our hearts, thoughts, and actions:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” – Genesis 6:5

Our world is broken. Broken people growing up in a broken world are formed by acts of brokenness committed around them, and grow up to be broken and messed up. This doesn’t excuse an individual from responsibility – but it does serve to broaden the net a little. This man’s failings are a result of a failure of society to love, educate, and protect children – because children in our society grow up in society, and if one child grows up capable of actions like this, there’s a failing somewhere on society’s part.

It’s only in a Christian framework that we can begin to understand what justice really looks like – what this man deserves.  This man deserves death.  We instinctively feel that – but we also, as Christians, know that it isn’t our job to carry that out. We’re not invited to take vengeance into our own hands as vigilantes; we’re invited to trust God. We’re invited to trust his instrument – the government and our judicial system.

The Christian view of responding to evil, and the role of the state, is spelled out in Paul’s letter to the Roman church.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  – Romans 12:17-21

Revenge is different to justice. Revenge consumes both parties. And in the same letter, just sentences later, Paul spells out where we are to look for justice.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. – Romans 13:1-4

The government is responsible for punishing wrongdoers. It is responsible for deciding the punishment for this man. In a democracy we’re invited to take part in shaping how evil is punished. When we reflect on the brokenness of the human condition, and the brokenness of our world, and our shared responsibility for this man’s actions at a societal level, we have to hesitate when it comes to pulling the trigger, and ask ourselves – can we carry the cost of that decision? Are we guilt free enough to pass judgment?

It’s only through a Christian perspective on justice, the world, and our shared humanity that we can begin to appreciate whose job it is to carry out justice.

Because we realise we can’t. True justice is beyond us. It is not just for the guilty to punish the slightly more guilty, or even the substantially more guilty, without inviting those slightly less guilty than us to judge us.

When Jesus was faced with an angry mob ready to lynch a guilty woman for her crimes he looked to the hearts of the angry mob who were clamouring for justice. Who were calling for her death. And he said: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”

It’s only through a Christian way of looking at the world that we can begin to appreciate how we can’t be the ones who carry out that sentence without owning our share of the guilt – both this man’s, and when we’re honest – our own. Who are we to cast judgment on others from a position of brokenness, not wholeness. Do we really understand what has happened in this man’s past, and in his family tree, that has produced such evil enough to know that death, not being invited to live with, and come to terms with, the impact of his crimes is a fitting punishment? The state will do its job in this case – this man will be punished for his crimes. We may not feel like the state has the power to go far enough in achieving justice, but we can be comforted that we do not have to throw the stones and live with the guilt. We should be thankful, in these instances, for the various arms of justice that reached out and uncovered these dark acts and brought them to light, for the justice system and the judge and jury who convicted and sentenced this man, but any justice we might find in this instance when it comes to this man, is only a fleeting taste, a skerrick of understanding of what is going on in this world – and what true justice looks like.

It’s only through a Christian understanding of the world that we can truly hope for justice in such a broken situation, within a broken world – and it’s only when we understand the significance of God’s judgment, and his judgment poured out at the cross, that we can begin to appreciate where real solutions might lie here. See, at the cross we see a man being put to death for a crime. For many crimes. But this man was innocent. He was whole. He was unbroken. Here was a man who should have been sitting in judgment over the world – who was capable of picking up a stone and stoning any sinner, from a position where he was objective and untainted. And yet. Here, at the cross, Jesus didn’t throw stones at the guilty to put them to death – he took the death of the guilty. He took the punishment of the guilty. He owned the world’s brokenness, and our brokenness, and wrote an invitation in his blood for us to accept this form of justice. God’s justice.

At the cross, Jesus was surrounded by a lynch mob who wanted him dead – who were calling for his blood. Even though he was innocent. And rather than protesting, he called out to God “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  When writing to Christians scattered around the first century world, Peter reflected on this moment and what was going on for Jesus.

“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” – 1 Peter 2:23

We can trust God to judge justly. God will judge the world. He will judge this man for what he did to Daniel Morcombe. That is our hope as Christians – that God’s judgment will fall on every sinful and broken act. This judgment either falls on Jesus, at the cross, or on the individual. Which offers great hope for us when we are in the firing line. When we acknowledge our own guilt.

This news offers hope to all people who want to escape the brokenness of this world and our broken hearts. It offers hope to all people, including this man, should he turn to Jesus and repent of his horrific crimes. This man, Brett Peter Cowan, is human. So Jesus died to offer him a way out of brokenness, as he did for you, and for me. This is the shocking truth of the Gospel, of how the world operates, of how God offers a solution to our shared brokenness more radical than we can imagine. God offers a heart transplant. He offers to change our condition, and in doing so, change our verdict – not from the government, the government will always be the agent God appoints to punish evil and protect others in this world – but when it comes to mending the broken world we live in, God starts by mending hearts. Freely.

It’s true that:

 “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23.

But in a truth that is equal parts shocking (when we think of others) and comforting (when we turn the lens on ourselves)…

“…all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” – Romans 3:24

Just as Jesus, the innocent judge, offered forgiveness to those who took part in his death – he offers it to us so that he can share our death and our punishment, and in doing so he can take on our brokenness and offer us his Spirit to make us whole again.

Brett Peter Cowan deserves death – but it can’t be us pulling the trigger.

There is no place for a lynch mob full of guilty people baying for blood. There may be a place for the state to decide to execute him for his crimes, but I, when I reflect on my own brokenness and how it is inflicted on the people around me, and how it shapes my children, and when I speculate on what might have shaped Cowan, I can’t put myself in the shoes of the angry mob, or put my trust in such a mob to achieve justice. I can put my trust in the one innocent man who stands ready to judge Cowan justly – to give him what his evil deeds deserve.

And I can be comforted that he sees a way through and out of the brokenness of a world that produces Cowan after Cowan – by offering Cowan, and me, restoration through his sacrifice. There is no hope for humanity apart from Jesus, and apart from this transformation. A world shaped by that sacrifice, shaped by people shaped by that sacrifice, is a better world. It’s the world we look forward to as Christians.