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Is human justice enough?

Ariel Castro was recently sentenced in the USA for forced kidnap and rape. The judge said he was too dangerous to be released. He duly sentenced him to life without parole plus 1,000 years. The infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer received a 1,000 years and the list goes on.

Why impose an additional 1000 years when the offender will never serve a year of it given he already has life without parole? A key reason according to American legal expert Franklin Zimring is that it serves the purpose of "symbolic denunciation" which is often influenced by media coverage and public outcry. It is a message to the offender and the public that the person is really evil and deserves the harshest punishment.

The long sentences speak to the human desire to right the wrongs done against other human beings. We all recognise there's something terribly wrong with taking a human life in a way that substantially differs from killing a chicken at home. Imprisoning another human against their will is different from caging animals at a farm.

In other words only in a society that sees human beings as vastly different from animals does the pursuit of retributive justice makes sense. Therefore all pursuit of social and retributive justice is an affirming that man is special above creation. And of course such a position can only be defended if we accept that God created man in his own image.

The long sentences also remind us that the quest for justice remains broadly theoretical because the ingredients necessary for sufficient retributive justice are not present. For justice to take place the crime has not only to be perfectly detected but also properly valued. Not only is society not able catch all perpetrators of injustice, but even when it does it struggles with placing a true cost of the crime to the offended party. The human judge will never know the true pain of the victim.

It is also that the human judge can never know whether the sentence he imposes has perfected fitted the crime. There will always be difficult questions to answer. Is taking a life a sufficient punishment for taking one life? What happens if a person kills or rapes a hundred people? How do we ensure he actually pays for crimes against each person?

On top of this there are enforcement problems. For those not prosecuted due to insufficient evidence there's no justice. For those who are indicted but never caught, there's no justice. For those caught and run away there's no justice for their victims. For those who corrupt through the process there's no justice. Even those who sometimes get justice do not actually get it.

Michelle Knight one of three women held in an Ohio home by Castro for about a decade told him at the trial : “I spent 11 years in hell. Now your hell is just beginning...You will face hell for eternity". And of course she is right. Justice for her is not going to be met by the 1000 year theoretical sentence against a man who refuses to repent. At his trial Castro said, “I’m not a monster, I’m a normal person, I am just sick, I have an addiction”.

Only the justice of God meets Michelle's need for ultimate justice. Indeed, this is what the Bible promises : "Because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done". (Romans 2:5).

The message then is that because God exists and has revealed himself in Jesus Christ we have a sure promise of justice. God has set a day He will deal with all injustice as Judge, Jury and Executioner. This is good news for all who have suffered injustice. And it is also good news for offender and offended alike. If we have repented God no longer counts us as His enemies, but his children! God’s justice is now our justice in Jesus Christ. God’s actions against all injustice is now for our good!

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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