July 11, 1995
As the horror of the Oklahoma city bombing unfolded on television, many people began expressing their hopes that justice would soon prevail. A few angry citizens even sounded like Old West style lynch mobs crying vengeance and saying, “Those who did it should be hung on the spot.”
Some simply think any who would do such a thing do not deserve a fair trial; those are only for cases where there is reasonable doubt of guilt or that innocence needs to be proven. Others seem to fear that judicial “fairness” will result in less punishment than warranted by the magnitude of the crime.
While no one wants to see criminals go unpunished, insuring a fair trial for even the obviously guilty is a freedom we need to protect. The concept of justice and a fair trial goes back a long way with foundations in the legal system of the Roman Empire and even beyond to ancient Biblical history in the Middle East. In fact, right after Noah and his family stepped off the ark, God told them “From each man, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Many nations developed civil laws but those of the Jews were unique. Around 1450 B.C., after Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, God gave them specific commandments. We are familiar with the Ten, including “Thou shalt not murder,” but many other laws defined justice and ethics further. God told them, “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd. Do not deny justice to your poor people. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death . . . .”
God’s laws also included protection for the accused by decreeing trials that are as fair as possible; the prosecution must produce “two or three witnesses” whose statements agreed. God repeatedly warned that it was the responsibility of governing officials to punish lawbreakers, not angry, vengeful citizens. Even murderers in those days had “cities of refuge” where they were protected from private revenge.
Human justice systems are not always as fair as that which God designed. Innocent people are sometimes condemned and the guilty set free. When justice is perverted, fear and anger are normal responses. On the other hand, those who know God take reassurance from His promise of a final justice: “Do not fret because of evil men . . . The wicked plot against the righteous . . . but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming.”
Even if someone escapes human courts, God Himself eventually deals with those who deserve punishment. His judgment is far more serious than the light tap implied by Maude (from the television show by the same name) when she warned, “God will get you for that.”
Should American courts be too lenient toward the people who used the bomb, we know that God is fully able to render justice to whom justice is due. However, that should never be an excuse for civil leadership to slap wrists only. God established authorities here on earth as agents of wrath to punish wrongdoers (Romans 13). His justice demands that the full horror of what they have done be brought home to the hearts of the guilty.
On a personal level, an eternal perspective tells us not to be too quick to condemn even the most brutal acts of terrorism with a smug, self-righteousness. Pride and even small sins produce guilt before God too. We need to pay attention also to our own lives.