Monday, January 17, 2011

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Over the weekend, I found myself in an unusual setting: a mock courtroom listening to a lecture about the contrasts between our systems on Torts and Contracts being delivered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- of Canada. I went to visit my little brother in Tampa and he's in Law School, and he warned me of his guest lecturer, but I felt like this was an opportunity I of which I ought to avail myself. I mean, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. It's too crazy to make up.

The experience itself was what you'd expect -- I felt like I understood only about 70% of what was going on (she was a very concise communicator -- it's a priority of her legal career), and since I'm not in law school, I was only interested in so much of it. The atmosphere, though, carried in it something I did not expect: there were about 15 students, beginning their law careers, listening to a woman who had reached the absolute pinnacle of hers, yet all of the people in the room were talking about justice. People coming together to work out complex solutions to the rules we have set as a society in the theoretical, academic, purest sense. Just sitting down in the room kind of made me think of that, how the purpose of this place is to find the truth, and to acknowledge that the truth is not always as clear for professions outside of the sciences, and it can get dicey even with our measurements.

What this means, though, is that the American and Canadian justice systems are constructed in an effort to ensure that the most good is done by the state to its citizens. It only demands actions from its citizens when they do wrong; punishments are meted out for committed crimes or judgments assessed when your fence is too far on your neighbors' property. This, of course, is a noble endeavor, but it's incomplete.

I think that incompleteness really impacts the way we view God's sense of justice. If I don't break the law, then He won't punish me. Sounds fair, right? Sure, except we always think of ourselves as being more in the clear about the law than we really are. "Oh, officer, I was only going 7 over..." Sin doesn't really work like that.

God promises to punish sin, Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. We have a sense of what this means when people do us wrong, we demand justice, right? Think about the last guy to cut you off on the road. It's infuriating, right? And that wrong costs us essentially nothing. Punishment for evil is a natural and God created concept, imprinted on all of us. We also know that we cannot escape sin, that is also a trait of humanity, unfortunately. If it was not, there would be no need for that mock court room in which I sat on Friday afternoon.

This institution is an effort to try to bring Godly principles down to earth, whether we realize it or not. The nature of our courts -- especially those descended from English Common Law -- is an evolutionary sort, where decisions have impact downstream and their results influence legislation. We are ever seeking perfection, which of course, we will never achieve. There is good news, though: the second half of Romans 6:23 is but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is a clemency offered that our courts cannot match, as their authority does not extend that far.

When we see a court give a criminal a light sentence, do we praise it for being merciful? Only on the rare occasion when circumstances are particularly unusual; we typically delight in criminals receiving their just desserts because bad behavior is dangerous. Bad behavior is dangerous, and that is why the wages of sin is death. God does offer mercy through Christ, even though that does not match our perception of how the institution should operate. He also has a rehabilitation plan, to help us improve our behavior: relationship.

It's not so simple a thing as to say, "Stop sinning," because we can't. Relationship with Christ, however, helps to stem some of the qualities of our nature in ways that improve them, in order to make us more receptive to that idea of mercy and the pursuit of truth and the elevation of justice, just as those young people embarking on their careers are looking to do the same.

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