Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tragedy and Injustice

Earlier today I tweeted the following:

How tragic! The death of #PhilandoCastile, no matter the officer's state of mind, is a great injustice.

It's a deep and controversial subject, and the subsequent conversation has motivated me to teach a bit more about the question of tragedy and injustice. I'll start with a table and some examples.

  Just Unjust
Tragic Branch Davidians Michael Morton
Not Tragic Nadir Hamid Soofi Wayne DuMond

Just, but Tragic

The use of deadly force against the Branch Davidians was just. I do not mean to offer an opinion about their initial entry into the compound. That's above my pay grade. But after the police say, "Come out with your hands up," and you shoot back at them, whatever happens next is on you.

That having been said, this situation is nonetheless tragic. Women and children died because they had been deceived by a religious huckster. Even if the situation is just, it is tragic.

Just and Not Tragic

Nadir Hamid Soofi went to shoot up a Garland conference dedicated to drawing cartoons of the Mohammed. Killing non-Muslims was his goal, but he failed. Instead, his final action on this earth was to learn some interesting and relevant facts about Texas.

His death was just. He was trying to kill people in the commission of a felony.

His death was not tragic. He was an evil man caught being evil. Although there is a deeper level at which I mourn the existence of false religion and the wayward state of mankind, Soofi's death was, in the simplest and most superficial sense, a thing worth celebrating (and celebrating the death of the wicked who pose harm to others is not a matter without biblical support).

Unjust and Tragic

Michael Morton went to prison for 25 years for the murder of his wife, although he did not murder his wife. He has subsequently been exonerated (story here). I know people who know him. I know of no reason to doubt his story.

Morton has suffered an injustice. Twenty-five years of his life he was deprived of his freedom for a crime that he did not commit.

The injustice that Morton has suffered is tragic. Almost all injustices are going to wind up being tragic, although…

Unjust, but Not Tragic

Wayne DuMond raped a Forrest City, Arkansas, cheerleader in 1984. Not long afterwards, men broke into DuMond's home and cut off…well, he never raped anyone else after that. Sheriff Coolidge Conley had something of a reputation in the area (I grew up in Northeast Arkansas). He kept in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk DuMond's…uh…evidence. Local opinion was that Conley had something to do with what happened to DuMond. I'm in no position to say one way or the other who assaulted DuMond, but for the sake of our thinking exercise here, let's assume that the Sheriff's office actually did this.

DuMond suffered an injustice. We do not try crimes in this way. We do not execute cruel and unusual punishment like this. What happened to DuMond was unjust.

There is nothing tragic about it. Although I do not affirm Hinduism or Buddhism, every once in a while even I want to say, "Karma, baby!"

Tragedy and Injustice

So, the major point of this blog post is to show that tragedy and injustice are separate things, somewhat independent of one another.

The death of Philando Castille is, I think, both an injustice and a tragedy. It is an injustice because I think the evidence leads us to conclude that Castille had not committed a crime and was not actually trying to draw his gun to shoot anyone, yet he is dead. It is a tragedy because here is a person who was just driving down the road one moment and was dead the next.

It is helpful to identify injustice like this because (a) justice is a biblical and theological concept that we need to learn, (b) it builds unity when we know that we all see the injustice in this matter, (c) we ought to want a society that is more just (right?), and you can't improve if you can't identify what needs improving.


We cannot easily assign blame for all injustice. Some injustice happens because we are not good enough. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sometimes people perpetrate injustice on purpose because their hearts are evil.

Some injustice happens because we are not wise enough. The more complicated the situation, the more wisdom we require to accomplish perfect justice. But eventually we face a situation complicated enough to make us realize that we are not God and that we are not capable of accomplishing perfect justice. We will have to wait for Heaven for that. Thus, there is a level of injustice that happens even when everyone tries their dead-level best. Some of these DNA exonerations have proven this point.

When should police officers face criminal prosecution for an unjust death? People who knew and loved a victim feel one way about this question. Police officers tend to feel another way about it. I'd like to address the question in terms of what accomplishes the most justice overall, and I'd like to do it in terms that move things away from police officers (who make up only a portion of the population) toward an experience common to most of us.

In the Michael Morton story told above, a jury sentenced him to prison. Should those jurors be held responsible for his unjust imprisonment? Knowing that you might very well serve on a criminal jury some day, under what circumstances do you think that a jury member ought to be liable to criminal prosecution?

A juror can be convicted of juror misconduct in a number of scenarios. All of these involve explicitly violating the orders of the presiding judge. But we do not prosecute jurors criminally for simply getting it wrong. This is true in spite of the fact that we know (from pretty compelling statistics) that juries get it wrong in predictable ways. This is true in spite of the fact that real people suffer real harm when juries make mistakes. This is in spite of the fact that not all jurors serve equally well and not all jurors try equally hard. Why don't we put jurors in jail when they cause injustice?

The answer is pretty simple: Would you ever agree to serve on a jury if you could be imprisoned for making an unintentional mistake? If you could not avoid serving, would you ever vote to convict anyone of a crime if there were a chance that five years from now you wound up in prison because something shed some new light on the case? Probably not.

And so, the overall effect of harsh punishment against jurors for their mistakes would be less justice. Some particular defendant might get more justice in his individual case (those jurors who took away 5 years of my life will have to pay for what they have done), but the resulting damage to the justice system would mean less justice in the aggregate (Wow! Nobody gets convicted of ANYTHING any more! Especially not people with the monetary or political resources to get charges brought against jurors in the future).

In the same way, if we start sending police officers to jail left and right for honest mistakes that they make on duty, who's going to want to serve as a police officer? And even if some people take the job, are they going to stop responding to calls that they think might lead to difficult choices? Are they going to stop going into neighborhoods where they worry that they are going to face extra scrutiny? If that happens, does life become better or worse for everyone in society? Does everyone get more justice or less justice in that scenario? Who suffers the most from an understaffed or under-confident police force: people who live in high-crime neighborhoods or people who live in low-crime neighborhoods?

I do not think that Philando Castille was trying to do anyone any harm. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. Any fear or bias that keeps us from mourning his death is a bad thing. I do not think that Jeronimo Yanez was out looking to do anyone any harm that day. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. This looks quite different from what happened in Balch Springs, for example. It is possible for an unjust death to happen when a police officer does everything by the book. I think that both Castille and Yanez were frightened. I think that the end was tragic. I think that what happened to Castille was not fair and was not just. He didn't deserve it. Let us strive to do better. But I accept the verdict of the jury, and I do not think that imprisoning the police officer in this case would have given us greater justice.

1 comment:

Christiane said...

Hello Pastor Barber,

just a thought about what you wrote over on SBCvoices, this:
"Lostness is bigger than kindness. Kindness loses against lostness. So, above all, pray. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to know that no one ever overcame the irrational blindness of being lost apart from the gracious wooing of the Holy Spirit."

'Kindness' is very powerful against the darkness BECAUSE it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. I would not say that 'kindness' loses against 'lostness', no. I see it rather as a strong avatar of grace to reach out to someone who is seeking Christ. What comes FROM God to be used by the follows of Christ in their mission is not to be discounted, no.

just a thought that maybe you might re-word what you posted

thank you, and God Bless!