Wednesday, July 24, 2013

George Zimmerman and Peter Leithart

Not Right But Justice

George Zimmerman
Peter Leithart

"Just do the right thing." If you have the right frame of reference to define the right, that's a pretty good simple guide for an individual as he lives his life. In every situation, you ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do?" (That's a different question from "What would Jesus do?" which is frequently both unknowable and irrelevant.) When you know what the right thing is, do it. Sometimes it's a clear as the moral law. Should you honor your parents? Yes. Of course. Sometimes it's less clear. Shall I empty the dishwasher before the little lady gets up? Is that optional, or am I required then to do as I would have done for me? Other times there is no right to be determined. Chicken or shrimp? Doesn't matter unless you're allergic to shell fish. 

But, when we move from our own personal lives to communal life, to ask the state or the church to do the right thing is often both unwise and unrealistic. It's always a happy occurrence when what is right and what is just are in perfect harmony. But in  community we must content ourselves with justice, even if what is just is not right. Expecting or demanding that the right thing be done can be asking for the impossible. Doing the right should not be had at the expense of justice. It is justice that protects us all, especially if we the minority or the losers, from getting run over by moral zealots.

Justice has to do with law and procedure. Right has to do with principles and morals. 

Take the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman. Many believe the jury should have done the "right thing" and convicted Zimmerman. Why? They believe that racial prejudice led to the killing, that Trayvon Martin died at Zimmerman's hands because Martin was black, and that the jury should have done the right thing by convicting Zimmerman and sending him to prison. Otherwise he got away with the murder of an innocent black teenager. But the jury, after weighing the facts and the law and following the instructions they were given about how to deliberate, eventually found Zimmerman not guilty of either second degree murder or manslaughter.

There is the outcry from many hearts, "It's just not right." The outcry of hearts has become public outcry with demonstrations in many cities. The question for those who are protesting the verdict is not whether the facts were determined, or was the law applied, or the procedures followed, but, "Did Zimmerman get away with killing Trayvon?" For them the answer beyond doubt, "Yes." A black  man was killed. A white Hispanic got away with it. That's not right but wrong.

I have but am not here giving an opinion as to whether it was morally right for Zimmerman to use the deadly force (a pistol) available to him in that situation. But I am stating my opinion that, while moral wrong may or may not have occurred, the decision of the jury was just, and that's all that can be asked of a jury of citizens. The case was argued by competent lawyers before a judge who was responsible to follow and to require the attorneys to follow the law and procedures. The jury's responsibility was to hear the evidence, to follow the procedural instructions given for their deliberations, to determine the facts, to apply the law to the facts, and to decide guilt or innocence.

That's about all you can hope for in this world - justice, and imperfect justice at that. Justice itself is hard enough to come by. We have no right to ignore the law and the procedures in order to do the right thing.  Nor do we have the right to ask others to ignore the law and procedures in order to do what we believe is the right thing. 

This applies not only to criminal cases but to all sorts of legal situations. When we complain about Supreme Court decisions, is it because they did not do the right thing, which is so obvious to us, or because they did not do the just thing? Are evangelicals, who generally favor something along the lines of strict construction and originalism in the interpretation of the the Constitution and application of laws by the Court, willing to live with the just but not necessarily right decisions of the Court? Should Christians who are denied a permit to gather on a beach for worship practice civil disobedience because worshiping God in public places is, as they see it, a God given right and hence the right thing to do, or should they accept the decisions of the authorities? 

Or, take an ecclesiastical case, the case of Peter Leithart that was before the Standing Judicial Commission and then the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. I believe the Federal Vision, whatever its merits or demerits in terms of faith and practice, is contrary to the Standards and the ordination vows of the PCA.  But, without expressing an opinion as to whether justice in this case was done, it is justice, not right, that primarily concerns me.

Consideration of the complaint against the the presbytery, the overtures before the Assembly, the minority report from the committee reviewing presbytery records, the work of the Constitutional Business Committee, and the rulings of the chair, came down for many to one or both of two questions: (1)"Am I for or against the Federal Vision?" (2) "Am I for or against toleration of the Federal Vision?" In other words, right not justice.

Should the SJC should have decided on the complaint before it based on what each member thought about the Federal Vision? Should the General Assembly  have decided whether to consider the overtures seeking further review of the case based on what each commissioner thought about the Federal Vision? Should commissioners have voted to sustain or overturn the rulings of the chair based on what each thought of the Federal Vision? Should some of those who celebrated the outcome have done so because, regardless of how the outcome was attained, as they see it was the right thing to do? Should some of those who bemoaned that the case would receive no further review have done so because, as they see it, convicting Leithart and condemning the Federal Vision are the right outcomes regardless of how they are achieved?

Do you want what is right or what is just?  Should members of the presbytery have voted to convict a person based on what they believe about the Federal Vision or based on the evidence presented and the arguments made? Should members of a judicial commission or of a general assembly do what each individual judges to be right (or true) regardless of the relevant constitutional and procedural issues? Or, should we be prepared to put up with an outcome that is contrary to what we believe to be right (or true) if that is where the provisions of constitution and procedure lead? Do you seek justice in the form of adherence to constitutional process and judicial procedures and let the chips fall wherever they may, or does your quest for what is right give you the authority to obtain it no matter how? This is another way of asking, "Does the end justify the means?" 

I have said that I think the Federal Vision is out of accord with our system of doctrine. I am not saying whether or not I would have voted for the the conviction of Leithart had I been a member of the court that tried him. I am not here expressing an opinion about whether the Book of Church Order, the standing rules of the SJC, or the Rules of Assembly Operation were correctly applied in considering the complaint and the overtures. I am not expressing an opinion on the merits of any of the issues or their dispositions. I have read good arguments for both sides of the questions. I am saying only that this case, and all cases, should turn on the matter of justice rather than right.

I think it is hard to get justice in the PCA, partly because our rules and procedures are so complicated, partly because we are so prone to political maneuvering, and partly because some are determined do the right thing, the process be damned. I have seen a Presbytery run roughshod over justice in order to what its majority was certain was the right thing to do. But justice is all we can ask no matter our certainty of what is right. To ask for the right thing to be done, rather than for laws and rules to be followed, puts us all in jeopardy, especially if we hold a minority position in the church or if our cause or we are unpopular. Even in the church, justice is hard to come by, but justice is all we can demand. 

You are asking too much if you expect what is just and what is right to match up exactly in this present age. Right and justice are not going to come into perfect harmony until heaven and earth are one and that is not going to happen till the Judge of all men appears. Till then let us focus on trying to get and to give justice. 


Curt Day said...

One should always look at concept above terms because the use of terms are not universal but the concepts can be. Some use the word justice for the the concept you are using moral so I have adjust a citation. According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, when an immoral act is committed against a person, there are two disctinct states that should recognized. The person committing the act is guilt and the person who received the act was wronged. And though according to our own official procedures, Zimmerman could not be convicted, not only does Zimmerman remain guilty, Martin remains wronged. And why the Black community is rightfully up in arms is twofold. First, there are too many other Trayvon Martins who continue to have been wronged and morality will not be restored until those states of being wronged are reversed. Second, we need to consider whether some of the official procedures used to maintain justice and those implementing them are targeting Blacks. Many in the Black community believe that they are being targeted.

The link below contains Cornel West's view of the Trayvon Martin incident.

Cornel West on Trayvon Martin

mozart said...

We are above all a nation of laws, Curt, not concepts. Zimmerman was NOT guilty under our laws. Leithart was NOT convicted according to the rules of our church's BCO. I'm not sure why that concept, that we are governed by laws, is so hard to understand.

Tony said...

Mr. Curmudgeon,

I'm a big fan of your blog. I too am a Christian, confessional curmudgeon - and a nobody TE in the PCA. I've been a long time uncomfortable in my PCA skin, and now think I may need to shed it (if I want to be wise as a serpent, and innocent as a dove - pardon my metaphors).

And I know that you chose not to address the merits or demerits of TE Peter Leithart's theology in this blog. But therein we find the problem, I think, with the PCA. We have lost the Gospel forest for the procedural trees. PCA procedures, as defined by our BCO, RAO, and SJC manual are, at bottom, no better than the doctrines and commandments of men - when they are used to contradict the Word of God. TE Peter Leithart's theology is self-evidently not Reformed. His sacramentology is practically Lutheran, as he himself admitted at his trial. And yet he denies the Law / Gospel distinction which is the biblical and reformational hermeneutic, without which errors like his sprout like mushrooms. No confessional Lutheran worth his salt would embrace Leithart's theology. Nor should we.

Worst of all, Leithart denies JBFA. Leithart says “covenant faithfulness is the way of salvation, for the ‘doers of the law will be justified’ at the final judgment” (Prosecutors Brief, 8). He thus makes works a part of justification on the Last Day. Rome taught the same thing in the 16th century and continues to do so. This was the central issue of the Protestant Reformation and the whole point of sola fide. Justification is the verdict of the Last Day brought forward – that for the sake of Jesus’ Cross and righteousness alone, we are not presently and WILL NOT BE condemned, but are presently and WILL BE declared righteous in the Last Day. Jesus’ Cross and righteousness are the sole ground of our justification on the Last Day – the judgment and reward of good works notwithstanding. Leithart explicitly rejects justification by faith alone – the doctrine of “the standing or falling church.” The PCA is now on the verge of becoming a falling church, for it has exonerated Leithart and his Gospel-denying doctrine, excusing itself for doing so with an inexcusable appeal to proceduralism. Will Jesus commend Gospel ministers and presbyters on the Last Day for their faithfulness to denominational procedures (the commandments of men) or to His Gospel (the Word of God)? This action of the PCA implicates all of us, as we are a connectional church. Our loyalty must be to Jesus and His Gospel – not to an unfaithful, falling church.

The PCA is teetering on the brink, but has not yet stepped into the abyss. The fat lady is warming up her pipes. (Sorry, I guess I'm in a metaphorical mood.) The SJC will have an opportunity in October to do the right thing, the just thing in God's eyes. May God have mercy and deliver us from a theology of glory (the myth of "influence" that prevails in the PCA and is the root cause of our big-tent sensibilities) and grant us grace to embrace the theology of the cross - by which we must be crucified to the world, and the world to us.

TE Tony Phelps
Christ Our Hope PCA
Wakefield RI

Tony said...

Correction: I should have written, "I know you are concerned primarily with the question of 'justice' in the Leithart case..." My point is that using proceduralism to avoid doing the right thing in the Leithart case is not justice. The multiple overtures to the 41st GA demonstrated that the SJC would have been within its constitutional rights to overturn the PNWP's exoneration of Leithart, as the evidence in the record of the case provided more than ample evidence that he is out of accord with Westminster (not the mention the Gospel). As you point out, our procedures are so complex that they can be manipulated - to the point that heretics can get off on "technicalities." It should not be so in the courts of Christ's church.

Curt Day said...

Our laws express concepts.

BTW, why Zimmerman was not found guilty is not fully known especially when we constantly find our justice system, even in the decisions of our judges, giving Blacks the short end of the stick.

mozart said...

He was adjudged NOT GUILTY because the jury found the evidence was insufficient to convict. There is still a presumption of innocence in our legal system. We are governed by laws and rules--Zimmerman and Leithart--in the way we conduct our judicial processes. I prefer this to living in a Kafka world.

mozart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JD Linton said...

Huh? I am not sue I follow.

JD Linton said...

Where did you go to law school?

JD Linton said...

Huh? I am not sue I follow.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

JD (juris doctor?), I am not sure to whom you are speaking, about what you are are speaking, or what the link has to do with any of it.

Curt Day said...

While I agree with your last note, if one is proven innocent more because of legal technicalities while the public has sufficient evidence to doubt actual innocence, and this disparity is a pattern that targets certain groups, you have a recipe for eventual vengeance against the system as well as immediate reprisals against individuals. This is especially true when that disparity is built into the system.