Clemency and Forgiveness

One of the powers of executive office is clemency.  The President of the United States has the authority to commute the sentence of any prisoner who has committed a federal crime.  This same authority is vested in the various governors of the fifty states.  The governor of a state typically has the authority to change the penalty of a felon convicted under his or her respective state statutes ranging from a reduction in sentence to a full pardon.  When it is invoked, it should be for sound reasons and furthers the interest of justice.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour made headlines across the nation when in the closing days of his administration he commuted the sentences of 215 convicted felons 17 of which were murderers.  This surprised many of his constituents and was questioned by the Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.  Governor Barbour may have committed some legal missteps on 21 of those pardoned.  Hood being a Democrat was not willing to pardon these missteps of Barbour a Republican.  Judging from the ensuing outcry, the public may not pardon Barbour either.

In his defense Barbour said that “most Mississippians profess to be Christians” and “the historical power of clemency by the governor to pardon felons is rooted in the Christian idea of second chances.”  He goes on to say Christianity “teaches us forgiveness and second chances.  I believe in second chances.  And I try hard to be forgiving.”  Former Governor Barbour’s actions and subsequent statements bring into specific relief the issue of the biblical doctrine of forgiveness and its bearing on criminal sanctions.

When Noah and his three sons and their wives emerged from the ark, they stood on the brink of the rebirth of civilization.  Civilization requires an ordering of society, laws to govern the interaction of relationships.  After commanding these eight souls to “be fruitful and multiply”, He gives them the first law, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man (Genesis 9:6).”  While this passage directly addresses the crime of murder, it also contains the formula for justice.  When one member of society commits a crime against another member of society, society must impose a just penalty.  This is the foundation for all of our laws and the criminal justice system.  Society has a responsibility to administer justice.  Clemency is a tool to further the cause of justice not to circumvent it.

Consider the man who is imprisoned for stealing a car and while serving his sentence a riot breaks out where he is incarcerated.  In the ensuing chaos this inmate defends a correctional officer from the assault of other inmates sparing the officer harm or maybe saving his life.  Who would deny such a man liberty?  Or the man on death row who is the victim of prosecutorial misconduct and the withholding of evidence, or is later exonerated by the discovery of new evidence.

Clemency should be imposed to recognize exemplary conduct, or to right a wrong.  It should not be invoked on a whim, but employed in the furtherance of justice.  Clemency is predicated on the biblical principle of justice.

Forgiveness addresses different issues and has a different purpose.  Jesus tells us to forgive so we will be free of the bitterness and vengeance that can consume us, thwarting His purpose for each of us.  Forgiveness emulates the example of our Lord who on the cross died for all.  Forgiving those who have wronged us frees us to follow Him and to do His bidding.

Justice is enjoined upon society; forgiveness is enjoined upon the individual.  The Scriptures exhort us to forgive those who have wronged us, not those who have wronged someone else.  Wrongs done to another are subject to the principle of justice.  Like any other Christian former Governor Barbour should forgive those who wrong him, in his capacity as an elected representative of society he bears the responsibility to administer justice.  The two should not be confused because they do not conflict.

I cannot comment on the individual cases of the 215 felons pardoned by former Governor Barbour.  I am ignorant of the specific facts of each case, and the time and diligence Governor Barbour gave to each.  I cannot at this remove comment on whether his judgment in each case was good or bad.  But I do know he should have made his decisions based upon what was just in each case, and not on whom he subjectively thought should have been forgiven for crimes committed on someone else.  Because clemency is not predicated on the doctrine of forgiveness, it is predicated on the biblical principle of justice.


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