This past Thursday, July 28, 2022, at 9:27 pm, Joe Nathan James, Jr., an Alabama inmate was pronounced dead from a lethal injection at a south Alabama prison. James had been convicted in 1994 of stalking and killing a former girlfriend, Faith Hall.
Hall’s two daughters, ages 3 and 6 when their mother was murdered, had requested James’ death sentenced be commuted to life in prison. “We hoped the state wouldn’t take a life simply because a life was taken and we have forgiven Mr. Joe Nathan James Jr. for his atrocities toward our family.”
In response to the daughters’ plea, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey replied, while she always takes the family’s wishes into consideration, she “must always fulfill our responsibility to the law, to public safety and to justice.”
This case, and others before it, bring into specific relief the two biblical principles of forgiveness and justice. Within Christianity these two principles seem to be in conflict but that is because of a misunderstanding of the two.
Forgiveness is a Christian duty; it is intended to guard the one offended from being consumed by hatred and vengeance and to emulate the magnanimity of Christ. We are enjoined by Christ Himself, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” Matthew 6:14.
If Faith Hall’s two daughters have truly forgiven James they have obeyed Christ, freed theselves from hatred and the need for revenge, and have peace within. These are the goals of forgiveness.
The only one who can forgive an offender is the one who was offended. Neither the government nor society can forgive a murderer for murdering one of its citizen’s. The only one who can and is commanded to forgive, is the injured party, the victim or victims. No one can forgive the person who has wronged me, but me. That is why the individual is commanded to forgive
The function and role of government and society is to administer justice. As Governor Ivey said, we “must always fulfill our responsibility … to justice.” If a victim forgiving a criminal should be the basis for changing a legal sentence, why stop at commuting his sentence to life in prison, why not release him?
When Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, God gave them several instructions. Among those were, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 9:6. Those who murder destroy God’s image in another person and by doing so forfeit the right to bear His image.
Prior to the flood anarchy prevailed. “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” Genesis 6:5. Injustice reigned.
After the flood, the principle of justice needed to be reestablished. It was God who initiated capital punishment. The Father chose the most heinous human offense, murder, to establish a pattern of justice; punishment commensurate to the offense.
We need to know that God admonishes individuals to forgive for our own well-being, and he admonishes mankind to administer justice for the well-being of society.
We had a similar case in Florida over a decade ago. February 16, 2009, at 6:17 P.M., Martin Grossman was declared dead at Florida State Prison, Starke, Florida. Grossman was executed for killing state wildlife officer Margaret “Peggy” Park on December 13, 1984, more than twenty-five years before. Peggy’s mother, also named Margaret, said Grossman’s execution was “long overdue.”
Let the criminal flee to Christ, let him seek mercy from a compassionate God, but let society seek justice. On July 28, 2022, at 9:27 pm, Joe Nathan James, Jr., was pronounced dead. I hope he had asked for forgiveness, but I agree with Peggy Park’s mother; justice was long overdue.