Nicolas Cruz, the gunman in the Marjory Stoneman High School massacre in 2018, had his life spared by the jurors who sentenced him to life in prison. In the sentencing phase of a capital case in Florida the jury most vote unanimously for a murderer to be sentenced to death. Three of the twelve jurors refused to return a death sentence.
This very real murderous rampage and the trial that came to a close four years later has brought into specific relief the tension that exist between the biblical principles of justice and forgiveness.
Those family members whose children and loved ones were among the 17 victims who were murdered that day were outraged and felt they had been victimized by the criminal justice system. When the victims’ family members were given the opportunity to address Cruz at the close of the trial several delivered bitter invectives. One said, “I hope your ever-breathing moment here on Earth is miserable, … burn in hell.”
Such acrimony is in one sense understandable, but it is unpleasant to witness. I think it is unpleasant to witness because such unbridled hatred is as much a reflection of man’s depravity as murder is. If words could kill, Nicolas Cruz would have died that day.
Many of those who spoke were equally unsparing in their contempt and condemnation of the attorneys on Cruz’ defense team. They believed the defense team collaborated to deny them the justice of the death penalty.
From what I have read, America probably has one of the finest criminal justice systems in the world, but it is not perfect. I worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for 26 years. I was a chaplain when I retired, but I did serve a stint as a sergeant on death row at Union Correctional Institution, in Raiford, Florida.
One of the inmates I supervised while there was Gary Alvord. Alvord served the longest time on death row of any inmate in America. He was on death row for 39 years before dying of a brain tumor. An inmate on death row is more likely to die from old age or an illness before being executed. While it may have been emotionally satisfying for Cruz to have been sentenced to death there is the distinct possibility he would have never died on the gurney.
There came a time in the history of man 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. This is an accurate description of a society completely corrupted by the absence of law and order. It was this cultural climate that precipitated the flood.
Emerging from the ark Noah and his family were tasked with repopulating the earth and restoring the civilization that had succumbed to anarchy. To do that God gave mankind its first law, “Whoever shed’s man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 9:6.
If mankind were to survive as a civilized society, it would only be possible established on a sense of right and wrong founded on the principle of justice. So the Father took the most serious of human offenses, murder, to lay a foundation of justice from which all other lesser offenses could be patterned (a just penalty commensurate to the offense).
God’s reasoning is when a man takes another man’s life without justification; he is destroying the image of God in another person needlessly, and justly forfeits the right to continue bearing that image himself. And He tasked mankind with the prosecution of justice, “by man his blood shall be shed.”
God initiated capital punishment as a just penalty when a man murders another. That is clear from the wording of Genesis 6:9. God did not institute the death penalty as a deterrent; He did so to establish societal justice.
If society forsakes the practice of justice we may find ourselves sliding down a very slippery slope to the precipice of anarchy. Nothing so inclines people to take the law into their own hands as a legal system that refuses to administer 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 to forgive all. Forgiving those who have wronged us frees us from the revenge and vindictiveness that can consume us and keep us from following Him and doing His bidding.
Sadly, it is my experience that only those who have found forgiveness in Christ can manage to forgive others, especially in such difficult circumstances. We are enjoined, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions,” Matthew 11:25.
Society has a responsibility to pursue justice to preserve the welfare of society, individuals are told to forgive to preserve our relationship with God.