Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court Considerations

John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

The process of selecting a Supreme Court justice, who serves on the bench for life, is critical to our nation’s health and stability. It’s one of those things we simply must get right. Maybe because the pressure to get it right is so great, we always seem to get a little crazy when that time comes around, although we’re not always crazy in the same way.

A couple of decades ago we wanted our justices to have no personal opinions at all. Then over the last decade it shifted and we insisted they have partisan preferences so they could qualify to replace either a liberal or conservative judge who came before them. Now there’s a new brand of craziness and people are questioning whether it is appropriate to look for a Supreme Court justice with empathy. Hello? Isn’t that the difference between administering the law and administering justice?

Because one of the main Scriptural metaphors for God is that of a judge, and because biblical leaders were also generally called upon as judges, people of faith have an interest in these matters—or should. The best-known Old Testament judgment is the case of the two women claiming to be the mother of a single baby, a case that was brought to King Solomon.

In a case hailed forever after as a sign of Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon uses his experience of a mother’s love to decide the case. He orders that the child be cut in half, with half a baby given to each. When one of the women cried out to spare the child and give it to the other woman, Solomon knew he had the real mother and gave the child to her. One example of empathy at work, resulting in justice.

We only see Jesus acting formally as a judge once, in the opening verses of John 8. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery (although oddly enough they could only manage to bring the woman and not the man for judgment) and the Pharisees bring her to Jesus to judge, reminding him that the punishment dictated by the law is death by stoning. Jesus makes his judgment based on his ability to connect with and understand people—empathy. More than that, he brings about justice by calling those present to empathize with the woman as well. They are all reminded of their own sins and only those who have no sin are allowed to administer what the law requires.

It works, and nobody throws the first stone. Then Jesus, arguably the only one there who could have thrown a stone under the rule, does not. He recognizes her sin and tells her to shape up. But he lets her go, as the Pharisees had obviously already let the man go. What Jesus continually objected to in the Pharisees was their lack of empathy in administering the law. They were legalists, caring only about the technicalities of the law and not the broader concerns of justice. They were concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The “Good News” of the New Testament is that our ultimate judge is Jesus and not the Pharisees. We get the guy with the empathy not the one with a literal interpretation of the law. There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about a potential judge, for the Supreme Court or otherwise; but if empathy becomes an impediment to someone's selection, we could easily become a nation of Pharisees, leaving us all in danger of being stoned to death.

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