In recent months one of the key questions that has been discussed in the United States relates to who we should believe. As Christine Blasey Ford testified before the eyes of the entire nation to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, a large group of people demanded that she be believed? Then, as Judge Kavanaugh testified in order to deny the allegations, others demanded that he should be believed. What do we do in a case like this?
I certainly am not going to pretend that I know the facts behind what happened in this alleged incident from over three decades ago. But this case gives an example of how our quest for justice relates to who we choose to believe in cases like this.
A wise starting point is to realize that we rarely come to a dispute without a bias. The Republicans not only believe Judge Kavanaugh. They want to believe him. After all, if he is being truthful, then this means that he can be confirmed and can bring a valuable originalist vote to the Supreme Court. And the democrats not only believe Ford, but they want to believe her.
After all, if she is being truthful, then they can dismiss Kavanaugh and then delay the confirmation process long enough that they may be able to retake control of the Senate and block future nominees. And all of us should realize that we typically have a version of events that we want to believe.
We want to believe our friends. We want to believe our political party. We want to believe people who seem similar to us. Some of us want to believe accusers and some of us want to believe the accused. None of us is as neutral as we would like to believe.
Given the fact that we are not neutral, how do we sort this out? I believe that we get some insight into justice by how God established the nation of Israel. While the Old Testament law is not binding on Christians today, it does give insight into how God established a just system for the Israelites. In Deuteronomy 19:15 Moses writes, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed.
A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” The striking thing about this law is that we all know that the possibility exists for a crime to be committed without multiple witnesses. This law is not a guarantee that justice will always be done. In fact, it assumes that there will be people who get away with it. It does, however, make it much more unlikely that an innocent person will be convicted. It isn’t far from our U.S. version of innocent until proven guilty.
In fact, not only were witnesses needed, but witnesses were warned. The following verses (16-21) say this: “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.
The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Again, the point is not that this exact law must be enacted today. The point is that as God established a just system in Israel, he established the need for multiple witnesses, and he established steep penalties for false witnesses. There was great risk in someone choosing to tell a lie in order to falsely accuse an enemy. They could end up getting the punishment they sought to enforce.
And they also needed to be sure of their testimony because, in a capital case, the witnesses would be expected to be the first to carry out the death sentence (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In other words, no witness had the luxury of lobbing an accusation without being willing to get their hands dirty.
As I read through Israel’s system of justice, I am struck by my internal conflict. I imagine a man who is beaten and robbed late at night. He knows who attacked him, but no one else saw it or can attest to it. I imagine a young woman who is assaulted in an isolated place and no one but she can identify the attacker. And this is justice?!
But then I consider the undeniable reality that we as human beings will never be capable of having all the facts. We are limited. And Israel was not to disregard punishing the guilty, but the desire to punish the guilty was superseded by the priority of protecting the wrongfully accused. Seemingly the greater injustice was not in a guilty person going free but in an innocent person being condemned.
As the people of God who seek to prize justice, we ought to be suspicious of our own biases. As Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” Whether we are choosing which child to believe in a dispute, choosing which friend to believe in an argument, or choosing which party to believe in a lawsuit, we ought to carefully listen to both sides and fight against out instinct simply to believe who we want to believe.
And on top of this, I believe we do well to be slow in condemning, imprisoning, or disbelieving those who are accused. I believe God’s justice leads us to ask for evidence (and a good amount of it) before concluding that an accusation is equal to guilt.
And when we become frustrated or alarmed because we know that sometimes guilty people get away with their crimes, we can find hope and solace in knowing that there is a God who will bring ultimate justice in the end. He will wipe every tear away from his people and eradicate sin and death. And, when it comes to God, no one truly gets away with anything. He will balance the scales, and he will not leave the guilty unpunished.
And thank God that those of us who belong to him don’t need to anticipate that we will have to pay the price for our own sins and crimes. For us, God punished the guilty when his Son offered himself in our place. When we clamor for the guilty to be punished, we do well to remember the mercy and grace that we have all received. There but by the grace of God go we.