The trail of Nikolas Cruz, the cowardly murderer responsible for the 2018 shooting spree at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has ended with the gunman spared the death penalty. Instead, he will spend the rest of his natural life in prison. Cruz slaughtered three staff members and fourteen students. Seventeen were wounded. A little more than a year later, another two students who survived the attack and suffered from post-traumatic stress and survivors’ guilt would die by suicide. The families of the victims, as well as many observers, believe that preserving Cruz’s life is an injustice.
There are other Christians, of course, as evidenced in replies to the tweet above, who oppose capital punishment in all circumstances. They take their cues from the Divine. Every human being, they remind us, is rightly under the penalty of death. But then along comes Jesus, who accepts execution on our behalf—fulfilling the justice claims held against us, cancelling our sentence, and opening the doorway to grace. Of course, such a substitutionary narrative is disclaimed by many—they gush instead over Christ’s moral example or something else—but, whatever the reasoning, they argue that Golgotha ought to provoke Christians everywhere to allow that even in the midst of our efforts to address grievous wrongdoing, we must allow charity to spectacularly intervene and prompt us to do less to the aggressor then a pure accounting of justice might warrant. Those who promote this vision like to suggest that it is bold, audacious, and even radically revolutionary. It may or may not be those things, but, whatever else it is, it is also wrong. Among much else, it betrays a misunderstanding of both the purpose of the crucifixion and the nature of grace.
One error is found in the assumption, tacit if not articulated, that grace—or mercy—and justice are irreconcilable alternatives. This is not so. Justice, most basically, is giving each their due. Society cannot be justly ordered if people fail to receive what is owed to them. The anarchic heart, obeying its own appetitive will instead of moral and positive law, disorders society by taking away from others what is rightly their own: their lives, their property, their liberties, their peace, etc. The restoration of that order comes, if only approximately, through making the wrongdoer pay a proportionate value reflecting, as near as possible, the gravity of the crime. The motive of justice, therefore, is retribution, the requiting of evil through punishment, spurred by indignation and aimed at public goods. It forms an important dimension of the just cause requirement in just war case reasoning. The motive behind not executing someone like Cruz cannot, in the first place, be justice. Rather it must be mercy, the giving to a wrongdoer less than their due.
But justice need not exclude mercy. The cross is not, as some would have it, the triumph of mercy over justice. Nor is it somehow justice and mercy held in perfect balance. Rather, as I’ve written before, in the intersecting beams of the cross are found the intersection of justice to the nth degree and mercy to the nth degree. The only reason that human beings can be shown mercy is that Christ, crucified, took our punishment in our place. The Divine judge stooped to conquer—he stepped up and paid the debt. Mercy always costs someone something.
Most times, the ones who pay the price of mercy will be the victims of the evil being forgiven. This may well be acceptable. But we need to mindful that this is what is going on. Victims deserve to have their value vindicated. To vindicate is both to clear someone of blame as well as to prove them correct—to declare them justified. A part of the moral logic of the death penalty rests in assuring victims that their value was very great indeed. But this is not all. At the advent of the Noahic covenant, God proclaimed he would demand an accounting from anyone who killed his fellow man: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” While this appeal to the imago helps to establish the value of the slain victim and, therefore, to demonstrate the vileness of murder, it is best understood as an explanation for why it must be “by man” that the murderer’s blood shall be shed. Made in the image of God, human beings, like God, are themselves to demand an accounting for murder and to retribute the crime themselves. No other created thing is better suited to vindicate the murder of an image bearer than an image bearer. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul will enshrine this claim for Christians in his reassertion that a primary role of government is the maintenance of civil peace, characterized by the presence of order and justice. A fundamental means of doing so is the proper requital of good and evil.
One reason Cruz was spared death concerned mitigating circumstances of his life, including claimed mental disorders owed to fetal alcohol syndrome, a tumultuous upbringing, and the early death of both his parents. Cruz’ defense attorney claimed that he was “doomed from the womb.” I do know enough about the particular case to know whether these contested mitigating claims support the verdict or not. In all such cases, mitigating circumstances must be weighed against aggravating ones—those elements of a case that make a given case more severe than others of its kind. If simple murder warrants death, what of those murderers whose murders are multiple and compounded? Surely those such as Cruz, by any standard of justice, deserve death many lifetimes over. If wrongdoing deserves retribution, and if retribution should be scaled to the crime, then, surely, at some point capital punishment becomes the only morally appropriate punishment. One must also ask whether, whatever the mitigating circumstances, one still deserves death. Not everyone who has suffered as Cruz has suffered have made the choice to make others suffer as well. Cruz’ assault on that school was premeditated, well planned, and efficiently executed. Except for the incomprehensibility of the crime itself, Cruz seems to have demonstrated at every point that he acted while of sound mind.
The counter to this is that the injustices Cruz suffered in his own life are accounted for by punishing him with something less than he might deserve. Also, while probably not operative here, there may be institutional imperfections that warrant we err on the side of mercy rather than justice. Providence contributor Matt Martens will argue along these lines in an important forthcoming book. Still, as J. Budziszewski ponders in another important work, “it does not seem clear at first why not going far enough is any better than going too far. We say that both cowardice and rashness miss the mark of courage, and that both stinginess and prodigality miss the mark of generosity; why do we not say that both mercy and harshness miss the mark of justice?”
There is a lot riding on this. In my estimation, modern Western society has cut the cord to the transcendent in almost every aspect of contemporary life, including in the realm of justice. We see it in those who decry retribution because they see no correspondence between human punishment and divine judgment against objective evil. The crisis here is manifold; not least that as our willingness to retribute evil wanes so too does our hunger for, or expectation of, justice. I was once told that when someone who has enjoyed bread all their life suddenly develops a gluten allergy the abrupt absence of bread is palpable, and they yearn for it. Over time, however, they become accustomed to its continued absence and no longer feel its lack. With no memory of the taste of bread remaining, they cease hungering after it. The privation of what they once perceived to be a great good no longer gives them pain. In a similar way, the cost of our emaciated yearning for justice is, as we have seen, that the very notion of retributive justice comes to be mocked or scorned or suspected of reflecting not divine wrath but merely the collective anger of the group in power.
As Budziszewski insists, “I do not know whether our society can be brought back to believe in a transcendent order of justice, but of this I am certain: if we who recognize this standard do not act as though we believe in it, then no one will be brought by us to believe in it.”