Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno
(Delivered on April 21, 2007, during the 42nd Annual Membership Meeting, Philippine Bible Society)
Let me start with the confession that I entertained second thoughts before and even after accepting your invitation to speak, for I felt an inherent insufficiency to give respectable discourse on the topic, “God’s Standard of Justice.” The topic, to my mind, demands a deep, running knowledge of law and theology, and I am not one to pretend that I have that multidimensional mind. All these excuses, all these reservations, were however rejected by your officials. They warned me that one could not refuse a subpoena from the Lord. Indeed, there is no ground to quash such a subpoena, and so here I am. At the outset I beg your dispensation if I do not meet your theological expectations.
I want to take off from the proposition that, in life, we all discharge the duties of judges. In life, judges are not only those who wear black robes, not only those who wield the gavel, not only those with sheepskin diplomas showing they finished a law degree. In life, we act as judges for we all decide in disputes; we all resolve conflicts that involve life, liberty, and property – differences that are no less valuable than those resolved in our hallowed courts of justice. Those of us here who are fathers, mothers, or heads of families are aware of this role. As fathers or mothers, we decide daily a lot of disputes involving the members of our immediate families, and even the disputes with non-members of our families. When we punish a wayward child, we are making a judgment, a pronouncement of guilt, and in a generic sense we are acting as judges. If I tend to overstate this proposition, it is to drive home the point that the standard of Christian justice ought to be the concern of all of us, and not just the narrow concern of judges in the judicial department of our government.
Where do we get our lodestar in rendering Christian justice? I refer you to the gospel of John, Chapter 8, Verses 1-11, and I quote”
Then everyone went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early the next morning, he went back to the Temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our law, Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?” They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger. As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened up and said to them, “Whichever one of you here has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they all left one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. He straightened up and said to her, ”Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”
“No one sir,” she answered.
“Well then,” Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”
Crime has been the problem of the human race since thedawn of time, and not just ordinary crime, but that of the heinous variety. The Old Testament story of Cain and Abel tells us about the first crime committed by man. I want you to note that the first crime was perpetrated within the family, by a brother against as brother, not against a stranger. And the first crime was a heinous one – murder. Since Cain murdered Abel, we have been in a quest for justice; we have had to grapple with the problem of crime and criminals; and philosophers have endlessly debated the legal and moral justification for punishment, especially the infliction of the ultimate punishment – the death penalty. As well-observed by a world-renowned social scientist:
x x x. The long history of the debate over this question contains many proposed answers, answers to the two great traditions of thought. Classical retributism (standardly associated with the views of Kant and Hegel) maintains that punishment is justified because it gives wrongdoers what they deserve. When punishment “fits” the crimes for which they are imposed, punishment restores a kind of moral balance or harmony that crime upset. As a purely “backward looking” theory, retributism thus finds present justification for punishment solely in the nature and extend of the past immorality of the criminal. The classical deterrent theory (which is usually utilitarian in inspiration) holds that punishment is justified by its future good consequences and that kinds and amounts of punishment should be determined by what best facilitates happy social interaction. Since punishing criminals normally deters future criminal activity both by the punished criminal himself and by others, impressed by the example of his punishment and since it has as well other consequences (such as disabling the criminal for a time, possibly rehabilitating him, gratifying injured parties, etc.), punishment is morally justified in those instances where its good consequences outweigh the harm it does to the criminals.(Punishment: A Philosophy and Public Affairs Reader, 1995 ed., Introduction, p.8)
These two schools of thought – classical retributism and classical deterrence – have bred hybrid theories of punishment, but we are not here to analyze their interstices. Suffice it to state that they have provided support to the criminal justice systems throughout the modern world, whether in democratic countries, where the emphasis is on liberty; or in communist and other authoritarian countries, where the stress is on discipline and order.
It is against this backdrop if differing human thoughts on crime and punishment that we should view the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees on how to judge the adulterous woman. The confrontation was awash with significance for the Lord Jesus. He knew He was up against the Pharisees, the repositories of legal learning at the time. He knew He had to contend with the age-old interpretation of the law on adultery, which had been settled since the time of Moses, the Old Testament lawgiver. He knew He could not afford the cost of mistake, as the cost was prohibitive: the life of the adulterous woman was at stake, for the adultery was punishable by stoning to death; and, more than the life of the accused adulterous woman, His own life was on the line; an error on his part would bring about the charge of violating Jewish laws. How Jesus dealt with the accused and her accusers, how He treated the crime and the criminal, provides us with the standard to follow when we assume the role of judges in daily life.
First, let me focus on how He dealt with the accusers, the Pharisees. At that time, they were part of the elite of society. They were men of enormous learning, men learned in the law. They wielded the levers of power in society and in government. Their powers awed even the powerful, and they terrorized the powerless. But no the Lord Jesus Christ – the carpenter’s son – who gave not an iota of consideration for their special status, no extra favor for their privileged status. In other words, despite their big names, the Pharisees failed to influence Jesus into action, they failed to rush Him to judgment, for to Jesus the essence of justice is that it is the same for prince and pauper alike.
Second, the impure motive of the accusers, the Pharisees, and their sinful selves were not lost to the perceptive eyes of Jesus. He knew and considered as vital their evil motive in bringing the adulterous woman before Him for His judgment. They were not interested in the adultery of the woman; they were interested in trapping Jesus into rendering a wrong judgment, so that they could accuse Him of violating the Mosaic laws. The impurity of their motive did not help the Pharisees any. In Matthew 7:3, Jesus posed this searching question to those who delighted in making accusations. “Why then do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the speck in your own eye?” In other words, Jesus considered the purity of an accuser’s motive as part of justice.
Third, I urge you to focus on how Jesus viewed the stern, unforgiving Mosaic law on adultery, how He dealt with crimes and criminals. The Jews were governed by lex talionis, the law that decrees “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” The Jews were sticklers for rules, hidebound by laws. When their law penalizes you by losing your eye, they gouge your eye; when their law penalizes you with the loss of your arm, they cut your arm; when the law says you die, they kill you.
The rigidity of law, however, did not handcuff the hands of Jesus. He judged the adulterous woman with the law of love and mercy. Indeed, it was He who reduced all human laws to a one-word commandment – love. This was the new commandment He left to humankind. And because He did not only preach but practice it, He did not condemn the criminal even if He did not approve of her crime. He dismissed the woman by saying, “Go and sin no more.” Yes, because of the law of love, He was able to distinguish between sin and sinner, an important distinction that we should always bear in mind.
Lastly, Jesus, in dealing with the adulterous woman, taught us that in passing judgments, we should not be concerned with gaining popularity points. The story tells us that after rendering the judgement, Jesus was left alone. The crowd, the people, the majority who wanted to see blood, deserted Him. His judgment did not sit well with the majority; it was not popular; and in the end, He found no one in agreement with Him. Jesus, as a judge, found himself not only in the minority but in a minority of one. He was not bothered by His isolation – by the solitude of being in the minority – for He knew that truth, justice, and righteousness were questions that were not decided by a majority vote.
One message of Jesus as a judge is that lack of numbers should not demoralize Christians. A lot of times we shall find ourselves in the minority. Sometimes we may find ourselves alone, alone with ourselves, alone with our shadows. But lack of numbers should not weaken our sense of right and wrong. Right and righteousness cannot be tested by the magic of numbers. What is right is right, even if a million voices say otherwise. If we are wrong, we will not be right, just because a million voices say we are right.
Christians should therefore not be terrorized by the tyranny of numbers. Indeed, they will often find themselves in the minority, but they must shake the paralysis of powerlessness coming from lack of numerical support. When Christians works as followers of Christ, the least factor they should consider is whether they are in the majority or in the minority. They should forget the comfort, the safety, and the delight that can temporarily be provided by the majority. The reason is simple: the great truths – whether religious truths, moral truths, or political truths – are not determined by popularity vote, because oftentimes the majority rests only on what is momentarily delightful or what is pleasantly pleasurable.
To all of us who are judges, to all of us who cannot avoid judging, I leave as food for thought the wise counsel of the Bible commentator Barclay:
x x x. It is necessary in life for a Christian to take a long view of things. A man who lives only for the present moment will never reach success. The athlete who breaks all his training rules in quest of momentary pleasures cannot hope to win the big race x x x. The student who plays thru the weeks of the semester may enjoy himself for a while but that joy is short lived when the time for final examination arrives x x x. So a Christian must make a choice between what is delightful for the present and what will give delight over the long run. This is the rule following Christ: Either we choose what is pleasurable for the moment and incur disaster later on or we choose what will prove best when we stand before Him to render our account. And when we render an account, there will be no one, no crowd, but you and the Lord.
Again, congratulations to the Philippine Bible Society.