Lady Justice's Blindfold
No 8: May 29, 2020
Minnesota is special to me. My Dad was born and raised in Minneapolis, and he and my Mom met there while they were both studying at the Minnesota School of Business to become court reporters. They both graduated, and my Dad went on to an illustrious 40+ year career in the Federal courts. This connection to Minneapolis is why my life-long love of the Minnesota Twins Baseball Club is embedded in my DNA. The Vikings used to be, until the disgraceful 1998 NFC Championship Game resulted in a genetic mutation—think of it like massive exposure to “loser radiation”—whereby I am incapable of rooting for them ever again.
We spent a decent amount of time in the Upper Midwest as a kid. We took in ballgames at the Metrodome (I saw some wondrous things there—usually they involved a guy named Kirby Puckett), and loved visiting my grandparents’ cabin in the woods of northwest Wisconsin. The people of Minnesota and surrounding areas are, well, nice. They even call it that: “Minnesota Nice.”
As I write, portions of Minneapolis are in flames. Stores are looted and destroyed. At least one person is dead, and riots are likely to continue. This all erupted because of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. But we really shouldn’t speak in such passive terms: it was not a tragic “death.” It was a homicide. In broad daylight with many witnesses.
I have more thoughts than can be articulated in this newsletter, but I will share a few.
To recap: police responded to a call about a “possible forgery.” That is, some guy tried to pass off a counterfeit bill or bad check. The cops showed up, interviewed some people, and arrested George Floyd. They handcuffed him and began walking him to the squad car. The police department later claimed that he had “resisted arrest,” but surveillance video does not seem to back up that story.
Mr. Floyd, for some unexplained reason, fell to the ground (maybe that is what they are referring to as “resisting arrest”?). Four police officers pinned him to the ground on his stomach. One officer, Derek Chauvin, aggressively pressed his knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck. Mr. Floyd pleaded with the officer that he couldn’t breathe, repeatedly. The officer ignored him. Bystanders became very concerned and pleaded with the officer to remove his knee. Mr. Chauvin kept the pressure on Mr. Floyd’s neck for…eight minutes. When an ambulance arrived, they rolled Mr. Floyd on to a stretcher and he was non-responsive. The EMTs could not find a pulse on the way to the hospital and Mr. Floyd was, in fact, dead.
It is frankly impossible to believe that a handcuffed man laying on his stomach required any “use of force” techniques to be subdued, much less one as aggressive as the one the officer chose. It was, at best, a grossly negligent disregard of human life (manslaughter); at worst, it was intentional murder. The former should be relatively easy to prove; the latter, I’m afraid, will be very difficult to prove. [Update: Mr. Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.]
Oh, and Mr. Floyd was a 46-year-old black man. Officer Chauvin is white.
In our racially charged times, those are the most important factors.
On Misidentifying the Norm
But they are not. The pursuit of justice requires a norm—a commandment, statute, or law that a person violates. The facts are presented, and Lady Justice applies the standard impartially, without favoritism, without rigging or tipping the scales—this is why the statue of Lady Justice standing outside the United States Supreme Court building is blindfolded. She is no respecter of persons. She does not favor rich or poor, elite or lowly, popular or marginalized, black or white. Everyone stands before the same standard. And this, by the way, is the standard of justice demanded by the Bible because it conforms to the very character of God (Dt. 1:17; 10:17; 16:19; Lev. 19:15).
The most important factor here is what commandment, statute, or law was violated, not what was the racial makeup of the victim and perpetrator. In this case, the commandment is Number 6: “You shall not murder.” I know I am writing something extraordinarily controversial here. It sounds callous. It sounds deaf and blind to broader contexts and institutionalized or structural injustices. If we can only judge the matter by the narrow consideration of the law, people say, then we will never be able to root out deeper injustices like systemic mistreatment of black people in various locales. That happens to be something I care very deeply about, by the way; but many proposed solutions are cures worse than the disease.
Make no mistake: the only alternative of rigidly and uncompromisingly focusing on the law as the standard of judgment is to allow Lady Justice to “peek.” And when Lady Justice peeks—when she wants to know, before rendering judgment, the color of the skin of victim and perpetrator, or the position and status of the plaintiff or defendant, whether the parties are socially marginalized or not, she is by definition rendering favoritism in some way. Because the identity of one party or the other now distorts or displaces the law as the norm or standard.
Some people are not bothered by this because they do not really believe in a transcendent moral law anyway. They think law is mere social convention. So they think a little favoritism this way or that, a little tipping of the scales, a tiny societal “nudge” in one direction or another is necessary for “justice” to be done. But it results in more injustice. It leads to the primacy of sheer political and judicial power rather than equality before the law. Who holds the scales? Who does the “tipping”? These questions become an existential societal crisis. People will be rewarded or made to “pay” not on the basis of their actions, but on the basis of their position in society, their race, their class, religion, political affiliation, or some other construct. And that will lead to a dangerous deepening of already alarming societal fault lines where black and white, right and left, progressive and conservative, already believe the other side seeking power is “out to get them.” Justice that shows partiality leads to panic, not peace (cf., Isaiah 59), because those not in positions of power fear being rendered helpless before the powers-that-be. I mean, ask yourself: why are the battles over Supreme Court nominees so ugly?
We must not lose sight of the standard here. Racism might be among the relevant existential facts of the case that might lead to conclusions about, say, criminal motive; the power disparity between an officer of the law and a potential criminal defendant might be a relevant situational fact of the case. But neither is the relevant norm or standard of judgment. In other words: the crime alleged is murder, not racism. A police officer appears to have violated the sixth commandment. A man unjustly killed another man, and he must be held to the same standard as it would be if the situation between the parties had been the reverse.
I am certain that some people will bristle at my unwillingness to draw broad, abstract societal conclusions about the problems of policing and race relations in America based on this concrete incident. So let me reply: I am unwilling to do the grave injustice of attributing racism to the hundreds of thousands of honorable, noble, caring, hardworking peace officers in this country who do not choke detainees to death. At the same time, I do desire every single racist police officer who does engage in such behavior to be rooted out and to receive their just desserts, but because they violate the law, not because they are scapegoated for some abstract demerit based on their skin color or social class.
And that is a serious problem in this country. We force concrete facts to conform to and confirm our broader, abstract prior beliefs. Thus, for some people every incident like this means “America is a racist country.” For others, each incident prompts endless (and mindless) non sequitur “whattaboutisms”—what about intra-black crime rates? They think being “pro-police” means that somehow, in some way, the guy must have had it coming. Both of these reactions are morally grotesque.
Theologian Matthew Kaemingk, whom I respect a great deal, posted this Tweet:
It’s a powerful message, and in the spirit of a “prophetic warning,” I affirm it. We should fear God’s judgment. The only problem I have is it seems delivered as a verdict, and an abstract one, at that. “Pity the nation that would crush this divine gift”? I look around and I see an entire nation horrified—absolutely horrified—at what happened to George Floyd. I see a nation (rioters and mobs notwithstanding) that is seeking justice, overwhelmingly. Prophetic critique sounds very hollow to me when it only accounts for debits of a people, and never credits.
How will we solve the problems of racism and the disparity of treatment under the law? Not by having Lady Justice “peek.” Not by nudging, not by showing partiality one way or the other. Only by uncompromisingly upholding the standard equally. “But,” you say, “they aren’t upholding the standard equally. That’s the problem!” The solution for that can never be to change the standard to achieve the outcomes we like; rather, we must redouble our efforts to uncompromisingly uphold the standards. And if we do have a problem of systemic injustice, the answer is systemic justice—that is, system-wide commitment and conviction to apply the rules impartially. That might mean holding current rulers accountable at the ballot box; it might mean getting rid of public sector unions that make it difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of bad police officers; but it certainly also means fostering communities in which virtuous people of all races and classes are incentivized to “protect and serve.”
Oh, and one last thought: looting, rioting, and mayhem are symptoms of our larger problem; just like those who want Lady Justice to “peek,” lots of other people think piling up more and more injustices will bring about justice. All it does is pile up our iniquities before God.
“So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice.” —Isaiah 59:14-15.
This was a sober one for a sober week. Take some time to read a moving profile of George Floyd, from Christianity Today.
I wanted to say something about problems in law enforcement that I see, but David French has already excellently done so here. There is much highly irrational fear among peace officers that we shouldn’t tolerate as a society.
What else? I finished reading a new book, Figural Reading & The Old Testament by my friend Don Collett, whom I’ve known for thirty years now. It was gratifying to see what he’s been working on for the last couple of decades. It is a work of extremely impressive scholarship. If you’re not a theologian, it’s probably not a book for you. If you are a theologian, I recommend reading Part 3, “Assessment” first. Then circle back around to read the whole thing through. Here’s the Amazon review I wrote.
I’ll close out this week with a favorite of mine. The film quality is definitely sub-par, but it was what they did way back when Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton were young pups. And, I should add, when they were young pups they were just as jaw-droppingly brilliant as they are today. On my list, this is one of the topmost sublime performances I’ve ever seen: