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When Justice Falls Short

What the sentencing of Anders Breivik, Norway's mass-murderer, reveals about the limitations of our legal system.

When news first hit last year of a “crazed” gunman, identified as Anders Behring Breivik, opening fire at a youth camp in Norway, my response was one of horror—and relief. Horror, of course, because of the, well, horror of nearly 70 people—plenty of them children—being murdered at random in a bucolic setting in a peaceable land. But relief because four years prior, my husband and I had decided to use "Anders" as my youngest son’s middle name, instead of his first, as we’d long planned. Although Anders is still one of my favorite names, I was relieved my son wouldn’t bear the name of one of Europe’s most notorious murderers.

Then when news hit of Breivik’s sentencing last week, my response was once again an odd mix of emotion: outrage and something close to rebuke. Outrage that a man could commit such a heinous crime in this day and age—could kill 77 people and wound countless more, could rip loved ones away from families, destroy lives and futures, inflict such mental and physical terror—and still only get 21 years in prison. While I am no death-penalty fan, my American justice sensibilities say a man who kills 77 people needs to be gone, locked away, for forever and a day. My American justice sensibilities tell me I shouldn’t have to wonder if Breivik will be released from prison before my state’s non-mass-murdering former governor is. That said, rebuke gripped me because of those very same American justice sensibilities.

While I won’t apologize or feel bad for my belief that criminals deserve consequences and that mass-murderers deserve severe consequences, the rebuke that settled in came because lately my American justice sensibilities have been alarmed for the opposite reason. Lately these alarms go off when I read stories of “adulteress” women getting stoned to death, when I read of rape victims being shunned from families, and when I read of all-girl punk bands being jailed for offensive lyrics. Lately, my justice-o-meter reacts to justice being ridiculously over-served instead of under-served.

While lately I’m wishing the world would be a bit more gracious, a bit more merciful, when I read of more “merciful” sentences, I’m appalled still.

And yet while lately I’m wishing the world would be a bit more gracious, a bit more merciful, when I read of more “merciful” sentences, I’m appalled still. The problem? Justice is an uneasy thing. While justice is supposed to be grounded in what is right and fair, just like rightness and fairness themselves, justice is subjective, relative, cultural. And that’s troublesome. Because even though we like to declare that justice can be served, if we’re honest, it probably rarely is. Not in a way that satisfies the offended; not in a way that (morally) convicts the offender.

As lenient as Breivik’s punishment seems to me, it’s as severe as can be in Norway. In fact, he received Norway’s maximum punishment. If Norway were an abnormally violent society, this would be less understandable. But considering Norwegians are a relatively peaceful people (at least today—whole different story in the Viking era) with a low crime rate, they seem they know a thing or two about justice—or, perhaps, deterring criminals. Besides, although Breivik’s punishment is only about three months behind bars for every life he took, according to the Chicago Tribune, Breivik may be held longer—indefinitely longer, in fact—“should he still pose a threat to a liberal society.”

For those of us who care about justice, even this seems unjust—to the criminal. Unlike the (admittedly far from perfect) American justice system, it seems Breivik won’t only be tried and judged once, but rather again at the end of prison tenure. While it’s good to know a dangerous threat to safe society might not, in fact, be released in two quick decades, it’s an unsettling example of that ambiguity of justice.

Whatever price Breivik pays will not be enough. The wrongs he committed will never be made right.

Of course, we don’t only stumble across the ambiguity or relativity of justice in different countries or states or counties’ sentencing laws. We find it in justice itself. After all, I’d imagine that for the families of those murdered by Breivik, it doesn’t matter much whether he spends 21 years or 21 lifetimes in prison. While they may be satisfied with the verdict and while I pray they can find forgiveness and some element of restoration, the truth is, of course, that the lives Breivik took can never be given back. The agony he left can never be eradicated. Whatever price Breivik pays will not be enough. The wrongs he committed will never be made right.

So, in reality, does it really matter whether Breikvik is punished as “hard” as my American sensibilities think he should be—especially if the Norwegian people are fine with a more lenient (in theory) sentence? And beyond that, in a world where so much injustice exists in the over-punishment of people, shouldn’t merciful judgments be applauded?

For Christians, issues surrounding justice are especially complicated and jam-packed with tension. Consider: We worship a God who once defined justice as “the one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury” (Leviticus 24:20), and we try to emulate His Son who fulfilled the “eye for an eye” law by giving us “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42) instead. We may all believe in a God who wants us to let “justice roll on like a river,” but Christians can’t agree what that justice really looks like. We can’t agree on what justice looks like in the goods and services we buy, and we can’t agree on what justice looks like in the discipline of our children.

Beyond that, we live in the reality that while God once sent 40 days of rain to wipe the world nearly clean of people and animals, we also believe in a God who once sent His Son to wipe us clean from sin. If justice were always served according to my American “crime must pay” sensibilities, I’d have no shot at heaven, no ability to accept the gift of grace that God offers but I most certainly do not deserve. That Jesus Christ paid the price for my—and your—sin is such an affront to my understanding of justice and yet the best thing to ever happen.

Last night, my kids watched a cartoon in which one of the characters was gleeful that his archenemy was getting his “just desserts.” From the other room, I overheard one of my kids cheer along with this.

“Yes!” he said. Then laughed.

Of all the ambiguities about justice, this one might be the one I struggle with the most. Because when the character and my son celebrated the “just desserts,” I realized—once again—a very ugly something about me, my kids, that cartoon character and all of us when it comes to justice: its tight-knit relationship with revenge.

For many of us, there is no distinction between justice and revenge. And yet, they are not same. Or shouldn’t be. (Though I’ve heard it joked that the only difference is that justice is legal; revenge is not.) Where justice should be blind, revenge sees the world in raging red. Revenge is, of course, more the individual act; it’s about making us feel better with emotion-driven reactions. Rarely does mercy play any role in revenge. Justice is more collective, about making communities be better with established guidelines for standards and consequences. In theory, mercy should—and often does—come into play.

And it’s here that I think my real problem with the Breivik verdict lies. Breivik’s not getting his just desserts. I can’t laugh and declare “He had it coming!” I don’t get that moment. But nor should I. I’m not a citizen of Norway. I’m not related to the victims. Aside from arousing my empathy for the victims and my ire for him, Breivik’s actions have little consequence on my life. Still, I realize that his sentence doesn’t feel like justice because it doesn’t feel like revenge. But, again, justice shouldn’t feel like revenge. This is an idea I need to work on. I suspect so do many of us.

It’s actually our Christian understanding of justice and mercy, however, that will prove the most helpful. Although our Christian understanding is as complex as our cultural one, it’s at least here that Christians across cultures and even time can come to an understanding of what justice here in this broken world really looks like. It’ll never be perfect. It’ll never completely heal wounds. Earthly justice will rarely make earthly sense. It will rarely restore relationships. Justice will never satisfy our hunger for just desserts, served cold.

In fact, the only thing that can do any of that is the near-opposite of justice. Only grace can do what we long for justice—in our right mind—or revenge—in our wrong one—to do. It’s why God offered it to us.

While I still confess to hating that a mass murderer like Breivik could be out of prison by the time my grandkids are crawling about this planet, I have to hope that Norway’s merciful sense of justice proves as powerful as God’s has in my own life.