A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them.
— Prov. 20:26
The faces of the seven sheriff’s deputies are glum. The photo of these dark clad men in a courtroom shows among them, dressed in a bright orange, the figure of cop killer Jesse Mathews. He is attending a hearing that will let him cop a plea, avoid trial and escape capital punishment.
The newspaper headline states plain facts, “Life without parole[;] Mathews pleads guilty to killing police sergeant.” The expressionless officers seem nearly bored, as if plea hearings are a commonplace. The family of the slain officer, Tim Chapin, accepts the prosecutor’s formulation of the case and endorsed what the newspaper suggests is an act of mercy, one proposed by Mr. Mathews’ attorney. The attorney proposed Mr. Cox cage the furies of justice aimed at his client, and that his client would be content to remain in prison until his last day.
In a plea bargain the facts are kept from public view. The state avoids the arduous task of a death penalty trial and the years of appeals that follow. At stake are convenience, workload and economy. For these, the courts’ officers — the lawyers, the judges, the state’s attorneys — dodge a duty to try cases before juries. Jury trials are a constitutional right arising out of reformational Christianity’s democratizing and de-absolutizing of government. The jury is a means of keeping totalitarianism in check. Open trial is also a requisite to imposition of a death sentence in a case where God’s law and Tennessee common law call for capital punishment.
So routine are humanistic reinterpretations of ancient rules of justice that the district attorney, Bill Cox, is quoted as saying that life in prison is effectively a death penalty. No doubt, Mr. Cox is doing the best he can to clear Judge Barry Steelman’s docket. But life in prison is not effectively a death penalty. Mr. Mathews will live out his days at a charge to taxpayers of F$23,663 a year, and won’t stir himself toward any effort at restitution to the Chapin family.
Justice is state’s No. 1 job — or is it?
If we believe the scriptures, the state is a ministry of God just as are family or church, though its scope and duty differ. Its task is as narrow as the blade of a sword: To cut off evil and evildoers. In a murder case, it acts under the authority of the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder,” Exodus 20:13) and case law provisions God gave the Israelites through Moses. The civil magistrate’s task to shield the citizenry from crime, anarchy and invasion gives free play to the peaceful work Christendom. The scriptures envision this work occurring in the family (under which we could put capitalism, civilization, education, the arts) and in the church. Christ’s great commission envisions the world being brought to the throne of God through the ordinance of faithful preaching and the sacraments, which are in the purview of church government. In the years leading up to his botched robbery, Mr. Mathews erred in rejecting godliness, refusing self-government under God and living by his own code. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).
The modern state proudly strays from the circumscribed duty of ancient authority or constitutional restraint. Its refusal to wield the sword upon the necks of murderers is not Christendom’s sole complaint. It wastes the people’s wealth with prodigal living, especially in taking up the props and scripts of the actor in commerce.
By that I refer to its having gone into business. The hapless state no longer enforces the death penalty on capital offenses such as that of Mr. Mathews. But it eagerly becomes partner and donor with big business while small business and even the poorest householder are taxed.
Local governments ogle national big boys
In the same edition of the Times Free Press as the story about the Chapin family is a full-page story from the New York Times. The report explains that localities give away billions in tax breaks, income tax credits, tax exemptions, free services, land tax abatements and cash grants to businesses in hopes of luring factories.
“A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies.” It’s impossible to tally how much money and credit has been given to corporations because officials don’t know the value of their awards. “Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created.”
In Hamilton County, VW was given F$577.4 million in goodies from county, state and U.S. governments. Nashville spent F$79.6 million for site development, F$70 million for infrastructure, F$40 million for a training center. City and county government gave F$39.3 million for infrastructure and F$6 million for a welcome center. The half-billion dollar figure includes jobs and machinery tax credits from Nashville.
The mayor’s spokesman Richard Beeland calls the VW plant “a great investment for the city” and the city’s public works’ administrator, Steve Leach, is quoted as saying, “It’s just a rare opportunity to have this kind of facility that has this kind of expansion opportunity.” In March, when VW said it would hire 800 more workers, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said the state will offer more incentives. VW will have 3,500 employees here by year’s end.
The liberty in scripture requiring death for a murderer requires a legal process that also has a spiritual dimension. The defendant, through capital punishment, is extradited to God’s court. Mr. Mathews should be encouraged to repent, to be sorry for his sins; and be made ready to meet his maker before that higher bar. Instead, commercial government gives sanctuary to Mr. Mathews. It keeps him on the state payroll the rest of his days.
The ancient doctrine of equity is summed up in the phrase lex talionis — eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wrong for wrong. Equal treatment for all and in all, in other words. Justice is blind as to persons, their standing and wealth. Justice seeks out evils to oppress and punish.
The modern state, having become a commercial actor and a businessman, refuses its duty in the courthouse toward equity, lex talionis. It protects Mr. Mathews. It shields him from the urgency of repentance. Meanwhile, it favors the corporate persons of the great, and gives them pre-eminence at table and sumptuous fare, and gives no relief to the common volk and the small shop.
Sources: Tennessee Department of Correction website
Mike Pare, “VW spends most of $235 million in infrastructure aid,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Oct. 12, 2011
Mike Pare, “Gov. Haslam lauds new VW jobs and [says] Tennessee ready to offer incentives for VW expansion,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 22, 2012