Who Has the Authority to Carry Out God’s Justice? Not the Modern State

September 19, 2011

By Joseph Bottum (June 14, 2010)

Twenty-five years have gone by with this man incarcerated. What could his death possibly gain us?

Nothing – except justice, of course, and justice of a particular kind. Take the strongest possible way to state that claim: Gardner is a murderer. He deserves death, and our clear intuition – an intuition manifested in nearly every culture that has ever been – is that the balance of the moral universe itself requires his death. Justice requires retribution. Grant all that. But add one small question as well: who has the authority to carry out this justice?

Everyone agrees that you and I, as individuals, lack the authority, and we would be charged with murder if we did kill the man. But once we agree that authority may be lacking, the question is on the table. So where does the legal system of a modern democracy derive authority to act on this high level?

A government has two legitimate goals in its justice system: the protection of the state’s existence, and the maintenance of ordinary, common justice for its people. And sometimes these may require the death of criminals – as in treason, for example, or when citizens cannot be protected from someone except by that person’s death.

But where comes the other kind of justice, the kind that would justify the execution of Ronnie Gardner – not the ordinary justice of the social contract but high justice, the justice of God, the balancing of the cosmic scales? God, and God’s agents, could carry out this justice. Of course, the foundation of a modern democratic state, born of a social contract, is exactly that the state is not God’s agent. The early modern thrones got around the problem with a theory of the Divine Right of Kings, but we rejected all that. The ancient pagan cities held the sword of punishment because, in however confused a way, they believed in the supernatural foundation for the earthly city, but that, too, we dismissed.

Without some form of the divine, who has the right to pay blood with blood, to undertake high justice? Not us. And our attempts to apply that justice are under constant threat of devolving back into barbarism and revenge. Listen to the language that swirls around every execution in this country: It’s the language of damage to the family and closure for emotions and repayment to the victims after their death. Ronnie Lee Gardner is such a clear case where we gain nothing except this kind of unauthorized justice from his death.

Curiously, he might once have stood as an example of legitimate execution: on trial for one murder, he committed another, killing an officer of the court in an escape attempt. Given a man this uncontrollable and violent, the social contract could well have required his death.

That was 25 years ago, however. In the intervening quarter century, Utah has proved its capacity to control him. The only reason to kill him now is that high justice demands it. Shouldn’t we be afraid of a government that, without submitting itself to the divine, thinks it has divine power in its hands?

Joseph Bottum is the editor of the Catholic magazine First Things. These are excerpts from comments he made in the magazine’s online edition on June 14, 2010, prior to the execution of Ronnie Gardner in Utah.