by Bruce Frohnen
Here’s a rather silly story, brought to my attention by The Imaginative Conservative’s own Stephen Masty. It should tell us something about how very silly lawyers’ views of morals and the law have become in recent years. According to Religion News Service, among others, one Dola Indidis, a lawyer in Kenya, has petitioned the International Court of Justice to nullify the conviction and death sentence handed down to—Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ. As this news story quotes Indidis, “The selective and malicious prosecution (of Jesus) violated his human rights.”
It is important to note that this particular bit of lawsuit abuse is not something we can blame on Kenya in particular; the authorities there have shown common sense in dealing with the case. The Kenyan high court dismissed Mr. Indidis’ suit on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction. That is, the court wisely ruled that a 2,000 year-old conviction handed down in a province of the long-defunct Roman Empire was, legally speaking, none of its business; and, of course, courts only have one business, namely, upholding the laws of their land. Moreover, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Nairobi pointed out the metaphysical mistake on which the suit is based, observing that “Jesus was not vulnerable and nobody can do justice to God.”
If Jesus Christ determined that He would not be crucified, He would have prevented it. As to the idea that His crucifixion was an injustice liable to correction by the court, we fallible, sinful, limited human beings are incapable of “doing justice” to God. He is all knowing and all powerful. We, His creatures, owe him more than we can possibly give to him, which is why we require mercy and grace for our salvation, being incapable of earning it through our own actions. Our courts have enough trouble attempting to even the scales between offenders and their victims, whether civil or criminal, without seeking to achieve a metaphysical justice. Any attempt to “undo” the fact of Christ’s crucifixion is as senseless as it is feckless.
Nonetheless, Mr. Indidis persists. He sees it as his duty to help “develop law,” and has challenged the trial methods of Jesus’ time, naming many dead people along with the states of Israel and Italy as defendants and, rather than giving up when his own high court turned him away, has switched his forum, appealing to a court that claims a kind of “world” or universal jurisdiction. This International Court of Justice decides real, concrete cases between nations that have agreed to its jurisdiction, but also hands down “advisory opinions” relating to international law submitted to it by any of a variety of persons or organs. In so doing, of course, the court is applying, not the law of any one land, but rather that combination of treaties, compacts, and declarations making up what lawyers are pleased to call international law.
Of course, Indidis has no chance of gaining a hearing at the International Court of Justice, either—he is, for one thing, suing persons and nations as a “friend of Jesus” and the court only hears cases between states. But his quest to achieve legal vindication for God bespeaks a faith in the power and effectiveness of legal tribunals that is all too common, and as dangerous as it is misplaced.
International law once was a sensible body of rules rooted in the customary treatment of ambassadors, merchants, and others necessary for nations to go about their business, both during and between various forms of conflict. There was a certain natural law aspect to international law in that its decisions rested less on particular statutes or customs of specific nations than on more generally accepted norms of fairness and the common good. In seeking to vindicate the reasonable expectations of parties coming from differing nations and traditions, its practitioners had to look to broader, civilizational customs and even human nature in their assumptions and decisions. Increasingly, however, international tribunals have sought to substitute abstract pronouncements about what is right for the concrete arguments necessary to maintain the possibility of order among nations. From enforcing treaties and contracts, international courts have moved to the adjudication of claims of human rights violations. Of course, natural law, with its religious roots and presuppositions, has been discredited in these bodies. Instead they use a desiccated Kantianism and the language of equality and “proportionality” that allows them to pretend that their policy preferences are universal goods. But that is another story.
The most obvious question that should occur to us in regard to Indidis’ lawsuit is “why on Earth do we need a court to tell us that it was wrong to crucify our Lord?” The answer, of course, is that we do not need this, but someone might think that we need a pronouncement that the crucifixion of Jesus the man violated legal principles of human rights. What Indidis is after, and what all too many judges and lawyers are after, is vindication of legal principles they take to be the embodiment of—indeed, even the source of—moral principles.
Were Christ’s human rights violated by his criminal conviction? Because God is three persons as well as one God, and Christ is one of those persons, it may not be nonsensical to speak in terms of human rights as one speaks of Christ. But is it relevant in any important way? Do our human rights capture what is most important in this life, let alone the next?
Indidis accuses Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who acceded to Christ’s crucifixion, of “judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias and prejudice.” This is hardly true, according to our own records. Pilate wanted to let Jesus go, you will remember. It was fear of an uprising from the people he governed that led Pilate to wash his hands of the matter, refusing to stop the execution. He was a cynical coward, not an intentional murderer. It was not the Roman state alone, or even primarily, that crucified Christ.
For a Christian, it is crucial to remember that Christ was crucified for our sins. He died, not because of a miscarriage of justice, but because of our sin. We killed him. All of us. And no pompous statement from a panel of judges can change that, though it can obscure the fact from us. Indeed, such statements mislead us into believing that, if only “the process” of law were perfect, we wouldn’t need to worry about difficult things like, say, our own characters and sins. But process, while it is almost all the rule of law can provide, is only as good as the ends we all pursue. A law, for example, punishing Christians for expressing their beliefs, could be instituted and applied in an entirely fair, equitable manner. There could be fair trials to determine whether a person actually said “Jesus is Lord” in public, or attempted to preach the Gospel, or expressed opposition to abortion. And those Christians could be found guilty and punished in a manner entirely consistent with the law. And we still would be living in a (law abiding, equitable) society that persecutes Christians. Our job, then, is not merely to “vindicate” legal process, but to change hearts and minds so that they will accept, or at least not persecute, our faith. More, our duty is to suffer persecution for our faith, if we must, while still bearing witness thereto.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is the author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, The New Communitarians: The Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and co-editor of Community and Tradition: Conservative Perspectives on the American Experience.