Pimps, prostitutes and the gospel of vacatur

Johnathan Kana

Johnathan Kana
February 27, 2015

When courts use the vacatur process to expunge the records of sex-trafficking victims, they model the grace God has granted us all.

Doug Vande Griend
March 2, 2015

I certainly applaud the effort described in this post. The comment I would have is to suggest it is really important to distinguish between the concepts of justice and mercy when analyzing this sort of effort and the scriptural basis that can be offered in its support.

I would suggest that setting aside a conviction for prostitution when the accused was acting in compliance with the force-backed demands of a pimp or other sex trafficking tyrant is a matter of justice, and just as importantly, not a matter of mercy. It is, thus, not akin to the scriptural analogy suggested in this post.

If distinctions between justice and mercy become too blurred, the roles of certain societal institutions will become uncertain and ineffective. The unfortunate ambiguity in the label, "social justice," already has that effect, to society's detriment.

March 3, 2015

Doug, I appreciate your incisive comment. You’re absolutely right: there’s a keen difference between justice and mercy, and in my brevity above I may have failed to adequately preserve the distinction.

I’m disinclined, however, to see the court’s actions here merely as a matter of justice and not of mercy. Are these young women victims? Absolutely, and they deserve to be treated as such. Overturning their convictions helps to partially remedy the injustice committed against them by the perpetrators of their exploitation. But the harder question is more controversial: are they guilty of a crime or not? Some would say no, but what I think the legal action reflects is that, in the eyes of the court, they are. The guilt is not being denied, but a plea for mercy is being honored in light of the extenuating circumstances of the crime.

It’s a seemingly cruel reality that strict justice holds individuals accountable for their actions even when there are circumstances commanding sympathy rather than scorn. To cite the oft-quoted example, someone who steals bread to feed his family is still a thief culpable for the consequences. But the choice to punish or not is the prerogative of the injured party. The injuries are still real, and while there are all kinds of reasons why we might find a crime “pardonable,” pardon is not quite the same thing as exoneration. The latter is the execution of justice; the former is a transfer of the burden of injustice from one party to another.

I guess what I’m saying is that, at least to me, what the court system is doing for these young women is analogous (though not perfectly so) to what God does for us in Christ. I think God probably sees us much the same way: culpable for our crimes against Him but also hopelessly in bondage to a condition we neither chose nor can free ourselves from; and that’s why He mercifully provided the means for us to have that record blotted out by transferring the burden of injustice from us to Christ.

Doug Vande Griend
March 6, 2015

Jonathan: I understand your perception that there is more than justice at play here, but I disagree, and want to disagree (I'll explain that in a bit).

I see the "adjustment" being made here as an appropriate adjustment within the confines of justice only (justice as administered by the state, a particular sphere of authority in society). We often change laws, hopefully and sometimes (not always) to create a more nuanced implementation of justice. It has long been the case that criminal penalties come within a range, to be selected by the judge. And sometimes, the law regards an act that is otherwise criminal as not criminal (self-defense, defense of others). To steal in order that one's child not starve is not necessarily a crime (long legal discussion could ensue here), and not because of reasons of mercy. I think you might be surprised at how flexible the criminal system in this country can be, and sometimes or maybe often is, within the bounds of administering justice only.

It is also a long discussion to compare and contrast "God's justice" with that which is supposed to be administered by the state. The state's task in that respect is so limited in scope and depth. And then there is the matter of God fulfilling his requirement of justice completely (by way of the death of an innocent) -- long discussion could be had there too.

My greatest concern in a discussion of this sort is that we not propose that the state (government) become a blended administrator of both justice and mercy. That is a prescription for a great deal of societal dysfunction. Unfortunately, moving in that direction is probably the dominant trend out there these days, including with folks like the CRC's OSJ. Seems nice. Seems good. Seems appropriate (e.g., "if we think of this issue as Christians"). But great dysfunction comes from it, especially if one views the role of government as historic Calvinists (especially in the Reformed tradition) did.

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