John Allen Muhammed: Justice without Pleasure

John Allen Muhammad, the mastermind of the sniper attacks that terrorized the nation's capital region for three weeks in October 2002, was executed Tuesday. Muhammad died by injection at 9:11 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, prison spokesman Larry Traylor said.
Muhammad was executed for killing Dean Harold Meyers, who was shot in the head at a Manassas gas station during a spree that left 10 dead across Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. "We extend our condolences not only to the families and loved ones of the victims, but also to the family and loved ones of John Allen Muhammad," said J. Wyndal Gordon, one of Muhammad's attorneys. "It's just a tragic situation all around."

It was with grim satisfaction that I read the text message from the AP on my phone shortly after 10 PM this evening. I'm not pleased that John Allen Muhammad had to be put to death, but I do realize his execution was just. Of course in saying that, I'm also stating that any other scenario would have been less than just, less than righteous. Still, it is a justice, a righteousness, that doesn't bring pleasure.

God's standard of justice is technically known as Lex Talionis or the Law of Equivalent Retaliation. This law is most clearly stated in Leviticus 24:19–20:

If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. (NIV 84)

In other words, the amount of injury you cause another person is the amount of injury you receive. This is the standard by which justice is measured. (It is also the reason, by the way, that hell is eternal. Since God is infinite, our sin causes an infinite offense against his holiness. Since our offense is infinite, so is our punishment.)

It's important to note that the purpose of God's justice is not reformation, but retaliation. Put another way, someone who steals my truck should be punished, not so that someone else will be swayed from committing such a crime and not so that the offender may be made better, but because he committed the crime of stealing my truck. He is punished because his action demands retribution. In the same way, justice demands John Allen Muhammad be put to death, because this is the injury that he caused.

Of course, we need to remember that John Allen Muhammad's offense wasn't simply against the victims of his shooting spree. It was also an attack against God himself.

God gave Noah this law:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Gen 9:6 NIV 84)

Put another way, attacking another human being goes beyond the crime against that individual. It is also an attack against God by proxy. When we attack his image, it is the same as an attack against his person.

This principle was vividly illustrated for me while I was in the Navy. We were about to pull into a liberty port in Turkey. But before we were allowed to disembark, the Master Chief of the Command made sure we all knew the story of the sailor who drank too much on shore leave and thought it was funny to relieve himself on a public statue of Atatürk. The Turkish ministry of justice, however, did not share his sense of humor. For in their eyes, to defile the image of Atatürk was equivalent to an attack upon his person. As the story was related to us, his ship weighed anchor while he was still in prison awaiting trial. I don't know if that story's true, but it was certainly motivating.

Understanding that God's justice is strictly retributive influenced my emotions this evening. it was with satisfaction that I read John Allen Muhammad was put to death. It was fitting. It was just. But I viewed it with a grim, even sorrowful, eye. Muhammad's attorney was right. "It's just a tragic situation all around."

At this point, someone may ask how you can find satisfaction in an execution and yet be less than pleased at the same time. The answer is simple. I think this way because this is the way God thinks, and I'm trying to think like he does. Here's God's attitude toward the justice he demands:

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezek 33:11 NIV 84)

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked because the objects of his wrath are also objects of his love. In fact, whenever we call someone a sinner, we are automatically calling them an object of God's love for "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8 NIV 84).

And so we are faced with this peculiar situation: God's retributive justice was meted out against his Son, who had done no wrong, so that the guilty could go free. God's pleasure was for his Son to die so his enemies could live. In light of this odd reality, all we can conclude is that God is exactly as he says he is: …slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished… (Num 14:18 NIV 84).

Since God is the standard of righteousness and since sin is any lack of conformity to his character, I'm compelled to try (through the power of the Holy Spirit) to think God's thoughts after him. Thus my grim satisfaction to the news this evening.

I wish I could report that John Allen Muhammad turned from his sin at the end, but there is no evidence of that. In fact, the reports all indicate that he was defiant to the end. So, at 9:11 PM Eastern Standard Time, John Allen Muhammad began his real sentence: an unbroken experience of conscious suffering that will go on without a moment's respite forever. Thinking about this gives me no pleasure whatsoever. But I have to admit, it is just.