This week as his term ended, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour issued scores of pardons to rather poor reviews. His explanation on Saturday that his pardons were based on "forgiveness and ... second chances" has not done much to mollify the critics. Scott Johnson of Powerline put out a call to Christians to weigh in on Barbour's understanding of Christianity relating to the pardons.
Forgiveness is obviously central to the gospel message of Christianity. Sinners under the wrath of a holy God are offered forgiveness through the substitutionary death of the sinless Jesus Christ, God's son. The New Testament repeatedly links the forgiveness we have received to the forgiveness that we should extend to others. As one who has personally accepted God's forgiveness, I can attest to the persistent struggle to overcome the instinct for justice and retribution in my dealings and relationships with others and simply forgive as I have been forgiven.
But while I believe Gov. Barbour's impulse for forgiveness is admirable and worthy of emulation by other Christians, I believe in this context it is misapplied. This was not a personal action, but rather an act as the chief executive of the government of the state of Mississippi. Certainly Christian principles of justice, mercy, and "second chances" can and should be built into the law by the legislature and applied by the judiciary, but the executive branch should be doing just that, executing the laws. In the Bible, the book of Romans states relative to the governing authorities that "if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer."
Opposition to the death penalty in the name of Christian principles often succumbs to a similar misapplication. But the punishment of crime is a function of government, not of individuals. Governments can imprison criminals, and even suspected criminals. If an individual tries that, it's called kidnapping. Governments tax -- individuals steal. Context is important, even where forgiveness is involved. A pardon is intended as a last resort to correct an injustice after customary remedies have been exhausted. Governor Barbour certainly has the right and perhaps even the responsibility to personally forgive the recipients of his pardons. But he mischaracterizes the outraged families of victims by suggesting "they want vengeance." What they want and what they had achieved through the courts was justice handed down on behalf of the citizens of the State of Mississippi, and justice should have been allowed to stand.