Columnists > Judgment Calls

The insanity muddle

Regaining a biblical starting point

Issue: "Highway 65 hopefuls," April 20, 2002

The Pennsylvania Crimes Code & Vehicle Law Handbook added a new category of indictment-"Guilty by mentally ill"-to its 2001 edition. The indictment is to be used when a violator has been judged mentally ill but not legally insane at the time of the commission of the offense. "Mentally ill," the fine print goes, refers to "one who as a result of mental disease or defect, lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." "Legally insane" refers to one who "was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."

Yes, I had to read it twice, too.

But Pennsylvania's not the only one floundering. For the rest of your natural life, editorialists will be writing on Andrea Yates and the insanity defense. The higher paid ones, erudite and verbally acrobatic men, will quote B.F. Skinner, the Greek Philolaus, Troilas and Cressida, and The New England Journal of Medicine, all to make the reader think, momentarily, that his befuddlement has been addressed. (In the writing trade, many vacuous theses are gilded with recondite window dressing.)

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As a matter of fact, yards of pretty argumentation based on a faulty premise are no better than yards of good chain where the first link is vitiated. And the first link in non-Christian reasoning is always the weak one. Humanism, the presumption of arriving at truth starting from unaided reason, is that first link in all I've seen in print since a Texas woman was convicted of drowning her children.

Give me an argument on the insanity defense that begins with the question "What does God's Word say?" Even if a few bugs need to be worked out, I will be more edified by it than by an elegant web spun of the thread of autonomous human imagination. For the Humanist and the Christian, standing in the same room together, may share a physical space but are as far apart as two universes. They may even share a conclusion (that Desyrel is sometimes helpful in alleviating depression), but the road to there makes all the difference.

Let me see a commentary that wrestles with the question of whether "insanity" is even a biblical category (for I have cast my lot with presuppositionalists, and will not cede to the Humanists even the definition of terms). Concepts of "premeditation" I see in Numbers 35, as well as "accidental" killing, "unintentional" killing, and "malice aforethought," but nothing of "insanity." The nearest I find in Scripture to what looks like insanity is demon possession.

Let the inquirer explore the nexus of "insanity" and sin, and ask of Scripture, "What is sane?" He will be led to Daniel 4 and the bizarre episode of King Nebuchadnezzar, who for "seven times" suffered mental derangement as a direct result of sin (verses 27-32). Let him consider the king's "insanity" in putting his grandeur above God's, and let him note the continuum with the average man's delusion of himself as the center of his world. Let the Christian, in unflinching introspection, admit that what in common parlance is often called the "confusion" of madness is, in the private recesses of the heart, often a hellish lucidity. Let the testimony be introduced that King David, finding that "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5), saw the birth defect not as evidence of innocence but of greater guilt.

Follow the trail to the New Testament, where the indictment is that all men know God and right and wrong at some level but "by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18), and that God gives men over to the path they've freely headed down, where at some mysterious point a line is crossed in the realm of human decision, so that what was once chosen is now a sentence: futility of thinking and darkened understanding.

If it is alleged that a woman was betrayed by her conscience and is thereby innocent, let it be biblically reasoned that she is responsible for not feeding truth to her conscience. The Bible emphasises personal responisibiltiy: To despoil a moral compass by a history of small rejections of the light is to become more (not less) culpable for the immoral actions that may result, though the subject herself does not "feel" guilty. (This line of thought would tend closer to "guilty by reason of insanity" than "innocent by reason of insanity.")


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