A court of law is where civic virtue puts on secular vestments and walks up and down proclaiming, "Hear ye, hear ye; let all who seek justice draw near. God save this honorable court!" It's also society with an attitude-several attitudes. There are cynics who figure that everybody has a secret agenda and if "justice" is done it's by accident. There are moralists who subscribe to objective standards and libertines who believe that standards are strictly personal. There are upholders of truth and virtue, and belittlers of the same, authoritarians and anarchists-and that's not even counting the defense and the prosecution.
All these pass in review during the jury-selection process, demonstrating how messy a proposition it is, meting out justice among men. When I was called up for jury duty, I found myself in a kind of improvisational theater performed between pillars of tradition. The facts of the case provided a rudimentary script: On a particular date, at a particular time, officers of the law arrested three men and one woman on charges of conspiring to distribute methamphetamines.
While insisting that no one, as yet, was assumed guilty, each side subtly shaded the case in its questions to prospective jurors. The prosecution took a straightforward, objective approach: Have you or anyone close to you ever been arrested on a drug-related charge? Have you or anyone close to you ever served as a highway patrolman? The questions posed by the defense probed our perceptions: Has a supposed friend ever given you a package and misrepresented what it was? Have you ever been lied to? Ever been unjustly accused?
The tantamount concern was this: "Would anything in your past or your makeup influence a fair and impartial judgment on the case?" By expressing a strong dislike of drugs and a qualified respect for police officers, I knocked myself out of consideration. But so did the fellow candidate who stated that people ought to be able to do drugs if they want to, and the man who expounded on his mistrust of cops with a theory that most of them were the skinny kids who couldn't beat up on bigger guys in school. There was a firm proponent of law and order among us, who stood up so many times to explain his positions that the judge finally said, "You can sit down, Mr. Jones; I can tell you for sure you are not going to be on this jury."
It became obvious that during this phase of due process, everybody was on trial except the defendants. The only woman among them took a proprietary interest-making notes, studying our faces, whispering to her attorney. "I've got her number," claimed Mr. Law-and-Order after the courtroom was cleared for deliberation. "She's guilty as sin. I'll bet that's the first time she's worn a dress in 20 years." I imagined Mr. Anti-Authoritarian across the hall, rolling his eyes and muttering about self-righteous bigots.
Behind the courtroom door, attorneys were debating our biases, finagling over which of us would give their case an edge. The final selection included those who appeared firm only in their commitment to hold no principle too firmly.
The justice system gets a lot of well-deserved criticism, but-from what I've read and observed-most jurors approach their work with a genuine desire to do right. But true justice is beyond us, with our clashing wills, histories, prejudices, and notions of rightness. In the stern past, society aimed for adequate punishment of criminals, often at the expense of mercy; now we strive for fairness, and slight justice.
Impartiality is the human means for reaching a balance of justice and mercy; to be considered "impartial" is the highest praise for an earthly judge, the indispensable standard of a dream jury. But the greatest Judge is anything but. He is totally, unalterably swayed toward righteousness. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?" Abraham pleaded, while presenting a case for his kinsman Lot. Indeed He must, He will do what is just, and His justice is so consuming it blasts our pale, shriveled notions of "fairness." It blasts us, too: the moralist and the libertine, the self-righteous and the self-satisfied. Only by faith can we discern, nailed to that standard, the figure of the Son of Man. The perfect balance, at last.
Ultimately, God will not save the honorable court. It will pass away, like all human institutions. What will remain is God's standard, inseparably joined to God's sacrifice-and those who look only to that.