Justice and efficiency

The Palm Sunday gospel reading was the Luke passion, and it occurred to me how efficient they were.

I’m an American, so I’m insulated. I admit this. My middle-class American reality consists of things like a high speed internet connection and wall-to-wall carpeting. I take for granted that when someone is arrested, he’s told the charges against him, that those charges actually exist in the code of law, and that there’s a possibility he committed those actions. That’s why reading things such as the time of Father Walter Ciszek in Soviet Russia leaves me startled: why the sham of a legal process? Why not just do your deportation/imprisonment/execution and not look for an excuse?

Well, the Romans did pretty much that. In the Luke passion, the Sanhedrin wakes up bright and early on Good Friday morning. They bring Jesus out of the holding cell and proceed to have not one but three trials by nine o’clock in the morning. Jesus is tried first by them, then by Pilate, then Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, and after questioning him, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate.

Can you imagine that same scenario in modern America? First, Jesus would have been read his Miranda rights. He’d have been held overnight before being brought before a judge who would do the initial arraignment and then decide whether a trial would begin. By the time the Romans had gotten his death sentence, Jesus would only have been consulting with his court-appointed attorney. A trial date would have been set for months in the future, and then there would have been appeals, motions to change jurisdiction, and in the end the prosecution’s case would have fallen apart because one of the key witnesses had hanged himself.

(Ah, but we already talked about why Judas didn’t testify against Jesus.)

Instead, it’s eight o’clock in the morning and Pilate is sitting out there with his Starbucks and his croissant and saying, “Okay, so tell me what’s your deal,” and then thinking, “Ah, Galilee. I’ll send this guy to Herod and go finish my latte.” An hour later, Jesus is back, and the caffeine has hit, and Pilate thinks, “Why drag this out? I mean, it’s already been an hour!”

At any rate, I find it bizarre to say the least that Pilate decides Jesus committed no capital crime, and therefore has him flogged. It’s as if the Romans figured, “Well, we tried you, and you’re innocent, but we’re sure you must have done something. We kind of have to beat you now.” Or as Wendy once quipped, “‘What’s this ticket for, officer?’ ‘That’s for nothing. Do something and see what happens.'”

I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to take away from that reading. But given the inefficiency of the legal system here, I found myself surprised by how quickly humans can muster their resources when we’re doing the wrong thing.


  1. Ivy

    You do realize this is yet another exaggeration of biblical proportions? This would have been Rome’s classic period (around 250 BCE to 300 CE).

    Traditionally, a criminal case would go before a magistrate, agreed to by both sides, who would decide if the case could proceed. An arraignment basically. This is where we get that procedure from. If it were allowed to go forward, a judex (judge or panel of 6 judges, depending on the case) with knowledge of the subject area would be selected, again by mutual agreement.

    The judges had to be mutually agreed upon, so to be certain they were impartial. The trick to getting both sides to agree was to have them both list judges they would accept. The first judge to hit both lists was selected. If no judge hit both lists, the last judge listed on the longest list was picked. This meant both sides made long lists in hopes of getting one of their picks and usually at least one judge showed up on each. In the case of a 6 judge panel, each side was allowed to pick 3 judges.

    Law was written and unwritten, with unwritten laws being generally understood (ie, if I know someone is fatally allergic to perfume and I douse myself in perfume before encountering them, I can be charged with a crime even though wearing perfume is not itself illegal). Double jeopardy was not a concern, so long as significant new evidence were introduced.

    The only reason someone would be flogged after being cleared of criminal charges is if their conduct showed a profound contempt for the court.