I’m not sure it’s technically possible to chortle via email, but a number of my friends and readers gave it a serious try over Mike Huckabee’s extension of clemency to a man who now, many years later, killed four police officers.
My reaction was that I wouldn’t criticize Huckabee over this unless more facts emerged suggesting that Huckabee’s action had been improperly motivated, or imprudent given the information available at the time. As I wrote in response to one email, “Absent any evidence of improper reasons (as in Huckabee’s other famous pardon) I don’t see any reason to hit him for it. You let people out, some do bad things. Goes with the territory.”
I haven’t seen all the documents, but as far as I can tell there were no improper reasons. Huckabee thought that a 16-year-old sentenced to 108 years for crime not involving a weapon had gotten sort of a tough break, and decided to give him a second chance. Maybe his prison disciplinary record was bad enough that it should have been a red flag, but that judgement was for the parole board to make. Huckabee, as governor, had perfectly adequate grounds for cutting back on the original sentence, and that’s what he did.
Later, when Clemmons had accumulated a much nastier record, various officials both in Arkansas and in Washington State made what seem to have been much less forgiveable miscues.
Huckabee as governor was an active and rather unselective user of the clemency power; by one count, Huckabee issued twice as many clemency grants as his three predecessors combined. His willingness to employ mercy reflected his Christianity – he’s a former pastor – in two ways, one (in my view) creditable to him, other not. The discreditable version is that he seemed to be over-influenced by his ministerial brethren, and too willing to listen to offenders who claimed to have found Jesus in prison (as Clemmons did).
The creditable version is that Huckabee, unlike many of his friends in the movement to politicize fundamentalist Protestantism, seems to have actually read the Bible. If every human being is the likeness and image of God, then keeping one of them caged up like an animal (or torturing one of them) is a kind of blasphemy.
As to forgiveness. R. Yeshua couldn’t have made himself any clearer (Matt. 18:21-35):
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
Of course, there’s a difference between forgiving someone who wronged you and forgiving someone who wronged someone else, and the public system of retribution for crime is part of what keeps civilization going.
But there’s also the incident of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11), which I would have thought to make capital punishment off-limits to anyone calling himself Christian. In that passage, Jesus uses argument rather than his personal authority; by contrast with other passages, he never says “Your sins are forgiven.” I would have thought that the logical force of “Let whoever among you is without sin cast the first stone” applied obviously to every judge, governor, and executioner. And does it apply with much less force to putting someone in prison for 108 years for a crime committed when he was 16?
In this regard, I think Christianity has something to teach secularism. People who commit crimes are human beings, not wild animals or defective machines, and the natural impulse to hit back needs to be restrained.
It’s ironic that Huckabee’s Christianity may get in the way of his Christianist political project, but it’s not an irony I especially treasure. I regard him as by far the most dangerous politician in America today; unlike, for example, Sarah Palin or Lou Dobbs, he might actually become President, and though he seems to be a more decent person than, e.g., Bush the Lesser or Dick Cheney, his ideas are frighteningly disconnected from reality. So if this flap indeed makes it impossible for Huckabee to be nominated for President, the country is the safer for it. But in my mental file it goes under “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” And I hate to think of all the people who will rot in prison because no governor wants to share the fate of a Dukakis or a Huckabee.