The Hard Cases PDF Print E-mail

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Atkinson

There is a terrible scene in the movie Rob Roy where Rob Roy MacGregor’s farm is destroyed by his enemies. Roy’s wife is raped by the chief villain of the story, Archibald Cunningham, played creepily by the actor Tim Roth. Later in the story Roy and his hardcaseswife are reunited. She tells him with tears that she is pregnant but, because of the rape, cannot be sure who the father is of the baby in her womb. Rob Roy takes a deep breath and declares, “It’s not the baby that needs killin’.” Watching the movie you know that shortly there will be a final encounter between the honorable Rob Roy and this wicked man, Cunningham. Justice will be done.

What does desire for true justice entail? I remember once hearing Princeton Seminary Professor Diogenes Allen say that the desire for justice is the wish that consequences of my sin would fall upon myself alone. The hope for true justice is that no one else would bear the adverse consequences of the wrong and sinful things I do. That is a sobering thought.

Of course, in this sense, true justice is impossible in this life. We cannot correct the past. We cannot unring the bell. The actions, the decisions, the sins of others, take their toll, in time and space, upon both perpetrator and victim. While perfect justice is an unattainable ideal, we make important distinctions between the guilty and the innocent. To approximate justice in this life, we make clear distinction between ones who deserve punishment and those who do not. “It’s not the baby that needs killin’,” is a right, wise, and just observation. Though the baby’s existence may be the result of wrong (and we do not know for certain if it is), the baby itself is guilty of no wrong. This truth must be kept clearly in mind. We do not kill the innocent in order to punish the guilty. To kill the baby is to compound the crime. The desire for justice understands that the baby is innocent.

There is a saying in the legal profession that “hard cases make bad law.” The same is true in the world of morality. In the debates about abortion, the “hard cases” – rape and incest – lead to misguided moral decision making. They are often lifted up as ‘valid’ circumstances when abortion is appropriate. There may be political reasons for such a calculation and compromise. Politics is the art of the possible and sometimes what is right and what is possible do not coincide. But there is no moral validity to the argument. The baby has done no wrong. True justice recognizes the baby’s innocence and seeks to protect the little one.

Mark Atkinson is the pastor of Fairview Presbyterian Church in Glenmoore, PA and serves on the Board of Presbyterians for Faith, Family, and Ministry



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