Stanley Tookie Williams is dead. The repentant founder of the Crips was put to death this morning by lethal injection at San Quentin prison. Besides the obvious and continuous interest in capital punishment, Williams' death is being framed by many media sources as a story revolving around the question of redemption.
To quote one of his supporters: "He showed me clearly what would come from becoming a gangbanger -- a life in jail, or worse. Now they're killing him, even though he turned his life around in prison and reformed. Isn't that what prison is supposed to do?'' Turns out Williams repented, not of the murders (which he never admitted to), but of his involvement with and support of gangs. In jail, he wrote children's books against violence and probably turned some away from that life by his writings. Well and good.
But the idea that capital punishment has anything to do with redemption shows how desperately we misunderstand the role of government. Two thoughts spring to mind:
1. It has never been the purpose of government to remediate people. While changing people's hearts toward crime may occur and while the watching public may learn from "striking a scoffer" (Pro. 19:25), these are not the goals. Why? Because the power to change men lies not with men. Government is set in place by the Living God in order to secure justice and peace; it is when justice and peace exist by the power of the government's sword (Rom. 13:4) that the gospel work of changing men and women can be done without roadblocks.
So the government's purpose is justice, to set wrong things right, to provide redress for the widowed and dispossessed. It was not the job of the penal system to change Stanley Williams'; their work was to provide justice to the family of the murdered and to the God in whose image the murdered were created.
2. But...man's innate tendency to look to something or someone other than Christ to be the redeemer is more evident today than yesterday. We look to the government for redemption rather than justice; we look to the government for "welfare" (a horrible misuse of a wonderful word) rather than peace.
It is unbiblical and wrong for the government to act as redeemer or messiah of the people it serves. Even the person who could have pardoned him, Gov. Schwarzenegger, believed his dilemma was one of whether or not to believe Williams' redemption - not whether justice would be served. Think about that - the governor was setting himself up as the judge of men's hearts. This is the job of Christ the King, not Arnold the governor! So Gov. Schwarzenegger made the right decision, but ultimately by misguided reasoning.
Likewise, it is just as wrong for us to look to government - or any human institution - to give us what only Christ can. Not only will we be sorely disappointed when the best, most efficient government cannot reign in the evil of men's hearts, we do great dishonor to Christ when we make helpful institutions into idols.