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Trial by Media

"Minimizing injustice in the social media age"

A woman gathers her courage and decides to use Twitter or Facebook to tell the story of when she was sexually assaulted as a teenager.  What response can she expect?

The current social environment means that she will probably be commended for being so brave.  Her message will be re-tweeted, her post will be shared.  She will get a large number of likes.  With this encouragement she decides to name the man who assaulted her.  Someone else then finds out where he is now and posts that information along with a picture of him.

What happens to him?  Most of us would think that whatever happens to him will be deserved—and probably more!  Let’s say he loses his job at the charity/non-profit where he works, then his wife confronts him and his children are deeply embarrassed and lose confidence in their dad.  The family breaks up.  Some men in these circumstances have committed suicide.  Does he still deserve it?  How does the woman who accused him feel?  She says he destroyed her confidence, will this rebuild it?

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
Is it ever possible that the woman could have a different reason for holding a grudge against this man?  Is there even a remote chance that he is innocent of the charges?  What does sexual assault mean?  It covers such a wide range of unwelcome and damaging behavior!  Most of that wide range of acts can be devastating to a woman, especially when she is young, innocent and unsure of what is really happening to her.   Some acts, at the other end of the spectrum, can even be innocent in intent but misinterpreted.

From my perspective, the vast majority of women who go public with a charge of sexual assault will be telling the truth.  That is because there is a great cost to going public and, sadly, little chance of the person assaulting her being convicted.  (More on that later.)  However, the recent high-profile charges against powerful men have made it  less difficult for women to make statements about sexual assault.  That is a good thing!

But it also opens the door a bit wider for spurious allegations.  Let’s say that over 95% of women who say that they were sexually assaulted are telling the truth; what do we say about the 5% where the men are innocent or there is mistaken identity?  When the allegation gets social media interest, and sometimes print or broadcast media, the accused is almost always assumed to be guilty.

ACQUITTED BUT STILL PUNISHED
Here in the UK, the reputations of several high-profile public figures have been unfairly destroyed by the media identifying and publicizing the name and photos of the accused.  After many months or years of investigations, the police or courts have dismissed the allegations as having no substance.  Usually though, the original allegations get a lot more media coverage than when the case is dropped.  In some cases, the accuser has been shown to be an attention-seeking or vindictive individual.  But we all tend to rush to judgment against the more powerful person.  In our Western cultures, most of us have a very strong, emotional bias for us to always believe the person who is the least powerful.  I think that is because, in a culture influenced by the Bible, we have a bias towards protecting the weak or powerless—and that is also a good thing.

However, God speaks to Moses in

Leviticus 19:15 and says, “Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful.  Always judge people fairly.”

JUSTICE DERIVED FROM THE BIBLE
The Bible is a primary source for our legal system and this passage is one of the more important ones.  It is the reason why, in classical art, Justice is always pictured as a female who is blind-folded.  She also has a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right hand.  It symbolizes the principle in Leviticus 19; she does not judge on the basis of whether people are more or less rich, more or less powerful, young or old, male or female or any other basis for identity.  She weighs the evidence and executes justice on that basis.

The very low rate of convictions in cases of rape or sexual assault is the result of another fundamental principle of justice.  Every person must be considered to be innocent until there is sufficient evidence to conclude that they are guilty. One person’s word against another is not enough.  There must be either witnesses or convincing evidence.

Sexual assault usually occurs when there are only two people present.  In addition, most of the recent high-profile allegations are about events that happened years ago, so there is no evidence and usually no witnesses.  Another foundational principle of  justice from scripture is

Deuteronomy 17:6, “You must not convict anyone of a crime on the testimony of only one witness.  The facts of the case must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ”

These are well-proven, essential principles of justice.  They are essential to Western democracies with law and order and they come from Biblical Christian influence over hundreds of years.   We ignore them at our peril, even though social media tempts us to pass judgment without witnesses or evidence, but because we want to believe the less-powerful against the more powerful.  Whatever the reason for the rush to judgment via social media, it has become a scourge in our society.  I am not sure what we will do about it, but we will have to eventually do something.

BETTER PERSONAL RESPONSES
In the meantime, we can hold ourselves accountable to the proven principles of justice.  When we read accusations or allegations online or in the more traditional media, we can remind ourselves that we don’t know what really happened but we can hope that a fair process can be played out so the guilty are found guilty and the innocent are not punished.

STILL FRUSTRATED?

You may have read this article thus far and found it quite frustrating because these principles of justice are so likely to allow many guilty people to go free.  But that is not actually true.  Our courts and other legal processes are far from perfect, but are not the final judges.  King Solomon understood that well and when he dedicated the Temple.  He and his people had labored to build it over the previous seven years. When the day of dedication came, he prayed,

“If someone wrongs an innocent person and is required to take an oath of innocence in front of your altar in this Temple, then hear from heaven and judge between your servants—the accuser and the accused.  Punish the guilty as they deserve.  Acquit the innocent because of their innocence.”  1 Kings 8:31.

JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED
If a crime has been committed and there is no evidence and no credible witnesses, and the accused lies under oath, that is not the end of it.  God sees and He is the final Judge.  Remember, though, that His justice is sure even though it is not always immediate. 

Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 says;  “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.  But even though a person sins a hundred times and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off.  The wicked will not prosper…

The ultimate Judge will punish the wicked.  On the other hand, God is on the side of those who suffer and he promises that He can make

“…everything work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28.

When seen in the light of God’s character and His promises, we needn’t become angry, bitter and judgmental.  We can actively trust Him, knowing that He sees.  We needn’t  rush to judgment with the angry herds on social media, or believe all that we see, hear or read in traditional media.

Thank God that He is the all-knowing, merciful and final Judge!

Lynn Green.

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