The Court of Last Resort

In his book In Contempt, Los Angeles prosecutor Christopher Darden summed up his disillusionment with the verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial in these words. "I never got a chance to cross-examine him [Simpson]. And I didn't want to anymore. I just wanted to talk to him, to make sure he knew that he hadn't fooled all of us and that his "Dream Team" hadn't fooled most Americans. I wanted to tell him that there was another court that would hear his case one day, with a Judge who could separately try racist cops and murderers. A court where everyone will have to account for his actions alone. A court where the only witnesses will be the eyewitnesses Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown." Mr. Darden's deep anguish over the outcome of the trial fills the pages of his book, and for those who saw the announcement of the final verdict, the two images of an "unshackled" Simpson and a crestfallen Darden told the bittersweet story. Nearly two years after the infamous headline "Juice Canned" and the surreal saga of the Bronco chase, the nation still looks at this episode as a defining moment. It may in fact be more. The "trial of the century" is a metaphor for the turbulent cultural waters through which we are now wading, and which reveal some deadly undercurrents that have put our country at risk.

I would like to underscore in this over-the-shoulder-look just some components of that unforgettable happening. We might well wonder, in hindsight, why we were even surprised at the verdict which was predictable from the opening moments. First and foremost, this entire episode convincingly illustrated and exposed the pathetic preoccupation we have with celebrities. Few cultural indicators betray the hollowness of our passions and pursuits more than the limitless propensity we have for elevating people to such dizzying heights. We seem unable to distinguish a skill that we admire from the reality that the skill does not describe the whole person. We idolize the person by personifying the skill. Whether one is a preacher or a pool player, we are imperiled if we forget that giftedness says absolutely nothing about integrity and character. Those qualities are determined by a different measurement.

But our celebrity-mad culture has duped itself into believing that performance and consumer demand define a person's essential worth. We are now of a cultural mindset that oozes adulation for the most arrogant and haughty spirits, and that even endows the shameful practices of some with an elitist aura.

Let us face the facts of this incriminating blindspot as it beset the trial itself. Spousal abuse is such an uncivilized and harsh reality of our times that it ought to have won our national attention long before the tragedy of Nicole Brown's living hell. Recently I received a call from a doctor who had tried to save the life of a twenty-year-old woman so brutally stabbed all over her body by an enraged husband that the staff in the emergency room could only describe her condition as a mangled body in a sea of blood. That, at the hands of one to whom she was wedded! But her body, beaten beyond recognition, made no headlines anywhere because she was nameless and faceless to the world. Recognizability has become a prerequisite to our interest. It took the dehumanization of a celebrity to make the horror real to the national consciousness.

Even more terrifying is that the criminality of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson became less prosecutable because the accused was an icon, a member of the Hall of Fame, and the State had to work furiously to offset the awe in which he was held by the jurors. So immanent was this danger that his trophies and pictures had to be draped to keep the starry-eyed from swooning before this hero and losing sight of the horrific crime. Should we really have been surprised at this blatant fanaticism? We had already seen diseases brought on by boldfaced promiscuity made respectable because celebrities had contracted them, and have recently witnessed a world heavyweight boxing champion who still commands millions of dollars for his public show in the ring, having knocked out of the spectators' memories the shame of his rapacious act in private.

Until we learn to differentiate between the skill that attracts us and the person we may admire, we will allow the skilled to redefine personhood and live with the danger of being manipulated by the skillful. Can any culture withstand such deviance? Greatness and success are vacuous terms until put into context.

The second component that became evident was the distorting and deforming capacity of the media to make the ghastly show-worthy. Such horrendous events become to the media what hormonal treatments can be to the infertile. There is ever the possibility of multiple births, only in the media the litter becomes a nursery full of experts. Suddenly, people previously unknown manufacture personalities to warm an otherwise cold medium. Their blow-by-blow descriptions become not only a side-show, but the stepping-stone to their own shows--adding to the list of our constantly expanding hall of fame. The power of a camera is incalculable. After the demise of the ill-fated PTL, its former president Richard Dortch said, "A television camera can change a person quicker than anything else. Those who sit on the sidelines can notice the changes in people once they get in front of a camera. It turns good men into potentates."

Acclaim accorded by virtue of literary skills is very different from the popularity gained from facial recognition. It is most interesting that God forbade us from making an image or replication of Him because it would, in effect, both reduce God and exalt the means. How ironic that when we plasticize humans we end up elevating them and forgetting the manipulation of the means. Some realities are so sacred and private that the aestheticizing capacity of the medium will only profane that sacredness. The death of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman was brought about by murder. Murder, says Genesis 9:6, is an attack upon God's image. To make a showpiece of it in the name of making everybody aware of it runs the risk of losing sight of reality, not finding it. This is a dangerous way for a culture to deal with tragedy. Our thirst to privy to everything can violate someone else's legitimate need to not be invaded. This may be a terrible thing we do to people in walking into the privacy of their grief. The disorienting capacity of the lens can be more fatal than we think.

Malcolm Muggeridge tells of the time he was in Biafra and a prisoner was about to be executed. The firing squad was ordered: Ready. Aim... . Suddenly, a cameraman shouted, "Cut, my battery is dead." The officer ordered a halt to the execution until the battery was replaced. Muggeridge wondered out aloud as to wherein lay the greatest barbarism. He did not think posterity would point the finger at the executioners or the viewers. Rather, that it would "plump for the cameras." Our right to know assumes our right to know and see everything, and that we have the wisdom to respond appropriately. Both of those assumptions are false.

Third, where else could we have seen the human mind so brilliant in its ability to manipulate the system and destroy the judicial process by the genius combination of emotion and distraction? This is the hallmark of modern-day debating techniques. If an idea can be found with which to galvanize common anger, that anger can be wrested to advantage over the real issue being discussed. In this whole episode it is not O.J. Simpson that I fear. Society in large measure has responded with its displeasure at allowing him to return into life's mainstream, as if nothing had happened. No, I fear people like Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, and Robert Shapiro. There is very little in life so sinister as the intellect without a conscience, an individual who can argue his or her way out of any situation. "How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself... . Not by accident are Shakespeare's villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right reason orders and furthers the good."[Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences.]

Just think of this statement made by defense lawyer Robert Shapiro in an interview with Larry King. Asked if the Defense was in pursuit of the truth, Shapiro snapped "absolutely not." Following up on that unblushing admission, Larry King asked Mr. Shapiro what he personally thought of Mr. Simpson's guilt or innocence. He responded with an even more prepostrous comment, "It does not matter what I think." Imagine the tragedy! An educated man with high intelligence, in the face of two ghastly murders for which he was defending the accused says, "It does not matter what I think," and then explains, "What I believe is something that really is of no importance, and I will tell you why. That's a moral judgement. And I can't make moral judgements. I can make professional judgements."

Does Mr. Shapiro need to be told that the judgement he just made to be professional and not moral is itself a moral judgment? One must wonder whether such cruelty could pass off as an magnanimity if it were he who sat where the grieving parents sit, or if it were his own son or daughter that had been murdered. Evil does not come only in the garb of a masked murderer. In its most cunning and destructive form it comes as an idea dressed in sophisticated clothing. And nothing is more perverse than the idea that truth and morality in matters of murder do not matter.

G.K. Chesterton said it well. "For under the smooth legal surface of our society there are moving some very lawless things. We are always near the breaking-point when we care only for what is legal and nothing for what is lawful. Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules. There will be so many hard cases that everything will go soft."

We are fully aware of the stock response to these things, that these are courts of law and not of justice. That was a tact also tried at the Nuremberg trials. But have we forgotten that those who make the rulings are called "justices"? This irrationality is not new, however. The O. J. Simpson trial may have been branded the trial of the century, but in the trial that truly defined history the same issue was brought up. Only in that trial the Author of the Moral Law and the Judge of all the earth was being tried, and asked His accuser whether truth mattered to him or not. And there, too, the one bent on doing wrong went the cowardly and self-serving way of a lie to guard his profession. The "dream team" is in notorious company. Pontius Pilate is his name. Had Pilate paid attention to his wife's dream he would have saved himself the nightmare of having crucified the truth.

The final component in this tragic ordeal is that behind all the machinations was an irrepressible cry that death cannot be the end of life, if for no other reason than because in this world justice is so perverted. At the beginning of Darden's book the dedicatory page records the words, "Behold I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raise incorruptible, and we shall be changed." 1 Cor 15:51-52. At the end of the book, he turns to the twenty-third psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd... . Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no ill." And here the context is not that of this case as much as it is the last words his brother Michael Darden heard from the lips of his mother, as he lay dying from Aids. She stroked his forehead as he breathed his last breath, and whispered to him this best-known of all psalms. Michael had been reduced to a pathetic seventy pounds and in Christopher's words, "though only forty-two, looked eighty."

Heartbreak and grief in our personal lives probably speak more realistically to us than everything that goes on in front of the camera. Many involved in this trial had personal battles of their own going on in private. One was in a child custody battle. Another was accused of spousal abuse. One was battling alcoholism, and another, a weakened heart. In Darden's case, it was the death of his brother.

The bottom line of life is that each of us must come to the point of recognizing our finitude, whether we be on the screen or off. In that sense our courts can never be perfect. But thankfully and mercifully, there is a Court of Last Resort. And there, but for the grace of Christ each one of us would stand guilty. The accuser of the brethren is the father of all lies, but there he will come up against the most unconquerable reality, the Way the Truth and the Life. There we shall also realize that what we think of truth and falsehood does indeed matter. How gratifying to know that to life's realities and metaphors the Cross has the most profound answer to give. The law courts of the land in this heartbreaking case proved that we are a morally bankrupt people, and need to cry out to the only One who can set the balances straight.

O God of truth, whose living Word

Upholds whate'er hath breath

Look down on thy creation,

Lord Enslaved by sin and death.

Set up thy standard, Lord,

That we who claim a heavenly birth

May march with thee to smite the lies

That vex thy groaning earth.

We fight for truth? we fight for God?

Poor slaves of lies and sin!

He who would fight for thee on earth

Must first be true within.

Then, God of Truth for whom we long,

Thou who wilt hear our prayer,

Do thine own battle in our hearts,

And slay the falsehood there.

Yea, come; then tried as in the fire,

From every lie set free,

Thy perfect truth shall dwell in us,

And we shall live in thee.

Thomas Hughes

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