Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Hanging Judge

An Arkie's Faith column from the November 2, 2016, issue of The Mena Star

Recently I spent the afternoon at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. The site includes the remains of two frontier forts and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The original fort was built in 1817 to maintain peace between the Osage and Cherokee Indians. As the frontier moved west, Fort Smith became an important supply point for the U.S. Army.

During the Civil War, Fort Smith was held first by the Confederacy but was seized by the Union army in 1863 and held by Federal troops for the duration of the war. After the Civil War, outlaws made their way into the Indian Nations bordering Fort Smith. They terrorized the Indians and overwhelmed the capabilities of area law enforcement. By 1875, Indian Territory had become known as a very bad place, where outlaws thought the laws did not apply to them and terror reigned.  On March 18, 1875, President Grant nominated Isaac Parker as judge for the Western District of Arkansas.

Judge Parker arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, 1875. During the summer of 1875, eighteen people came before Judge Parker charged with murder and 15 were convicted. Eight of them were sentenced to die on the gallows on September 3, 1875. However, only six would be executed as one was killed trying to escape and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his youth.
Parker's critics dubbed him the "Hanging Judge."  In 21 years on the bench, he sentenced more people to hang than any other judge in American history. In that time, he tried 344 capital crimes and sentenced 160 men to death by hanging, though only 79 of them had the sentence carried out. Judge Parker was hard on killers and rapists, but he was also a fair man. He occasionally granted retrials that sometimes resulted in acquittals or reduced sentences.

Judge Parker was against capital punishment. In an 1896 interview, he stated, “I favor the abolition of capital punishment, too. Provided that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our ‘halting crime.’” He added, “I have ever had the single aim of justice in view. ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.'” He went on to say, “I never hung a man. It is the law.”

Just like the U.S. has laws and penalties, so does the Kingdom of God. In 1 John 3:4 (GNT) the Bible says, “Whoever sins is guilty of breaking God's law, because sin is a breaking of the law.” And in Romans 3:23 (NKJV) we read, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All of us have broken God’s law. The Bible makes it clear that the penalty for breaking the law is death. Romans 6:23 (NKJV) tells us that, “the wages of sin is death.”

The sobering truth is that it takes only one sin for the death penalty to be imposed.  God warned Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they ever sinned, "you must not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17 (NIRV) The death penalty falls immediately on anyone who sins. This is bad news, because “all have sinned.” Does this make God a “hanging judge?”

The Bible makes it clear that God doesn’t want us to suffer the penalty for our sin. In 2 Peter 3:9 (NASB) we read, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” And we read in John 3:16 (KJV), probably the most famous verse in the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Gentle Reader, although it is true that the wages of sin is death, Romans 6:23(NKJV) gives us the rest of the story, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God isn’t the hanging judge. He sent his son to be our Savior. In Romans 10:9 (NLT) we read this beautiful promise, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” There is no reason to fear the hanging judge. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 (NKJV)

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