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More Thoughts on the Mueller Report

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Robert Mueller was in a quandary. On the one hand, qualified legal opinion prevented him from prosecuting a sitting President for criminal acts. On the other hand, his investigation had uncovered compelling and substantial evidence that the President had sought to obstruct justice and tamper with witnesses in multiple federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Even determining that a crime had been committed could potentially weaken a future case against the President because it could be argued that the President was unfairly slandered when there was no official venue for him to clear his name or defend his integrity. Mueller therefore did the only thing he could do. He reported the facts and evidence in his investigation into obstruction of justice by the President without drawing a conclusion about whether his actions constitute a crime.

Mueller offers four reasons for conducting a thorough investigation without prosecuting the President or even determining whether he committed crimes.

  1. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Justice Department issued an opinion that a sitting President could not be prosecuted because it would undermine his ability to fulfill the duties of his office. Since Mueller’s investigation was for the Department of Justice, he chose to abide by that opinion. The Constitutional duty of determining whether the President committed crimes and prosecuting them falls on the Congress, with the House of Representatives bringing articles of impeachment and the Senate acting as a judicial body for the trial.
  2. The OLC’s opinion still permits an investigation, and Mueller had broad authority under the Department of Justice to pursue his investigation wherever the evidence might lead. Since the OLC’s opinion applies only to a sitting President, charges may still be brought once he is no longer in office. A thorough and comprehensive investigation now preserves the evidence for later prosecution. This gives new meaning to Trump’s reiterated wishes that he might be President for life.
  3. Since no charges could be brought, it would have been unfair to determine that the President had committed a crime. Under normal circumstances, prosecution and public trial provides an opportunity for the person accused of a crime to explain their actions and present exculpatory evidence. The courts have held, for example, that naming persons in an indictment without also charging them violates their right to clear their name in a public trial.
  4. Despite being unable to bring charges or determine that a crime was committed, the investigation was unable to find that the President did not commit obstruction of justice. If they had, they would have said so. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The facts and evidence presented in volume 2 of the report show that the President repeatedly and consistently sought to interfere both in the FBI’s investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election and in the special counsel’s subsequent investigation. He sought to influence FBI Director Comey’s conduct of the FBI’s investigation, eventually firing him because he could not obtain the result he sought. He also sought to curtail the Mueller investigation and urged witnesses to lie to investigators. The evidence is substantial and well-documented. The President even made public statements about his intentions.

The case against the President is serious and substantial. Charges stemming from it—if they are ever filed—would constitute federal felonies. Some members of Trump’s campaign and administration have already been charged with similar crimes and pleaded guilty or been convicted. Some are currently serving terms in federal prison. The question still to be decided is, “What are we, the People, going to do about the President?”

For many Trump supporters, of course, none of this makes any difference. They have already doubled-down on their support for him so many times that they are now blind and deaf to any fresh allegations of crimes he may have committed. It is all a conspiracy by the deep state. Even a cursory examination of Robert Mueller and his investigation, however, shows that such ideas are utterly unfounded. It would be hard to find a man of greater integrity in the conduct of his office. His investigation was thorough, painstaking, and by the book. If you have any doubts, read his report. Of all men living, only Trump could slander Mueller and be widely believed.

For the rest of us, our elected representatives in Congress have been handed a detailed case for impeachment. The only impediment to starting impeachment proceedings is political. Democrats have both a hope and a fear. They hope to win enough Senate seats for a majority in the Senate. They fear that impeachment proceedings could sway the election next November in Republicans’ favor. They might also be holding impeachment in reserve in case Trump wins a second term. If he does not win, he very probably will face charges in federal court. There will be no opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel to hold back federal attorneys from prosecuting him.

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Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

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This is something that is really hard for me to write about because it cuts so close to my own natural proclivities. My wife and my children know that I speak the truth when I confess that I am defensive. I easily bristle at slights, often even when they are meant as jokes or completely unintended. I know rationally that such defensiveness betrays insecurity and an ego that is easily wounded, that my guard goes up because I do not want to appear vulnerable, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to remain open and affable when berated or insulted. Nevertheless, I continue to strive against defensiveness.

Jesus was not defensive. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone more mild-mannered while facing his harshest critics. After Jesus accused his detractors of being children of the devil—harboring in their hearts the same antipathy toward life and truth that characterizes the devil—they said to him:

“Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

John 8:48

To understand the full impact of this insult, we need to put it in more contemporary terms. In calling Jesus a Samaritan, the Jewish leaders were questioning the legitimacy of his birth as well as his racial purity, something they regarded as very important. In effect, they were calling his mother a whore and claiming that he was not really Jewish. “You are a half-breed bastard,” we might say today.

Likewise, in calling him demon-possessed, the Jews were questioning his mental stability. They were calling him crazy, or, more politely, mentally ill.

Jesus carefully frames his response in a way that patiently answers their charges while preventing them saying he is self-aggrandizing. It is a very delicate matter to claim to be God’s unique son in a culture where such claims are regarded as blasphemous! Jesus defends himself without being defensive. Later, of course, he faces much worse: insults, blows, torture, and an ignominious death. He says nothing in his own defense but suffers cruelly and unjustly for a purpose greater than his own life.

His followers quickly gain a reputation for the same kind of attitude. When they are beaten, they rejoice (Acts 5:41). When they are put to death, they pray and forgive (Acts 7:59-60). When they are imprisoned, they sing (Acts 16:25).

It is in this context of a willingness to suffer rather than fight back that we must understand Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:1-11. The believers in Corinth were taking disputes to the civil courts instead of resolving them among themselves. In our litigious and rights-obsessed culture, this seems only fitting. Why shouldn’t we go to court and involve lawyers to resolve disputes? That’s how we avoid bruises and bloodshed. But Paul has no quarrel with the civilizing influence of the courts. His concern is for the unity of the church, and what he finds is a willingness to assert individual rights against that unity. The unity of believers is so paramount that it takes precedence over our own sense of injury. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

This same impulse to privilege personal justice over collective unity has done great harm throughout Christendom. Where I see it most in the online world is in comments from Christians defending some supposed biblical point of view with all the condemnation and vituperation they can think of. Whose purposes does that kind of behavior serve? It is not loving toward the one with whom they disagree, nor is it attractive to those outside the faith. When we fight—for conflict is inevitable—let us do so with vigor but also with grace and love, as those who value the bonds of Christian intimacy above our own righteousness.

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Christmas death death penalty guilt law murder myth religion sin suffering violence

First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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