Shauna Jennings will never forget June 16, 2013. It was supposed to be a happy celebration, the day of her son’s graduation party. But when they came upon an accident on their way, her husband—a pastor and a good man to the core—stopped to help a stranded driver and got struck by a speeding truck. He died at the scene, the sudden, tragic end to their 20-year marriage. Jennings was not alone in her grief; in all, four pedestrians were killed, and two others severely injured.
The person responsible—though “irresponsible” seems to be a more apt term in the case—is a name we know from headlines: Ethan Couch. At 16, he drove his daddy’s pickup at 70 miles per hour, his blood alcohol at three times the legal limit thanks to two cases of beer shoplifted from a local Wal Mart. He also tested positive for Valium.
From time to time, we read about such accidents in the news and lament how one person’s bad decisions and foolish actions gravely impact families and communities. The small solace for their victims is the hope for justice. But in this case, Ethan Couch’s defense uses the term the teen is now notoriously known for: affluenza.
Couch is supposedly the victim of his family’s own wealth—bailed out too many times, poorly parented, and unable to be held responsible for his actions. He expressed no remorse. The affluenza defense saved him from prison, and the Texas teen was sentenced to a decade of probation, a stint in rehab, and no drugs or alcohol.
Last month, 18-year-old Couch was accused of violating his probation by a Twitter user who posts a video of him playing beer pong. Officials issued a warrant for his arrest when he failed to show for a scheduled parole appointment. Couch and his mother, Tonya, threw a final party in the states then headed to Mexico. On December 28, the two are located in Puerto Vallarta, after ordering a Domino’s pizza. Currently, Tonya has been extradited to the US, but Ethan—with his blond hair and scraggly beard dyed black—remains in Mexico, awaiting a judge’s decision.
I thought back to Ethan Couch’s scenario, and the relatively mild penalty he faces, as my husband and I binge-watched the Netflix series Making a Murderer. This documentary follows a Wisconsin man who was exonerated from rape after spending 18 years in prison, only to end up convicted of murder within years after getting out. Steven Avery’s case contains enough unanswered questions to make viewers uneasy and to question whether justice has indeed been served. We want to live in the land of the fair trial, where no matter your race, sex, or socio-economic status—whether you’re a Wisconsin scrap yard worker or a rich kid from Fort Worth—you can be assured of the same constitutional rights.
But we see too many examples of how favoritism, bias, and privilege distort the system meant to secure our justice. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve watched Steven Avery’s trial, episode by episode; reviewed the news of Ethan Couch fleeing to Mexico; learned of more alleged victims of Bill Cosby; and followed updates of tragic police shootings. I mourn.
What is justice if you can buy your way out of its clutches? What is justice if it is conveniently granted to the powerful, the rich, the connected? What is justice if “affluenza” can be a defense strategy?
Our legal system is meant to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It presumes innocence. It grants counsel. It plays no favorites. All are equal in the sight of the law. Lately it feels like the system is failing us. It’s frustrating when it appears that money reigns over truth, sometimes carrying more weight than guilt or innocence. In certain cases, those with means can beat the system, while those without are beaten by it.
No wonder the Bible is replete with admonitions about justice and the importance of defending and helping the weak, marginalized, and victimized. Proverbs 22:22-23 reminds us: “Don’t rob the poor just because you can, or exploit the needy in court. For the Lord is their defender. He will ruin anyone who ruins them” (NLT).
Earlier in Proverbs 18:5 we read, “It is not right to acquit the guilty or deny justice to the innocent.” The guilty should not go free. The innocent must be given fairness.
It’s easy to point fingers at our justice system and its flaws. It takes more to become a part of the solution. It should anger us when justice is severed, not served. It should cause us to lean into the Lord’s Prayer, longing to see God’s will thriving on the streets of this kingdom in the same manner it blossoms in heaven. It should lead us to take up the cause of the least, the last, the lost. Jesus’ heart beats justice, and his followers must march to its inconvenient anthem.
Jesus reminds us in Matthew 6:5, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.” He blesses those who are part of the solution. He blesses those who stand up to any system that rewards power, money, or fame and exploits the powerless, poor, or unknown. James is clear about the evil of favoritism, particularly within the walls of the church. Affluence should not make us treat someone better, nor should poverty give us a dismissive heart:
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” (James 2:1-4, NLT)
Ethan Couch seems to have evaded any significant consequences for his egregious actions, and his case is just one example of the kind of injustices that unsettles us as Americans and as Christians. Still I know one thing: he cannot escape the eyes of the One who defends the widow and orphan, who cannot be bribed or coerced. I pray that Ethan will, in the quiet of his Mexican prison cell, stop running, stop partying, stop evading long enough to realize this. God’s justice will “roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24, NIV). I pray he humbles himself before our just God, who also beautifully offers grace to those who realize their need for him.