What does a Christian do when confronted with injustice in our “go along, get along” society?

As he launched his mid-eighteenth-century crusade against the slave trade, William Wilberforce received a powerful letter from John Wesley. “Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be an Athanasius, contra mundum, I see not how you can go on,” Wesley wrote. But Wilberforce did go on—to a 20-year battle against the entrenched forces of oppression. And the key to his eventual victory was his determination to stand contra mundum—against the world.

Our evangelical heritage is replete with dictums about being “different,” “set apart,” even “a peculiar people.” It is an article of conservative Christian faith. But what do we really mean by it?

Many, I suspect, believe that their against-the-world bit means contributing to a moralistic crusade, circulating petitions against TV smut, or obeying cultural legalisms. Those things may be noble and virtuous, but they are not the stuff of which Wesley was speaking.

Modern examples are hard to find. While the church and the world ought to be strange bedfellows, the fact of our times is that they seem increasingly comfortable with one another. Familiarity has bred not contempt, but an intimate embrace. All our murmurings about resisting the world are meaningless because most of the time we do not even see the injustice and inhumanity that so grossly offend a holy God.

When we do see injustice, we tend to look the other way. Taking a stand is an uncomfortable business. It can be costly, too, as two judges—one in Indiana, the other in New Mexico—recently discovered when they saw fundamental issues of justice being sacrificed for public expediency.

The Indiana case is particularly fascinating. There Judge William Bontrager confronted the system—and narrowly escaped being sent to prison himself.

It was September of 1977 when Harry Palmer, a young Vietnam veteran, was charged with first-degree burglary, an offense that carried a mandatory sentence of from 10 to 20 years. The Indiana legislature had already acknowledged the harshness of the law and passed a new code that would allow judges to suspend such sentences. But the new ruling was not to take effect until October 1–18 days after Palmer’s arrest.

Palmer accepted Christ while in the county jail awaiting trial. He confessed to his crime, pleaded guilty, and appeared before Judge Bontrager for sentencing.

Bontrager reviewed Palmer’s case carefully. He declared the mandatory law unconstitutional, and instead gave Palmer one year in prison and ordered him on his release to pay restitution to his victims and provide community service.

Article continues below

Palmer served his year, a model prisoner, came home to his wife and two children, and began making restitution. Nine months later, his victims were well pleased with his work and the community saw a changed man. The case seemed closed, a successful model of justice and viable rehabilitation.

Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Acting on the prosecutor’s appeal, they said Judge Bontrager had erred: the statute was not unconstitutional, and he could not apply the new code to Palmer—the arrest was 18 days too early for that.

The court ordered Bontrager to reimpose Palmer’s 10-to-20-year sentence. The young judge was shocked—it would be unconscionable to put Palmer back behind bars. He had paid his debts to both society and his victims. Sending him to the penitentiary for another nine years could not possibly be considered justice. It would merely placate the public’s passion for punishment—the unreasonable kind that leads to harsh and arbitrary laws like Indiana’s.

Bontrager, who only a year earlier had himself experienced a powerful conversion, saw the issue in spiritual terms. He had recently read the Old Testament prophets and was excited about his discovery of God’s passion for justice. He knew he simply could not turn and look the other way. “Mandatory sentences destroy the application of individual justice. Christ cared for the individual,” he told a press conference. “So must we.”

But the inexorable process of the system ground on. Never a man to avoid controversy, Bontrager stood his ground, attempted new hearings and delays for Palmer, and eventually stood aside, letting another judge take over the case. Bontrager was consequently found in contempt of court, fined, and sentenced to prison. However, the court—ironically in view of the case’s history—suspended his sentence.

Palmer was taken from his family and slammed into prison. Today he sits in Westville Correctional Center with eight years left to serve. He is again a model prisoner, a leader in the Prison Fellowship. His petition for clemency, his only hope for release, has been gathering dust on the governor’s desk for almost a year. (Letters to Indiana Governor Robert Orr, State Capitol, Indianapolis, Ind. 46204, can help.)

The technical application of one law was upheld, but was justice served? Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s observation seems apt: “A society without any objective scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.”

Article continues below

It takes a clear eye to discern when legality and justice are in conflict. Judge Bontrager had no illusions about the choice before him. “It just wasn’t right,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t obey the court and serve my God. They were in conflict. I had to take my stand.”

In new mexico, Judge Gene Franchini also found himself pressed by the law to administer injustice. The crime he was dealing with carried a mandatory sentence, but Judge Franchini could not in good conscience put a first offender in New Mexico’s state penitentiary, site of a bloody riot in 1980.

Declaring the mandatory sentencing law unconstitutional, he placed the defendant on two years’ probation. But his ruling was appealed, and the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered Franchini to impose the original sentence.

He could not violate his oath of office, Judge Franchini said, nor could he be “a party to this insanity and injustice.” So the judge resigned.

William Bontrager and Gene Franchini are not necessarily modern-day Wilberforces. They are ordinary people like you and me. But they speak to an important issue: What does the Christian do when confronted with injustice in our “go along, get along” society—a society in which conformity is the code of the factory and where individuality gets tossed onto the reject heap?

Judges Bontrager and Franchini have given us the answer. When justice is stamped out of an iron press and people are processed on a giant conveyor belt, the only response from the Christian is to break the mold. “Do not be conformed to this world,” is how the apostle Paul put it in his letter to a handful of believers gathered in the capital city of the world’s mightiest empire 19 centuries ago.

In human terms, the odds against the Roman Christians were overwhelming. And so might they be against us if we stand against personal injustice in our massive twentieth-century technocracy. But still we must stand firm, knowing that our power to do so comes from the One who transforms from within.

For Judge Bontrager, the struggle was not finished with his $500 fine and suspended sentence. Proceedings were begun to remove him from the judiciary. Bontrager discovered that state politicians, leery of his lonely stance, were unwilling to provide funds for additions to his circuit; juvenile cases would be penalized. Also, Palmer’s chances for release would be damaged as long as the judge remained the center of controversy. So Bontrager resigned his judgeship.

Article continues below

Now he has opened a law office in his home town of Elkhart, Indiana. And one of his first nonofficial acts was to go to prison to visit Palmer.

The story may just end there—a classic Greek tragedy in middle America. An arbitrary technicality sends a man back to prison to be punished a second time for the same crime. The judge who wants only to do justice is stripped of the office he has worked for all his life. And the political leaders who might remedy the situation are unable or unwilling to act. Lady Justice, blindfolded to avoid partiality, is sometimes just plain blind.

But perhaps the story will not end there. The Indiana state capital is seeing the flickerings of reform. Christian legislators have been working on bills to end the harsh abuse of mandatory sentencing. And so, perhaps this one man standing contra mundum will fan a flame that will not only reform, but also awaken the church to its biblical call to stand against injustice.

Maybe another chapter will be written yet.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.