Presumption of Innocence is Social Justice
I have a friend in Papua New Guinea named Monica Pauluswho was accused of casting sorcery spells because a person died in her village. Her neighbors almost murdered her until she fled the region. Now she works to save other women falsely accused of sorcery who are targets of torture and killing. This is a window into the mob violence Western civilization crawled slowly out of through the establishment of principles like the presumption of innocence.
To millions of Americans, Brett Kavanaugh seems just as guilty as Monica seemed to her accusers. They sincerely believe, because the power groupthink has over the human mind, that Kavanaugh has all the signs of their suspected profile of an abuser of women: rich, white, elite Catholic school attendee, conservative, and nominated by Donald Trump. Millions of people have repeated this so often that it feels deeply true. Plus, there were accusations!
Monica’s accusers believed she fit the profile of a witch. Once the first accusation was levied, it was easy for others to believe it was true. From an outside vantage, charges of deadly sorcery seem absurd to third-party observers. But in Monica’s culture, belief in the power of sorcery to kill children and cause calamity has been universal for millenia. Though recent infections of Christianity have shaken it, sorcery is still a fact of life.
Personhood has been a hard-fought prize of Western civilization. The idea that an individual person has a right to their own life and liberty regardless of the passions of the collective is a relatively new and fragile gain for humanity. For most of history, the individual person accused by a crowd or community had no ability to escape its all-consuming wrath.
Humans without Christ-rooted protection for the individual quickly descend into very dangerous, unthinking crowds.
In the book of Genesis, Potiphar’s wife accused her Hebrew servant Joseph of trying to rape her when, in fact, she tried to seduce him. Joseph was thrown into prison for this false accusation without any need for corroboration except the cloak she had ripped from him.
“Believe Our Women!” was the slogan organizers used during Jim Crow against black men falsely accused of sexual violence. The “justice” crowds felt as sure about their scapegoats’ guilt as new partisan crowds do about their conservative targets. To mobs, a person’s wealth or poverty or race is sufficient reason to ignore their humanity and cast shame.
Even popular cinema reflects a healthy suspicion of collective accusations. In the film Edward Scissorhands, Edward was falsely accused by a woman of sexual assault after spurning her advances in a barber shop. Her tears led to an angry mob destroying the life of an innocent one.
To that mob, Edward’s differentiation from their shared cultural identity madehim a very guilty rapist.
That zeal is what possesses the minds of people who think that dressing out-of-fashion, having opposing political opinions, or bearing a “guilty” skin color makes one eternally suspect for non-corroborated accusations.
In 18 AD, if a woman claimed a high magistrate tried to sexually assault her when they were teens, she would be ignored, arrested, or executed without anything but derision in every society around the world. 2000 years of Jesus’s personhood revolution has made it so that such a claim against the highest of officials is rightfully treated with sacred care and gravity.
Victim-garbed political stunts and witch hunts are growing. But those weeds take root in the cultural soil cultivated by the Crucified One. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
We should take survivors of assault seriously and we do that by never using them as props for political power and by creating a culture that treats every human as sacred and worthy of supreme dignity.
We have much to learn from a survivor of witch hunts like Monica Paulus. We should protect the voice of the powerless in the face of violence. We should treat human beings as individual persons, not pawns of identity-exploiting optics. We should fight for the presumption of innocence, not just in the court of law but as the cultural norm we grant the accused in discourse. Finally, we should remember that politics is a thin laminate on the passions and fits of human crowds: the mobs we see in recent days are a revelation of the heart of the whole enterprise.
The State, a monopoly on violence against nonviolent persons in a given territory, is not to be trusted with centrally planning our lives. One court of nine sages deciding personal matters and vices for 300 million people just sounds like a really bad cultic idea. The Founders never intended the court to have such broad, sweeping ex nihilopowers of legal decree. Congress has the power to limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. Decentralizing power closer to home will go a long way to easing tensions between neighbors who feel powerless when their rivals win power over our current winner-takes-all D.C. Leviathan.
When one considers that the supposed social justice-friendly presidential choices Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presided over years of mass incarceration-produced sexual assaults, it is no wonder that many who voted for these individuals knowing they would continue these violent policies feel the need to project their own “Shame! Shame! Shame!” onto the backs of their political rivals.
Protecting the individual against collectivism will prevent tens of thousands of acts of sexual assault. If we as a country end prosperity-destroying fines and regulations and family-destroying prisons for nonviolent vices and economic choices, we can liberate millions of men and women from the sexual assault-factories of mass incarceration.
Monica Paulus’s example in Papua New Guinea offers a final clue as to how we should fight for justice in America. After facing gruesome near-death, she had opportunities to flee to a safe space. But she stayed.
To this day, she continues to work in villages in which witch burnings solve social tensions and grief. She actively intervenes in the midst of self-righteous crowds—convinced of their targets’ guilt—to save women from horrible deaths. She does not seek revenge against those who accuse her or those like her. She seeks to end collective violence and protect the personhood of all people, no matter who they are.
I’m with Monica.
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