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Our daily routines and quiet reverie during the beginning of the Advent season were suddenly shattered as our nation once again experienced a deadly school shooting.

Oxford High School, located in an upscale Michigan community approximately 30-miles north of Detroit, was the scene of this most recent horrific shooting. Our emotions no doubt range from sadness to rage as we learn about the four teenagers whose young lives were ended so violently. Many of their classmates were scarred by being eyewitnesses to the horrors of the shootings.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald was quick to announce that she would put 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley on trial as an adult. She charged him with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of “terrorism causing death.” She further stated that she would seek the maximum sentence of life-imprisonment without parole.

This tragic event raises a question of what is fair when seeking justice? Is there a difference between justice and revenge? The terms justice and revenge are commonly used, but the objective of each is very different.

Revenge is generally personal, emotional, retaliatory, and vindictive. It usually does not bring closure to the matter, which often festers because revenge never satisfies. Justice is concerned with fairness according to the law, and it needs to be impersonal. Justice is intended to be impartial and objective, aiming to bring closure to the matter.

Would life-imprisonment for Ethan Crumbley without any opportunity for parole be achieving justice or revenge?

Robert Culver in his book Toward a Biblical View of Civil Government states, “A Christian view of civil government must always steadily and consistently hold to the fact that human society is a society of fallen beings, under the just judgment of God. The perfection of society cannot be either promised or attained, and it is not the purpose of civil government to do so.” With that in mind, the fundamental responsibility of government working through the judicial system is to seek justice and not revenge.

There is a fascinating story found in the book of Numbers, chapters 13 and 14. The twelve spies (one from each tribe of Israel) returned from their expedition of Canaan providing strongly divided reports. Ten spies focused on the strong fortifications of the foreign cities, the powerful stature of many among the population. “We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (13:33).

Moses and Aaron now faced a full-scale revolt. Many wanted to select another leader to take them back to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb were the only spies who remained steadfast. They stated unambiguously, “If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey” (14:8).

After Moses interceded on behalf of the people, he stated the following: “Then the LORD said, ‘I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly as I live and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness . . .shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers . . . and of all of your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell except for Caleb . . . and Joshua. . . You shall bear your iniquity for forty years’” (Numbers 14).

For many years I have been struck by the fact that those who were nineteen years of age or younger were not given this punishment. Are we to assume that there were no teens among the rebels? Are we to assume that teens who heard their parents and neighbors grumble did not participate in the rebellion? I think there were many teens among the rebels, but God granted them grace.

Primary culpability for the Oxford High School homicides certainly lies with Ethan Crumbley. However, there are other culpable parties as well. I would suggest that the parents bear some culpability for having purchased a semi-automatic pistol without setting firm parameters for when it could be used and where it would be stored. I would suggest that the gun culture of our American society bears some culpability along with a too widely held attitude that says, “I have a right to carry my own firearm, anywhere I want to.”

In recent years a considerable amount of research has occurred regarding adolescent maturity and the brain. The prefrontal cortex which coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and supervises behavior, goal-setting, and response inhibitions does not fully develop until well into the 20s, particularly for males.

Returning to the narrative of the Hebrew people rebelling, God allowed those young people under the age of twenty to be exempt from the punishment that was given to those who were older. Should this also apply to Ethan Crumbley? What benefit is there to either him or society at large for him to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life? Would not a moderate sentence of perhaps 25 to 30 years be more appropriate? Would not justice be accomplished with such a sentence?

Harold Gazan

Harold Gazan is a retired social worker who had a 35-year career with the State of Michigan. He held deputy-level positions with the Michigan Department of Social Services. He is a graduate of Hope College, and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan. Harold and his wife have two adult children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandsons. They live in Holland, Michigan.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You make a good point, even without the scriptural example. I think I’m with you. On the other hand, it does feel like one kind of justice for the killer of teenagers to pay with his teenage life. It’s a primitive justice, a chthonic justice, pre-Christian perhaps, one I’m glad we’re beyond, but one still very attractive and compelling in the world, so that people would see it as justice not revenge to balance the scales. It’s deep in our culture to make a scapegoat pay for problems we can’t solve ourselves. But I agree, that to try the killer as an adult, and give him life without parole unfairly makes him a symbol, a scapegoat, a further injustice in the name of justice. The late Desmond Tutu showed us something different. As did St. Stephen, whose day was yesterday. Whether the world itself can imagine this, apart from the gospel, is another thing.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Exactly! Justice, tempered with mercy and a chance for forgiveness, maturity, and change. What a treat to hear your voice and see your face on the pages of The Twelve!

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    How did we get to the point of automatically saying a child is an adult because of their actions? Are horrible crimes equated with maturity? Or is it immaturity or illness?
    As I make my way through Michaeil J Sandel’s, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, I’m looking for some better answers, or at least a glimmer of hope.

  • James Schippers says:

    Thank you Harold for your inspirational thought provoking article. You raise good thoughts & questions. I have no special insightful answers. Reading the thoughts expressed does bring me to my knees with hands raised in praise and thanksgiving to God my Lord & Savior for HIS love & forgiveness to me

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