Crimes, What Crimes?

Dusan Tadic, a cafe owner and part-time policeman, sat uneasily in a blue chair draped with a United Nations emblem. He was charged with the murder, rape, and torture of Bosnian Muslims as part of a campaign of "ethnic cleansing." He has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be tried for war crimes since the end of World War II. But Tadic isn't the only one who should be uneasy. His case raises an awkward question for the modern world: Is law--especially international law--possible in a world that rejects the idea of absolute truth? In a delightful bit of irony, the United Nations tribunal trying Tadic and his comrades was convened on the 50th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials--the same trials that made the term "crimes against humanity" part of our lexicon. Nuremberg set an important legal and moral precedent: that there exists a standard of decency legally binding on all nations, irrespective of culture, creed, or history. By charging Nazi leaders with "crimes against humanity," the United Nations implicitly rejected notions of moral and cultural relativism. Instead, we declared a universal moral standard--one that superseded political boundaries and national sovereignty. But today, 50 years later, do we still accept the idea of a universal standard binding all nations? What gives the international community the moral authority to sit in judgment on Dusan Tadic--or anyone else? The answer is that there no longer is any moral authority, because the leading nations of the world have rejected the basis for that authority--ultimately, the law of God. Without a basis in divine law, human law is only a matter of opinion, imposed by force. The late legal scholar Arthur Leff put it this way: Without the ultimate warrant of divine revelation, all claims to authority are vulnerable to "the grand ‘sez who?'" Genocide is wrong, we say. To which Tadic and his ilk respond, "Sez who?" Massacring civilians is wrong, we say. Sez who? If it's merely my opinion versus yours, claims to international justice are really nothing more than a power play. This is a vivid illustration of what Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson calls the "modernist impasse." The modern mind demands freedom from moral restraints for individuals, but then demands a strong moral code for society in order to justify punishing barbarians like Tadic. But that conjuring trick just won't work. You can't deny a transcendent moral order when it's inconvenient, and then try to pull one out of a hat when you do need one. And yet, the modernist impasse provides Christians with a wonderfully effective apologetic. When people tell us they're horrified by the bloodbath in Bosnia, we can explain that they must face an uncomfortable fact: Condemning the bloodbath requires us to submit to an objective moral standard--a standard that judges our own lives as well. We must acknowledge that our own moral failings are just as much a violation of a transcendent order as the barbarities we abhor--and that we are just as much in need of divine mercy and forgiveness.


Chuck Colson


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