Chapter 1: How Can We Know the Authoritative Commands of Justice?

In State v. Ryan, 226 Neb. 59 (1987), the Supreme Court of Nebraska affirmed the conviction of Dennis Ryan for the second degree murder by torture of James Thimm.  At the time of the act, Dennis Ryan was fifteen years of age.  The evidence showed that he and others chained Thimm in a hog shed for an extended period of time before his death.  During that time Ryan and his accomplices repeatedly beat Thimm and probed his anus with a shovel handle.   The handle broke his bowels the day before his death.  Thimm’s tormentors shot off the fingers of his left hand, one at a time, they tried to skin a leg with a razor and pliers, they broke both of his legs, and they kicked him about the head.  They finally killed him by stomping on his chest.  These clearly were inhumane and unjust acts.

The facts of Ryan indicate that it was “faith” which brought them together, and it was their intention to protect that faith and to execute God’s commands that rationalized their actions.  Their faith was a product of an extreme dualistic belief which separated the spiritual aspects of life from the physical.  Understanding the authoritative commands of justice relates to the authoritative commands of faith.  Our faith may suggest terms of justice.  But neither faith nor notions of justice are clearly given; each is founded upon personal or corporate belief and conviction.

How Shall We Test Claims of Faith?

Andreas, Michael Ryan, father to Dennis, and James Thimm met after a meeting of people who were discussing ways to defend themselves in the event of a breakdown of law and order and a Soviet attack.  Shortly thereafter they met again at Ryan’s home, and they discussed the country’s problems and national events which they believed were contrary to the Bible.  They continued their association.

People who believe in revelation from the spiritual world “above,” must nonetheless look for material “signs” of the spiritual in the concrete processes of this life to comprehend or confirm those perceived messages.  For some it is some sacred writing, some simply ask for a sign (as Gideon in the Bible got dew on fleece), some seek revelations in dreams and some look to examples of their own experiences of those of others.  Without material manifestations there can be no effective communication with the spiritual world.  In December of 1982 or January of 1983 Michael Ryan and his brother-in-law said they could speak to God and that God would answer “yes” or “no.”  They would ask a question and one would press the right arm of the other, the material manifestation of the spiritual message, the sign.  If the arm was strong and resistent, it was “yes”, and if it was weak, the answer was “no.”  Andreas believed in the demonstrations.  During the summer of 1983 Ryan told Andreas he could ask God whether or not people were “in deep trouble with God, and he even went as far as to say that you were in a condition where you would burn in hell if you didn’t change. . . . ”  Ryan referred to God as “Yahweh.”  During that same period Andreas participated in various thefts because Ryan said God wanted them to do so.  The thefts were justified because they were in a spiritual war.

In August 1984 Michael Ryan told Andreas that God wanted Andreas to move to the Rulo farm where others were already living.  Upon Andreas’ arrival, Dennis Ryan received a rank of corporal.  He was eventually promoted to general.  Dennis Ryan was promoted over the others because he “had more faith in God than any of the rest of us did and that he did everything he was told without question or didn’t have any bad thoughts in his mind.”  Michael Ryan was then able to communicate with God through his mind, and God would tell him what rank each should receive.  Michael received the rank of King, and at times Dennis was called a prince.  Tim Haverkamp, another participant, was a high priest.

James Haverkamp testified that he had moved to the Rulo farm in June or July 1984.  Michael Ryan, who he believed could speak with God, told Haverkamp God wanted Haverkamp to move there.  Haverkamp’s own right arm was used as a means for Ryan to talk with God.  He came to believe that he was an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham.  He obtained that belief from different Bibles and Bible dictionaries.  He even came to believe that everyone who lived on the Rulo farm was an Israelite, that is, everyone except Luke Stice, a five year old child of the group, who he thought had been, but in the spring of 1985 Ryan said he was a mongrel.  The boy was punished, the numbers 666 were written on him in red ink, he was not allowed to wear clothes other than underpants for the last two months of his life, and he was also tortured to death.  Haverkamp did not object to the boy’s treatment because he believed that it was God’s will that the boy die, and that one who questions God’s will would burn in hell.

Rick Stice, father of Luke, owned the farm near Rulo where the Ryan family moved in the summer of 1984.  He believed that the group which gathered there had been chosen to lead the fight against evil in the approach of Armageddon.  He too believed in Michael Ryan’s power to speak with God.  Stice believed that Yahweh appointed him high priest, and that he even possessed the spirit of the Archangel Raphael.  But in February or March of 1985 Stice was demoted to the status of slave without explanation.  In March 1985 the group which had gathered at his farm began to torture Luke as it was directed by Yahweh, through Michael Ryan.  Stice even participated in that fatal abuse because he believed his own life and that of his other children were threatened, and also because of the threat of eternal damnation.  He kept the murder secret for fear of Yahweh.

Andreas testified in detail of Thimm’s death.  Thimm had been demoted to slave and lived separately from the rest of the group at Rulo because he was in “in big trouble with God and was going to burn in hell.”  Michael Ryan said he had bad thoughts.  Further, God told the group that Thimm had shot a wild turkey which had been intended to be used in a feast to celebrate the birth of a child to the group.  Beginning a month before Thimm’s death, he was chained at night on the porch to the trailer.  Thimm accepted this punishment as from God.  “Mike said that God had told him that he might run off, or just that God had said that that’s what was supposed to be done to James Thimm because he was having bad thoughts.”  During the day Thimm worked about the farm and joined in activities there.  Someone in the group told Thimm that if he did not straighten up, Yahweh would take his life.

Then in the middle of March Dennis Ryan shot Thimm through his left cheek, and the group of men fed him cayenne pepper to stop the bleeding.  Haverkamp than probed Thimm’s rectum with a shovel handle, upon directions from Yahweh, through Michael Ryan, that Thimm should feel pain because he had denied Yahweh.  Dennis Ryan, Michael Ryan, Timothy Haverkamp, James Haverkamp and David Andreas took turns in probing Thimm’s rectum with a shovel handel.  During the torture, the men placed some duct tape over Thimm’s mouth because he had groaned and asked Yahweh to forgive him.  Michael Ryan then found something bigger to use which Tim Haverkamp was using when Thimm’s intestine was burst.  Michael Ryan inserted still another object which then went in “real easy.”  Dennis and Tim Haverkamp then asked “if James Thimm’s bowels were busted,” and God responded that they were.  That night each of the five men gave Thimm fifteen lashes with a whip.

The next morning the men returned to the farrowing house.  They dragged James Thimm from side to side in the building with wires tied to Thimm’s wrists.  Thimm begged for forgiveness.  After another whipping the men went to eat lunch.  Michael Ryan said that God told him that Thimm was to be dead by 6:00 o’clock that night. They returned to the farrowing house, where God then instructed the group through Dennis’ arm to shoot Thimm’s fingers off.  Thimm lapsed into unconsciousness.  Each of the five administered another whipping of fifteen lashes, and then still another.  They tried to skin Thimm’s leg, but the pliers kept slipping.  God told them instead to break Thimm’s legs.  They stomped upon his chest, and by then he may have been dead.  They placed him in a hole in the ground, shot him in the head, and buried him.

James Haverkamp, one of the participants, testified at the trial of Dennis Ryan that he believed that he was doing the right thing because he believed Yahweh’s laws were supreme to all other laws.  John David Andreas, another participant, testified that at the time he thought that God would be pleased if they tortured Thimm; he believed he was doing the right thing in participating in Thimm’s murder.  Andreas also testified that at the time he believed that God would be pleased with their torture of Thimm, and that Thimm’s suffering in this life was insignificant compared to his afterlife.  He feared that Thimm would burn in hell.

The horrors at Rulo, generated and justified by a religious zeal for justice, are not so isolated.  Jim Jones commanded the mass murder and suicide at Jonestown upon “the orders of God.”  We saw the disaster which arose from the compound of the religious zealot, David Koresh.  We have witnessed the bombing in Oklahoma City, associated with a fundamentalist notion of restoring God-ordained supremacy.  Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was shot by a law student who believed he was acting under a higher law of God for his chosen people.  Muslim extremists hijacked three full airplanes and ran them into  the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in suicide attacks, taking many more lives.  Common to such suicide missions is the cry of “God is great.”  It continues with repeated suicide bombings in Iraq.  There is no lack of volunteers.  The are promised rewards in heaven of many virgins.

Religious fundamentalism has been strong among Christians in the United States, it continues strong in Israel, and acts associated with Muslim fundamentalism rock the world.  Each is driven by notions of authoritative commands for justice, each seeks to impose their notions of authoritative commands upon neighbors, and each represents an unwavering faith.  Each leads to a perversion of the very justice sought.  Jimmy Carter was asked by Trista Tippet on National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith why so much violence in the post Cold War era has a religious dimension.  He responded:

I think it’s because of fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is a characteristic of dominant males who, first of all, subjugate women and derogate women’s rights. Secondly, an aspect of their fundamentalism is that they assume that they have a rare or unique relationship with God Almighty, whatever god they define, and their beliefs, therefore, are ordained by God. And since their beliefs are God’s beliefs, they are infallible. They cannot make a mistake or acknowledge a mistake. Anyone who disagrees with them, by definition, is wrong because ‘the disagreement is with me and with God.’ And being wrong, you are inferior and, in extreme cases, you are considered to be subhuman. And so that’s where violence erupts and condemnation erupts and value of a human life within a person who disagrees with you has little or no value. And that’s where the violence comes out, and that’s where the unnecessary war comes out, and that’s where what we define as terrorism comes out.

By what standards do we judge the faith of the Rulo murderers and other extremist groups?   If one cannot test and justify one’s faith by reason, experience, and tradition, then that faith can be defended only by its dogmatic and forceful assertion.  If faith does not touch positively upon human conditions, then inhumanity is no barrier to faith’s practice and defense.

How can we achieve justice if its commands are supported by no more than a hollow claim of authority?  To what authority do we look for the “oughts” of life?  Let’s begin by examining some basic notions of justice.

Justice: Notions of “Ought”

Notions of justice are, at root, notions of “ought,” and of the squaring of what is with what ought to be.  They involve notions of authority, from which the commands of “ought” emanate, and to which violations of “ought” shall be addressed.  They involve notions of accountability.

We all have notions of what ought to be and what ought not to be.  We often apply “ought” to situations where we feel threatened, slighted or wronged by another.  This private view of “ought” is expressed in Samuel Butler’s line, “Justice is my being allowed to do whatever I like.  Injustice is whatever prevents my doing so.”  The early Seventeenth Century author, John Webster, decried this private view of justice, “A rape!  A rape! . . . Yes, you have ravished justice; forced her to do your pleasure.”

Some “oughts” are well-defined: they are written in statutes, regulations or other publications.  Because they can be positively determined, provided they are cloaked in authority, they are called positive law.  The sources of other “oughts” of life are not so easily determined.  They may derive from our notions of what is natural to us, is good for us, or operates in the natural order of the world.  Because they seem to be in the nature of things, they are called Natural Law.  In the West, Natural Law came to be associated with notions of a Creator who designed and created the world and who established rules for its operation.  Natural Law need not be so limited.

Let us more clearly define these two sources of law:

Positive law:

Positive law is the written authoritative law that carries with it the power to coerce conformity to its dictates.  It is the commands of the law maker: in American society, that passed by federal, state or local legislative bodies.  It has come to include rules and regulations of administrative bodies.  It also includes customary law: patterns of behavior that is expected in society: unwritten rules that have the force of social coercion behind them.  Positive law prescribes, as a consequence of its authority, penalties for violations.

At times we may find the positive laws oppressive, unfair, or unjust.  To what authority do we then look?  At other times the positive law addresses part of the situation, but not all, leaving a gap to be filled.  How do we then fill the gaps?

Natural Law:

Natural Law generally refers to laws perceived to govern processes in the natural world.  It may also be perceived to address meaning and purpose behind those processes.  But not everyone may agree upon the source, authority, or content of such law.  Some may believe it derives from within the world and is natural to its structures; others may believe it is imposed from without by some supernatural power.  Even among those with similar views there may be wide disagreement as to its commands, its consequences or its purposes.

We can test our perceptions of objects and actions of the natural world with the aid of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, experiment, repetition, and logical analysis of the data and results.  Such examinations may produce positive, demonstrable results.  But how can we test notions of right behavior, or of the purposes behind the order of the natural world?  Even more difficult, how do we test our notions of the spiritual world?  How do we test our perceptions of truth and justice?  The Ryan clan sought definite, indisputable spiritual commands through the arm test.  But the test and the results of that test ought to have called into question their assumptions, applications and results.

How shall we resolve conflicts between positive law and Natural Law?

Because it derives from our notions of the nature of things, Natural Law is generally considered, at least by anyone who is ideoligically oriented, positvely or negatively, whether in the interests of self or of all, to be more fundamental and durable than is positive law.  Positive law cannot change Natural Law.  It can recognize it or not.  But, if positive law conflicts with Natural Law, how shall the conflict be resolved?  Our forefathers resolved it by appeal to “the Laws of Nature:”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and of the pursuit of happiness.

That led to the American Revolution.  And there were costs: many of those revolutionaries were subjected to penalties under the positive law, and many lost their lives as a consequence of the resulting violence. Obedience to the perceived commands of Natural Law, when it conflicts with positive law, is not without costs.

In my next blog posts, we shall examine humankind’s search for truth and justice from historical, theological and philosophical perspectives.  That history demonstrates that the more we insist that we see clearly the specific requirements of truth and justice, perhaps the less likely have we arrived at it; but, that the more we search for truth and justice and work to achieve it, recognizing the imperfections of our efforts, the closer we may approach it.

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