Before the prosecutors rested their case in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, they were allowed to question one of George Floyd’s brothers. Not about his brothers whereabouts the days leading up to the fateful day of his death. Not about his health or mental stability or past encounters with the police. No, they questioned him about his relationship with his mother. They allowed him to speak about things that had no legal bearing on whether the defendant was innocent or guilty. This testimony, called the “spark of life doctrine” is unique out of all other state and federal court systems. Most reject such a thing as having no place in the forensic process.
We usually hear about victims being able to address the perpetrator only after a conviction, during a sentencing hearing. Minnesota has a different take due to a case that played out in their system in 1985. There the victim was a police officer. Officer Bruce Russell has on a high-speed chase following George Graham who had escaped federal custody. When Graham’s car skidded out of control into a ditch Officer Russel approached the vehicle and was fatally shot in the chest. During the trial, the prosecutor broke down in tears as he discussed the emotional details of the victim’s life. The defense objected saying that the prosecution was invoking the sympathy of the jury. But the trial ruled that the testimony was allowed because “the victim was not just bones and sinews covered with flesh but was imbued with the spark of life.”
As I learned about this doctrine, I thought about how frequently this tension plays out between the raw presented facts of guilt or innocence on the one hand and the emotional sway of presenting one’s ‘spark of life’ on the other. The court of law doesn’t need, doesn’t require and probably is right in excluding any testimony about the ‘spark of life.’ But in our life outside that courtroom, our lives lived in the company of one another it is precisely that spark that we need, that we desire, that makes all the difference.
I think that this tension with the ‘spark of life doctrine’ plays out in all areas of our lives. It is certainly felt within our faith. Much of our discussion about our hope and assurance in the promises of Christ are framed in the legal terms of the courtroom. We speak of God’s use of his Law and Gospel, his condemnation, and his promises of redemption. We follow St. Paul in talking about our justification. Justification is a forensic declaration. It declares the sinner’s legal status before God as just or righteous. Our intentions, our motivations, or relationship to our children or to our spouses don’t factor into the equation. We are justified by faith alone through the works of Christ alone by the grace of God alone.
But when it comes to the impact such justification, when it comes to the horizontal realities affected by this proclamation from God, why then it becomes all about the spark of life. It is no longer simply Mike, broken sinner who confessed his sins and clung to the Good News of Christ’s saving work. No, now the story is about Mike, the single father who tried so hard, but those old addictions hung about his neck as a lifelong enemy. Mike, who tried repeatedly to stay on the narrow path, he thought he could be a better role model to his children than his own father had been to him. But in burst of anger, he would hear his father’s voice coming out of his own mouth. Mike, who saw so clearly the terror of his own failures and wept at night out of sorrow but couldn’t find the strength to change anything about himself or the inevitable actions he would take tomorrow. Mike who was far more than bones and sinews covered with flesh. He was a father, a lover, a good man by most standards, he was imbued with the spark of life, and outside of Christ that life would be snuffed out. He was guilty and condemned but in the love of Christ his spark mattered, his life is redeemed, his hope restored. And if Mike’s spark matters, perhaps yours does as well. The spark of life is the witness of the faithful from one generation to the next.