Our hearts are prone to partiality in judgment (James 2:9). We are open to believe the best about certain kinds of people and the worst about other kinds of people. Our prejudices can cloud our judgment and lead us to believing accusations without evidence simply because the accused belongs to a group we don’t like. If you fall into that mindset, you may find yourself self-righteously assisting a mob in condemning an innocent person (Prov. 17:15).
One of the most vicious characters in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a woman name Madame Defarge. In the beginning, she appears as a diminutive woman who passively spends her time knitting as French nobility commit great injustices against commoners. The reader comes to find out that this woman is storing up bitter resentments and bloody plans for vengeance against her aristocratic persecutors. Through years of oppression, she is quietly knitting a “hit list” of aristocrats whose blood must be spilled in the coming revolution.
Her bloodlust becomes so intense that she begins to sew names on her list that don’t deserve her condemnation. At one crucial turning-point in the story, she adds the name Charles Darnay to the list. She knows of no crimes that Darnay has committed (he’s committed none). She knows nothing of the exculpatory fact that Darnay had renounced his title, his privilege, and the oppressive ways of his uncle. All she knows is that Darnay is the nephew of an evil nobleman. Darnay belongs to the wrong group by birth and therefore must die.
A large part of the drama of A Tale of Two Cities is the depiction of mob justice. What happens when the social order disintegrates, and due process and the rule of law are lost? What happens is that the rights of the accused get trampled under foot. Salacious accusations in service of “the cause” become the pretext for mob actions. The truth of an accusation doesn’t really matter anymore. All that matters is “the cause” and destroying the out-group. The facts be damned.
It is this kind of situation that Proverbs 18:17 speaks to:
“The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.”
The meaning here is pretty clear. It is easy to make accusations, but accusations must be substantiated. That is why the accusations themselves must be probed for consistency and evidence. If there are witnesses, they must be heard and their testimony weighed. All the facts must be brought forth from both accuser and accused. And during the adjudication, the accused must not be presumed guilty based merely on the accusations. It is from this principle that our own norm of due process requires the presumption of innocence on the part of the accused. Without this presumption of innocence, you get mob justice and innocent people’s heads foisted on a pike.