We don’t often get into religious subjects around here. But sometimes the mood strikes us, or something seems to warrant comment including some religious idea or theme or whatever.
Of course “justice” isn’t solely a religious concept, at least not in the sense that it’s peculiar to this or that religion – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or what have you. It’s been recognized as an important virtue – a “cardinal” virtue – certainly since pre-Christian antiquity, and probably long before that. Thus to be a just man is, to that extent, to be a virtuous one. This is a widely and maybe even universally held belief.
So last week we were attending this Mass and we get to the “Epistle” and it’s from the letters of St. James where he’s lecturing everyone, although that’s not as bad as it sounds because he prefaces the whole harangue with “Beloved”. Anyway:
But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath. For the wrath of man does not work the justice of God.
And then after this we get to the gospel reading, and it’s from the gospel of John and Jesus is, as usual, speaking to his disciples and at this point in the story he’s already died and risen from the dead and he’s talking about leaving:
But I speak the truth to you; it is expedient for you that I depart. For if I do not go, the Advocate (i.e., Holy Ghost – ed.) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He has come He will convict the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of justice, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no more; and of judgment, because the prince of this world has already been judged.
So. It is “just” that Jesus goes to the Father, and also apparently “just” that we will see him no more. Who says you can’t define justice?
Except I can understand this gospel quote only one way: it is “just” that we do not see our lord and savior.* Why should that be? Apparently some transgression occurred that makes it just to deprive us of his visible presence. But also, apparently, this is not a permanent condition. Not a life sentence, in other words.**
The justice part from the Epistle is far more straightforward: the wrath of man is not justice. This leaves open the possibility that the wrath of God can be justice, or perhaps that wrath in general, God’s or man’s, is not justice. Or maybe the implication is that God’s justice might resemble wrath to us but isn’t really. Maybe it’s just coldly administered out of necessity.
So…they get this old guy because they figure out that he’s a fugitive from justice, having escaped 50+ years ago from what was evidently a rather slack sort of confinement because he really didn’t warrant maximum security even back then. And Jeff Gamso writes about it here, and it’s an interesting episode and an equally interesting exchange in the comments, because Jeff as usual is arguing for mercy and his anonymous commenter is arguing for justice, and it doesn’t seem a wrathful kind of justice the commenter seeks but rather “general deterrence” – that is, we need to make an example of this old guy because otherwise it encourages others to escape and evade their just punishment.
Our visceral reaction here at Lawyers on Strike is entirely in line with Jeff Gamso. We like mercy, for ourselves and for others. And we agree that in this anomalous circumstance (actually, we are aware of a similar case that occurred locally and mercy prevailed) the insistence that a price be paid seems pointless. Or what is worse, tedious.
Yet it does carry some weight. It isn’t quite right to dismiss the concern entirely. Doing justice often seems impractical, not worth the trouble. Yet we are called to do it, for reasons that are, at best, understood imperfectly. Like looking through a glass darkly.
Put another way, while the wrath of man is certainly not God’s justice, surely man’s mental or moral sloth isn’t either.
To me this seems an appropriate case for a pardon, which of course is not justice but mercy. Because another thing that seems obvious is that whereas God can be merciful without cheating justice, mortals cannot. One or the other gets shortchanged.
Our world is imperfect. They knew that in antiquity as well.
* We assume for purposes of discussion the Christian viewpoint when trying to understand Christian scripture, and suggest that you should do the same if you want to really understand what’s being said. It should go without saying, but unfortunately usually does not, that this does not require you, dear reader, to accept the Christian viewpoint, just to assume it so you can understand what is being said, since otherwise you are not making even a fair attempt to understand it.
** This is a sort of basic Judeo-Christian understanding – that because of the fall, we can’t see or otherwise perceive God. Again, one may or may not accept this idea but it is remarkable how some supposedly very bright people who tend towards atheism – such as Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell – seem unable to appreciate the point.