Saintly Essays & Discussions

The Slowness of Justice

I know that I have complained at times that justice, as we know it, is not really apparent in the course of history and certainly not within the course of our own lives.  Thus, because justice cannot be depended upon as a defense of one's actions, one may be "justified" in acting unjustly in order to accomplish certain necessary goals.  Thus the prince (ala Machiavelli), while recognizing that it may be unjust to break one's word, will eagerly do so with one state in order to create an alliance with another more powerful state.  And I think that this is very true, as applied to a single human life and a single human generation.  But just because an individual person or group of people do not see the manifest effects of justice necessarily played out in their lifetime, this doesn't mean that the act of injustice has not had an effect within the society taken as a unit endowed with a specific historic trajectory.  If this is the case, an act of injustice may not be rectified until years or even generations have passed.  Thus the Old Testament imperative "the children will pay for the sins of the fathers."  We need not take this to describe the justice of an angry deity, but as the process by which some natural moral order, built into the fabric of this level of reality, slowly reasserts itself over time by means of the complex causes and effects of human interaction.  If this is the case, then there truly is no hope for justice (as seen from the perspective of a single human life), because some of the corresponding harms to actions may be so remote in time from the event itself as to appear to arise from an entirely different set of circumstances.  Thus, the evil king who pillages his neighbors to such an extent that their kingdoms are razed to the ground.  Years go by, and the evil king's great grandson, very rich and powerful because of the pillaging of his ancestor, now sits on the throne.  But he is a manifestly good and wise king (because it's easier to be magnanimous when one is wealthy and secure).  But his neighbor's kingdoms, having slowly rebuilt their empires over the course of the generations, still feel the sting of the harm done to them.  Thus, they raze the kingdom of the good king.  We can be forgiven for scratching our head in consternation at such an example, for to those people living through such times, the proximate cause of this action will appear to be the foolishly wise and magnanimous king, who did not have the stomach to continue the policies of his forebears and continue their ways of violence.  And, in fact, had he adopted such policies, he may have staved off ruin for another generation or two or three.  From the broader historical perspective, we see that the real cause of the violence was itself the violence which initially caused the resentful situation, which in turn means, that had the good king chosen the way of violence and deferred judgment to yet another generation, this decision may have had the effect of causing either more violence or less (but all things being equal, probably more) than would have happened had the dam broken during his own generation.  While mankind is not unconscious of their descendants, they can perhaps be forgiven for preferring that the wages of their own unjust actions be paid for by a later generation than their own.  This is especially true because mankind experiences history midstream, and each successive generation has inherited the unasked for burden of previous generations.  You cannot expect us to be just in all things in our own generation, declares mankind.  For if we were, what would be left for us once the balance sheet was made right?  Our children might not appreciate such a just blank slate if they are unable to feed and clothe themselves, or if, in our zeal for justice, we are reduced as a people.  And thus the wheel turns, and the scores of old hatreds continue to wreak havoc over the face of the earth, for generations to come.  Occasionally some Great War or cataclysm may rise up and wipe clean much of the balance sheet at once (at the cost of untold innocent life and property), but it will only lay the groundwork for the next blow-up.  What are we to do with such a cycle, for we can neither be totally wicked nor totally innocent without assuring our own destruction?  And thus the confusing stream of human history, where mankind in turn commits great evils alongside of unlooked for charity.  I don't think it tells us much of how we should act in a given situation.  But it is at least a response to those wicked men who would argue that there is no justice for tyrants.  The wise man sees that there will always be justice for tyrants, but that justice may not affect him in his lifetime and fall instead on his descendants.  The tyrant will not be dissuaded by such arguments, for he is wicked and cares only for the now in which he may feast on the spoils of his wickedness.  Nor, do I think, should the just take pleasure in such a state of affairs, for the justice that will come may come down upon the innocent (at least as concerning the effective judgment).  What a strange world that we find ourselves in!   But this is the settling of the balance sheets built into the fabric of existence, whether we like it or not.  One may complain to the Deity concerning such a poor state of affairs, but one must live with the system nonetheless.


[I write here after having contemplated the meaning of this view of justice and I see one ray of hope that allows for, if not a positive means by which we may come to understand our own lives as a people, at least a hypothetical hope.  For it seems that the cause of this justice working itself out so slowly has much to do with our own lack of wisdom concerning the nature of justice.  Were we wiser, perhaps justice could be served over the course of a single generation rather than working itself out so slowly, for surely the cause of justice’s tardiness is the result of human intractability.  I have no hope that we should ever become so wise that we should understand and practice justice so well and so perfectly, but I believe that such justice is possible.]