Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Law and Justice
While there is no universal agreement about what the word "law" means, it is generally accepted as a system of rules recognized by a country or community that regulate the behavior of its members. Institutions are empowered with the authority to enforce these rules and charged with the responsibility of imposing penalties when they are disregarded. Over time, as case history and precedent are established, the law evolves and becomes a matter of very precise interpretation, which is appropriate, given that a judge or jury can take away from a charged person their freedom, their life, or their livelihood. If you were the subject of a trial, I am sure that you would have it no other way. This was made clear for me in the play A Man for All Seasons, in this exchange between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law, William Roper, over the slimy, opportunistic Master Richard Rich. After More turns away the position-seeking, information-gathering Rich, his son-in-law demands:
Roper: Arrest him.
More: For what?
Roper: For libel; he’s a spy.
Daughter: Father, that man’s bad.
More: There is no law against that.
Roper: There is! God’s law!
More: Then, God can arrest him.
Roper: Sophistication upon sophistication!
More: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I stick to what’s legal.
Roper: Then you set man’s law above God’s!
More: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God.
Some further exchanges and the dialogue resumes:
Roper: So, now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
In the end, More was not safe within the thicket of the law, because Henry VIII was bound and determined to be rid of More because his very presence, though silent, screamed judgement of Henry’s growing tyranny and abuse of royal power.
Which brings us to the concept of justice, which the preceding dialogue suggests is a greater aspiration and longing than the mere interpretation of the law. The desire for justice seems to be innate and universal. It starts in the sandbox or in the playpen when a child first proclaims, "That’s not fair!" or "that’s not right!" Justice has to do with moral rightness. Its absence invokes offense and outrage. It is by virtue of this nature therefore, a more subjective ideal. The law has as one of its purposes the pursuit of justice, but the law, because it is written and executed by fallible human beings, often fails to attain justice and the closure that just adjudication brings.
Justice, in its essence, is about naming what is right and what is wrong, and from that determination proceeds the assignment of fault, the imposition of penalty, and the making of restitution when possible. Until recently, the pursuit of justice in America rested on the assumption that determining right and wrong began with the understanding that right and wrong were such to begin with because God and natural law had declared them to be so. This provided an unassailable basis for ordering human life and addressing its failures which trumps any exclusively human basis for justice which might turn out to be self-serving or merely the imposition of the will of the majority. Justice is frequently illusive, and when attained can bring closure, but not reconciliation to the cases of human negligence, ignorance, or malfeasance.
Only God can reconcile all of this human failure, effect perfect justice, show mercy, and provide restoration and reconciliation in the world. The Christian Gospel is clear that it is only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that there is any hope at all, that all that is wrong in the world and that which is lost because of human sinfulness, can be redeemed.
We are reminded of this every Sunday as we gather and pray, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:" We would all do well to remember that only God alone is fit to judge all human actions, because only God alone knows all the facts and more importantly, knows what is in the human heart.
The church fully understands that even though Jesus has come, we still live in a fallen, broken, imperfect, and imperfectable world inhabited by fallen, broken, imperfect, and imperfectable people. People will make mistakes, make bad choices, break the law, commit crimes, and find themselves judged by others or more seriously, standing before magistrates and juries.
Scripture charges all human beings with violating the good order and rule of God that is intended for the well-being of all creation. As a result, we have brought on ourselves and others not only the consequences and injustices of our actions, but the displeasure of God himself. In the most egregious example ever of injustice, Jesus has borne the consequence of all of our lawlessness and obtained for all of us the forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation that only God can achieve. We who have come to know this are also called to go and become agents of this reconciling, redemptive work ourselves.
It remains a great mystery to see how God will finally effect both justice and mercy. We might very well ask if the two shall ever lie down together. To which the Gospel proclaims: Yes. For God so loved the world...