Tuesday 23 June 2020

Justice and Peace

When we consider statutory law, we know that there may exist a tension between how a particular law may be interpreted and what the makers of that law intended. At the conclusion of a court case, the judge must make a judgement, taking all the facts into account. Ideally, he or she will seek to act within both the letter and the spirit of the law. We may get a sense of the potentiality for the exercise of that spirit in Portia’s plea for clemency in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The Quality of Mercy
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

In day to day life, we are constantly required to make decisions based on our own judgements. A judgement may be an opinion that we have not expressed; but expressed or not, it remains still: a judgement. We make judgements when we see others breaking the law or when we feel that someone we know has not quite lived up to our expectations. At the same time, we can be admonished for being too judgemental. Nevertheless, it remains within our power, whether or not to forgive a slight against us, or to make the decision to write off that debt that someone may owe us.

On the question of forgiveness, we have the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18: 23-35) or Jesus’ injunction that we should forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). There are clear psychological and spiritual benefits in practicing forgiveness, as we all know, but in the real world we also have to use our common sense. Whilst we may understand the depth of compassion uttered in that plea from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34); we cannot, for example, remain indifferent to the murder of a child. We have courts of law for good reason. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

But this really speaks to us of an attitude, a way in which we might relate to others and not that we should suspend our faculty for critical thought. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. Romans 2:14

Implicit in this statement appears to be the idea that at some level, within ourselves, a sense of justice prevails. Without any legal or religious training, most of us know that our actions have consequences albeit, not always foreseeable! Furthermore, because we are human, we naturally have the potential to understand and to empathise with others, thus the golden rule of ‘do unto others…’ is readily grasped and universally understood.

In law, there is the concept of ‘natural justice’ and in the broadest sense we know that codes of behaviour have evolved over time, from society to society, but this sense of justice seems to be an innate part of who we are, it’s hard wired into our psyche. We hear it from aggrieved squabbling children, that old refrain, ‘It’s not fair!’. In the adult world there are campaigns for justice of one kind or another. Plaintiffs appear in the news and in feature articles declaring that they ‘only want justice’. The bereaved may seek justice at a murder trial, or at a coroner’s court. And we are all familiar with the old ruling that, ‘Justice should not only be done; it must also be seen to be done.’

However, there are limits to the sanctions a court can impose or the compensation it can award. Justice is not the same as revenge and human pain and loss are not so easily set aside by the ruling of a court, no matter how just that ruling may be. The fact is that some grievances cannot be resolved no matter what reparations may be reasonably offered simply because the aggrieved cannot, or is unable to find or accept closure. In the end, there is the world as we want it and the world as it is. If one continues to reject ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what isn’t’, then the suffering will continue.

Paradoxically, that same suffering may present the opportunity for healing, for freedom and the opportunity to move on. The prophet Elijah, in deep despair lay down in the wilderness and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19). As the story moves on, we find Elijah standing on Mount Horeb as God passes as ‘earthquake, wind and fire’. God wasn’t present in any of this spectacular, earthly, tumult, but then came the still small voice of God asking, ‘what are you doing here, Elijah?’ From time to time, ‘What are you doing here?’ is a question we may have to ask ourselves because this question properly considered has the potential to bring us to the present moment, affording us the opportunity to reassess and to recalibrate our lives, to find peace and to surrender, and to accept what is.

No comments:

Post a Comment