Monday, February 23, 2009

Justice (An Excerpt from a Letter to a Good Christian and a Good Friend)

I can't be sure, of course, but I think I did understand your comment about heaven changing us and I never thought that it excluded the possibility of [the late pastor Jerry] Falwell's changing too. (Like you, I'd hope he would have to change a good bit more than I would have to.) My point was that (1) the transience of "identity" in this present life further complicates what sort of personality we can imagine for ourselves in an afterlife and (2) the indifference to one's mortal passions (good and bad), so often emphasized as an explanation for why the absence of affectional ties (or beloved family pets) or the presence of those we disliked here on earth (like Falwell) won't bother us up in heaven, strikes me as coldly inhuman—an impression that (3) I'm willing to admit is possibly based on ignorance of the higher mysteries of everlasting life ... but no less a real drawback for my wanting to jump into it.

Perfect justice strikes me as both a lovely and frightening idea too. I don't know why. I'm certainly no defender of injustice. Perfect anything (perfect beauty, perfect truth, etc.) has a chill in it. In my mind, anyway. As I get older, I'm becoming quite fond of imperfection—by which I don't mean evil (I hope)—and the old expression that it is people's imperfections that we come to love the most strikes me as very true. Human fallibility has its charms—and so the idea of human perfection (in life or after life) looks better "on paper" (or even as a catalyst for positive improvements in real behavior) than in reality.

As for justice—I'm not sure that perfect justice would be anything less than tragic—as the Greek poets warned ages ago (of course, their gods were anything but just)—a total disruption not only of the wickedness we would like to eradicate but also of the sweetness and light we would like to preserve. Not to be flip or offensive, but the idea of a God whose sense of holiness and justice requires a sacrifice (of his own son, as it turns out) is not as reassuring to me now as it once was. As practical jokes go, the Old Testament's God's insistence that Abraham sacrifice his son, only to stop his hand at the last second, or his temptation of faithful Job by annihilating his entire family was never funny ... or, in any way that I can grasp, enlightening. Of course, as Job himself was told, who am I to question the ways of God? Still, I can't pretend God's holiness appeals to me at all. But I betray a crass, peevish, and myopic nature in admitting as much.

But, again, justice. Yes, justice would be good, even at a high price. But something in me rebels at the idea. People who push for justice often rub me the wrong way—even when I agree that their cause is just. I have the same response to righteousness—the need to "be right" seems to cause more harm than it's worth, when all is said and done. But all these things—justice, righteousness, and certainty, too—belong to another world, and I can well imagine that a lot of people would like to belong to that world ... and for some reason, though my sympathies are with them, I can't see me liking it there.

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