And enter not into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living will be
There are a great many voices around us pointing out injustices in our society and calling
for justice. In recent decades, we have seen a substantial effort to provide all citizens
equal access to the law, to education, and to economic opportunity. The extraordinary
proliferation of lawsuits seems often to testify to a desire to grab for all one can get,
but its silver lining is an assumption that the law should provide redress for injustice.
I'm particularly aware of this currently because of the realization that this is not the
case in Russia. There, decades of tyranny have left deeply ingrained a reflex that the
government is to be avoided at all costs, that if something goes wrong, taking your case
to the officials will only make it worse.
As individuals, we tend to react strongly when we feel that we have been treated unjustly.
We feel that the right is on our side, and that there should be a means to a prompt
remedy. You may have heard or read about the man who is being taken to court for
trespassing because he apparently went on his own to efface racial slurs that had been
spray-painted on a Jewish temple. We cannot be absolutely sure of the facts of the case,
but his sense of injury seemed wholly genuine, especially when he said that he would not
be doing good deeds in the future, in view of the troubles this one was causing him.
We want particularly to believe that God is just. The depth of this desire is suggested by
the popularity of Howard Kushner's Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The evidence is
all around us. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.
Some of this seems clearly to be our own responsibility, a result of our own freedom and
our abuse of it. If we build houses on a flood plain, we cannot fairly blame God for the
water in our cellars. We cannot blame God for the greed of the man who bilks trusting
souls out of their life savings. Still, it is hard to figure out why these particular
people suffer when others no wiser, no more virtuous, do not.
It is not a new problem. It is a major issue in the two books of Kings. Every ruler of
Judah and every ruler of Israel is evaluated, the prime virtue being exclusive loyalty to
the temple in Jerusalem and the prime sin being the permission of sacrificial worship
elsewhere. A casual reading may give the impression that the "good" kings are rewarded by
military success and long reigns, and that the "bad" ones are punished. In fact, though,
this is far from the case.
Ahab, we are told, "did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings
of Israel that were before him." He actively promoted the worship of Baal. It is true that
he died in battle, but only after a prosperous reign of twenty-two years. The dynasty he
founded was brought to an end by Jehu, who did his level--and bloody--best to eliminate
the worship of Baal from Israel. He reigned for twenty-eight years, but in his days, we
discover, "the Lord began to cut Israel short." Righteous Jehu, the reformer, lost all the
nation's holdings on the other side of the Jordan. And if that were not enough, Jeroboam
the second, who "did what was evil in the Lord's sight," "restored the borders of Israel
from the entrance at Hamath to the sea of the plain"--regaining virtually all the
territory the nation had held at its greatest, under David.
There is always an explanation. When the evil king is not punished, it is because the Lord
saw the suffering of the people and had compassion, or it is because the Lord remembered
David, who is portrayed as supremely righteous. When the good king suffers, it is because
of the enormity of the transgressions of some predecessor, or in the case of all the
northern kings, because they supported the temples--apparently quite orthodox ones--at Dan
Under the surface appearance of simplistic reward and punishment mentality, then, there is
a recognition that this is simply not the way things happen. We are involved in chains of
circumstance that include far more than our own righteousness or unrighteousness. What
others do, what others have done, may affect us with little or no regard for our moral
How much of this can we lay at God's door? If we take Swedenborg's Divine Providence
seriously, all of it. Providence is everything. Human prudence is nothing, though it seems
to be something and should seem to be something. The way out of attributing injustice to
God is not through limiting divine power, then, but through revising our notions of
justice itself. Providence does not simply look back at what has happened and mete out
rewards and punishments. Providence also looks ahead, and responds to our actions in ways
that keep possibilities open for us. "Evils are permitted for the sake of the end, which
is salvation." The world is governed in such a way that we are challenged to respond, to
take responsibility. Things will not go right automatically.
It might help to look at justice in terms of a time scale. We firmly believe in ultimate
absolute justice, that in the spiritual world every individual will experience the
intrinsic qualities of the kind of life he or she has led. Evil is bad for us spiritually,
and in the spiritual world there will be no physical blessings to distract us from the
harm we have done to our souls. Good is good for us spiritually, and after death there
will be no physical debilities to obscure its profound health and joy.
That is all well and good, but what about now? Karl Marx was quite right in pointing out
that the notion of justice after death has been used to support the notion that we should
tolerate injustice now. The Beatitudes can be and have been misread in this way, as
telling us that those who suffer now are really blessed because they will be rewarded
later. Those who suffer know better.
It strikes me as inconceivable that we should expect instantaneous justice. This would
mean that the very first motion toward wrong would bring the very first touch of
punishment, that the first thought of evil would bring the first idea of suffering for it,
the first impulse the first fear. If we were resolute enough to push on with our wrongful
intent, the threats and the fear and the actual pain would increase proportionally.
No, I suspect that we all assume a certain amount of latitude in this respect. We assume
it, and feel instinctively that it is entirely appropriate. We overwork today, we feel
stiff tomorrow. We put off doing our income taxes through January and February and March,
and they catch up to us in April. We are accustomed to there being a kind of temporal
cushion that gives us a chance to get out from under before the axe falls.
If this is the case, though, and if we do believe in ultimate justice after death, our
question takes a more specific shape. How long are we willing to wait? How long should we
wait here and now, in this life? One image of the divine policy was given to Isaiah. He
asked the time question and received an answer he did not like at all. "Then I said, `How
long?' And he answered, `Until the cities are wasted without inhabitant, and the houses
without man, and the land is utterly desolate.'" The Lord will let things go that long if
we do not heed the message and change our ways.
This temporal cushion, then, is designed not so much to give us a chance to get out from
under as to give us a chance to reconsider what we are about. It is our opportunity to
choose righteousness not in order to escape pain but for the sake of righteousness itself.
When the delay seems unconscionably long, it may simply be a consequence of our obstinacy,
a kind of index of our reluctance. It is the Lord telling us that we may not like it, but
we need that long to come to our senses of our own accord.
There is one more dimension of the problem of injustice that we need to look at before we
close. I have in mind that troubling text in Matthew about loving our enemies, blessing
those who curse us, and praying for those who belittle and persecute us, this in emulation
of our heavenly father "who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain
on the just and the unjust." This goes directly against some current efforts toward social
justice, which explicitly call us to be for the oppressed and against the oppressor. It
represents, I believe, a wiser and more profound understanding of what is necessary if
there is to be justice on earth.
Ezekiel put that wisdom very clearly. "'Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should
die?' says the Lord, `and not that he should turn from his ways and live?'" The desire
that the wicked should suffer may be a natural one, especially when we ourselves have been
victimized, but it is not a heavenly one. It cannot be the basis of genuine, healthy
community. It will breed vengefulness and alienation. It will set people against each
other. The thought of genuine care for the welfare of the oppressor may not appeal to us,
but the Gospel does not leave us room to wiggle out. "Love your enemies."
This is not the same as tolerating injustice. Our eternal lives have already started. If
we further injustice now by action or by inaction, by speech or by silence, we move
ourselves into the spiritual company of the unjust. It is purifying our own motives for
action, bringing them into accord with a providence that would heal us all, knowing that
true justice cannot grow beyond the bounds of our care for each other.