The Limits of Justice

If revenge, as the proverbial saying has it, is a dish best served cold, then the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis provides all the ingredients for a perfect meal. Sold into slavery by the treachery of his brothers, Joseph is carried off into Egypt where, after years of exile and loss, he becomes, by an astonishing reversal of fortune, chief minister in the governance of the country, charged by Pharaoh himself with the distribution of grain during the years of famine.  Meanwhile, the brothers are sent into Egypt by Jacob, their father, to buy some of that grain, and they find themselves face to face with the one whom they long ago sought to kill. Having marinated for so long the injustice done to him, how sweet the thought of revenge must be!

Yet nothing happens. There is no punishment meted out for the wicked brothers. Not even the mildest of reproaches will Joseph permit himself to utter. Instead, he breaks down, weeping copiously before the very ones who wished him dead. “It was not you,” he tells them, “who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:8).   

And then, years later, following the death of their father, Jacob, when fear reawakens among the brothers that, having long brooded upon their crime, Joseph may at last exact his revenge, they will once again be assured that to punish them was neither his nor God’s plan. “Can I take the place of God?” he asks them. “Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, to achieve his present end, the survival of many people. Therefore, have no fear. I will provide for you and your little ones. Thus he reassured them and comforted them” (Genesis 49: 19-21).   

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How are we to account for this—this readiness to forgive, that is? Surely it is not reasonable to expect Joseph to simply wipe away the wickedness done to him. Forgive and forget? Why shouldn’t he feel entirely free to inflict a bit of retributive justice upon those who blighted his life?

But, again and still again, he declines to do so, preferring to leave everything, including even the demands of justice, in God’s hands. There is a lesson for us here, and it does not consist merely in the obvious application of mercy, which is the principle that it is better to be kind than to be cruel. Yes, even when the aggrieved party has every right to expect that the unjust shall not go unpunished. And the lesson is this, that in a fallen world where all are tainted with the stain of sin, perfect justice will never be possible. Indeed, to attempt such a thing, which would require giving each man his exact due, would soon lay waste the world. 

We live and move, in other words, in a Vale of Tears, which means that while we aim every day in every way to follow the better angels of our nature, we nevertheless know that even the noblest attempt to approximate the ideal must necessarily and sadly fall short. And so along the way we make this adjustment, or that accommodation, seeking as always some point of balance amid the conflicting forces which, alas, will never finally be overcome. Not everyone, you see, wishes to reconcile or to be reconciled. And so to live is to maneuver, as Whittaker Chambers used to say, moving along a continuum rather like an asymptotic curve, whose base line we are never quite able to reach. 

People who ignore this fact of life, who refuse to accept what the poet Yeats has called “the perpetual injustice of life,” who blithely overlook the evidence of original sin, are dangerously romantic and soon become a menace to themselves and to others. Preferring the exercise of utopian logic, theirs is a species of the sheerest and most detestable idealism. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott has called it, “making politics the way the crow flies.” It is, he says, the sin of rationalism, which has been tried not a few times in the last century and always with disastrous effect.

Indeed, we are living in the aftermath of a whole series of bloody despotisms—as huge and terrifying as anything outside the pages of George Orwell—whose architects have been as varied and vile as such ideologues as Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Pol Pot. These were men in whom “the conjunction of dreaming and ruling,” as Professor Oakeshott predicted, “generates tyranny.”  

And yet, as the wily Lenin would say, how else are we to make the perfect omelet if we are not prepared to break a great many eggs? We are living, he said, “the hour in which it is no longer possible to listen to music, because music arouses the desire to caress children’s heads, while the moment has come to cut them off.” Who can doubt, on hearing a declaration like that, that no life is safe, much less sacred, when the demands of ideology trump all else, including the lives of little children?

Josef Pieper, in the chapter on justice taken from his classic work called The Cardinal Virtues, provides the most salutary lesson on the subject. What does it mean, he asks, when the most basic and fundamental act of commutative justice is called restitution? It means, quite simply, “that it is not possible to achieve a definitive ideal condition among men.” Not in this world it isn’t. It follows, therefore, 

that the temporary, the non-definitive and provisional,
the repeated mere ‘improvement’ in all historical action
belongs to the foundations of man and his world…

The conclusion he draws is both sane and sobering, namely, “that the claim to erect an imperturbable permanent order in the world must necessarily lead to something inhuman.”

Here one recalls the reaction, as recounted by the French writer André Malraux, who was there in Moscow to witness the exchange. It was at one of those many conferences staged by Stalin and his stooges, at which speaker after speaker rose to extol the virtues of a world where, the corruptions of capitalism having at last been eradicated, the lion and the lamb would finally lie down together in peace.

When, all at once, the air was rent with the sound of a question, a most impertinent question coming from some reactionary corner in the crowd. “And what about the child run over in the street by a rogue trolley tram?” On hearing this, reports Malraux, a great silence fell over the crowd—but not for long. Soon, one of the organizers stood up to announce that in a perfectly planned world there will be no accidents.

Welcome to the Gulag.

[Image: Joseph Sold by his Brothers by Francesco Maffei]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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