I spent some time at a nearby cemetery today. As part of All Souls week, we Catholics can gain plenary indulgences for the souls in Purgatory if we do a few simple things. While there I saw a gravemarker with dates from 2004 to 2006. "How sad," I thought. "A little child." Then I looked below it and saw a similar stone with dates from 2002 to 2006. November 10, 2006, to be precise, and I realized this poor family had lost both their children on the same day.
Actually, they lost even more than that. A drunk driver ran up on a curb and killed these two children and their mother. Their father survived with injuries. From what I could determine, the driver was sentenced to 48 years in prison, eligible for parole after 33. The blogosphere seems to consider this a travesty of justice, but I wonder...what is justice in this case? What is justice in any case?
As the wife of a lawyer (and a woman who aspires to law herself) I've always been a firm believer in justice and our system of law. No, it's not perfect. Nothing on this earth really is. But I've always felt it's an essential part of a free society. If there is no retribution for a wrong committed, then there is no point in declaring something wrong in the first place.
But it brings home to me how empty and meaningless earthly justice can be. For the truly horrendous crimes and for those who deeply, deeply suffer, there's nothing that we as humans can do that even approaches making things right. The problem with justice, as I see it, is that it's a reaction to a wrong. It's a response. And by its very nature, it can only offer a part of what has been lost because it's never possible to erase the past.
Sometimes I find myself frustrated and discouraged by this idea: that there's nothing we can do to make things right for people who have suffered. Particularly in the worst cases, as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the genocide in Rwanda, or the violence of suicide bombers, I'm left wondering what anyone can do. 48 years in prison won't bring back the Binghams. It probably won't prevent this sort of tragedy from happening to anyone else, either. There's plenty of drunk drivers out there, and all our laws and punishments for DUIs haven't made it any safer to cross the street in Denver. So what to do?
The answer lies in our focus, and it is one of the reasons why I am a person of fervent faith. If we focus on this life as the only form of our existence, then every ounce of our strength has to go into protecting people while preventing and punishing acts of injustice. And when our efforts fail (as they must) we are left with the sense that nothing has been accomplished.
But if we focus on eternal life, the entire point of our existence changes. It's not incumbent upon us to bring peace to every corner of the world or eradicate all suffering. Suffering is part of life, as a recent post on Et Tu, Jen so eloquently showed. We have not failed if suffering remains. We have succeeded if we brought comfort to the afflicted, if we dedicated ourselves to reaching out and touching as many people as we can with the love of Christ, if we in any small way freed another soul from the darkness of its burden and brought healing to the injured.
I understand that many atheists see this as a cop-out and an excuse to do nothing about preventing tragedy. It's one of Hitchens' major complaints about Mother Theresa, that instead of working to heal and help the people who came to her in Calcutta, she merely held their hands and gave them her loving presence while they suffered and died. I can understand his outrage; after all, if life is the whole point, then it's a crime to withold any and all extraordinary measures to prolong it. The money Mother Theresa received should, in Hitchens' mind, have gone towards alleviating poverty, medical care, food for the hungry, social change, etc etc etc.
But this misses the point of Mother Theresa's ministry, which was to bring love and comfort and hope to the dying. Not hope of earthly life, but of salvation and eternal life. I think Mother Theresa saw the truth in a way most of us cannot. All the money in the world will not eradicate poverty (certainly not in India where the societal hierarchy prevents the sort of intraclass movement that our country is built upon.) Rather than expend her energies trying to make this earthly life better for those who were suffering, she dedicated herself to bringing a small glimpse of Heaven into their hearts.
I absolutely believe that we ought to work tirelessly and passionately to bring change in the world. That's the point of this blog, to help me do whatever I can for the poor. Fundamentalist regimes that trod on the personhood of their citizens are an affront to the dignity of human life. Greedy dictators who sap their countries of natural resources and leave their people to starve are as thoroughly evil as people can be. Acts of hate and violence against minorities and people of differing viewpoints are anathema to the inclusive love God has for all His children. I support the organization of a free society in which each person is respected from the moment of conception, and is given the right and opportunity to choose their own path.
But Jesus has said, "The poor you will always have with you." In His wisdom He has told us the future and revealed a fundamental truth of life: there will always be suffering. And, too, there will always be men who choose to do evil. That is the price of free will.
So when we are faced with tragedy, with crime, with injustice, what is our response? As Christians, it must be love. The desire for vengeance has no part in the message of Christ. Nor does the misguided attempt to punish the transgressor for his act. Earthly justice may serve to deter future drunks from getting behind the wheel, or decrease the chance of his committing the same crime again, but it doesn't bring much comfort or healing to the victims themselves.
That's our job.