Frustration of Finite Justice
April 14, 2021

Oliver O’Donovan (Ways of Judgment, 26-7) cites Hegel’s claim that every wrong is “infinite” and so “demands infinite judgment.” He takes this to mean that “the victim demands that the wrong should become the whole business of the universe.”

The victim thinks he can “command the world” if only he can confront and strike down his adversary. The universe’s vindication depends on righting this wrong; if this wrong isn’t righted, the whole world is unjust. (Stop here and think of how many novels work on this premise; all of Dostoevsky, for instance!)

The problem is, infinite vengeance is impossible, and so the victim settles for the pseudo-infinite of the feud, with its “infinite bloodshed” and “unending retaliation.”

Public judgment exists to head off the threat of this pseudo-infinite vengeance: “It is a false god that the avenger has called to his aid, and the role of public judgment is to provide a place of provisional satisfaction, where we may open ourselves to the infinitely reconciling judgment of the true God.”

Public judgment thus requires restraint from the victim. While lusting for infinite judgment, he has to “accept a moment of renunciation, even disappointment” by leaving room for a finite judgment.

Some victims aren’t satisfied: “An age that champions victims’ rights is familiar enough with the grieving spirit that clings defiantly to its wrongs, unsatisfied with public vindication and always in pursuit of the illusory hope of infinite reckoning.”

This too is a form of idolatry. Only God does infinite justice, perfect vengeance. That cosmic reckoning “cannot appear among us under the conditions of common social life.”

All this is a significant challenge to public authority, which must both “wrest the initiative from private judgment” and avoid “immodest pretensions.” But then public authority will seem callous, indifferent to the suffering of victims.

It’s tempted to do more. If the state allows the infinite judgment demanded by victims to become a standard, it risks losing “credibility as a community undertaking” or inflating itself into something other than a limited judge: “To the extent that it exceeds its limits it . . . appears in the world as a prophetic, didactic, or ideological force, armed with an authority springing from beyond community discourse.”

The temptation is all the stronger because we have lost hope for a perfect, final judgment. We don't believe God has judged.

O'Donovan cites the story of Cain and Abel. Abel's "cry for vengeance is never silenced, satisfaction never having been given, for only God's decisive judgment against the world could set that cry at rest." Our civilization no longer rests on the conviction that God has given judgment "in infinite sacrifice."

Without infinite justice, the world itself lacks justification. And we no longer believe in God's infinite justice. If there is to be infinite justice, political actors believe, they alone must achieve it. Thus the unenviable choice: Apparent indifference v. Messianic pretension.

In a couple of paragraphs, O’Donovan has pinpointed one of the critical political and legal challenges of our era.

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