The Paradox of Justice: George Herbert’s “Justice (1)”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Thursday After the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Justice (I)

I cannot skill of these thy ways.
Lord, thou didst make me, yet thou woundest me;
Lord, thou dost wound me, yet thou dost relieve me:
Lord, thou relievest, yet I die by thee:
Lord, thou dost kill me, yet thou dost reprieve me.
But when I mark my life and praise,
        Thy justice me most fitly pays:
For, I do praise thee, yet I praise thee not:
My prayers mean thee, yet my prayers stray:
I would do well, yet sin the hand hath got:
My soul doth love thee, yet it loves delay.
I cannot skill of these my ways.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Justice as:

I. Administration of law or equity.
1.     Maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment; giving of due deserts.
2. a. Punishment of an offender; retribution deemed appropriate for a crime; esp. capital punishment, execution. . . .
3. a. The administration of law; due legal process; judicial proceedings. In early use: †legal proceedings of any kind (obsolete).

There are different understandings of justice, but the idea of balance seems to be pretty integral to them all. It is a critical issue in ethics, politics, law, and theology.

Rockwell The-Problem-We-All-Live-With-8x5

Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live With” Originally published in the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine.

John Rawls in the 1970s famously saw justice as fairness, calling into question a purely utilitarian conception. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on the causes of famines, wrote on Development as Freedom (1999), which was worked by Martha Nussbaum and others into a capabilities of human beings as a key component of justice.

For many of us Justice is an intuitive thing. It is only fair that people are not discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or ideology. The famous painting above by Norman Rockwell of a child, Ruby Bridges, being escorted by US Federal Marshals. One one should be obliged to face racial slurs, threats of violence, and rotten vegetables being thrown at them, just to go to school, much less a six year old. However, prejudices run deep, the those who were children then are adults now, and perpetuate the hatred that their parents felt was justified in 1962.

My own understanding of justice identifies it with the divine in action in the world. There is much in the world that runs against God’s just will, and yet, as Martin Luther King said (repeating what others had said before him), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Reflecting on his own personal situation, the poet in Justice (1) finds himself confused by God’s ways. They seem a paradox. The Creator has him suffer, but then relieves his suffering, he knows he will die, but is promised eternal life. Why is there suffering and death? In brief, he is trying to come up with a theodicy, and understanding of evil in the context of God’s overall plan of creation and salvation, which is presumably good, like God. Of course, since the Second World War and the Holocaust many find it hard to construct and theodicy, and the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that it was impossible. We are in the situation of Job, who might want to take God to court and get an answer, but only receives the words of the God from out of the whirlwind, expressing the transcendence of the Creator.

This is Herbert’s approach. To the paradox of God’s ways he counters with his own ways. He prays, and yet so often does not pray, and his thoughts wander (something I can identify with). By external standards he seems to do well, yet the poet knows the sin that still has the upper hand. He loves God, but paraphrasing Augustine, he things, “Make me good, just not yet!” There is thus a correspondence between the paradox of God’s justice with the paradoxical nature of human beings. While not quite the image of God, perhaps this is an echo of the divine in humanity, in that in our fragile, broken state we resemble how the divine approaches us.

I find myself concerned with justice. Why am I comfortable while others do without? Why are some people undocumented refugees while I live in a nice home with a recognized citizenship and a visa that allows me to live in a foreign land? Why have police give me a break when I get pulled over on the road while others with a different hue of skin are harangued and, in some cases, shot? I suppose, in the long run, the question is not where is the justice in all this, but what I am I doing to create a just society? Yes, I have many unearned privileges, but what am I doing to use these privileges to help those who do not have them, and what am I doing to deconstruct the system that put me in this position? It is for this reason that I am working towards a post-colonial theology I (and others) are calling Unsettling Theology, of which my soon-to-be-submitted PhD dissertation is a contribution, looking at the theologies which informed those who operated the “Indian Residential Schools” in Canada.  It is for this reason that I have been involved, at various times in my career, with advocacy for sex workers, refugees, street people, and the hungry. It has never been enough, but it is a start. It is what John Rawls would cal “fair”. Or, as the prophet Micah said:

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?       Micah 6.8

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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2 Responses to The Paradox of Justice: George Herbert’s “Justice (1)”

  1. Pingback: An Advent Retreat with George Herbert | The Island Parson

  2. Pingback: Another Advent with Herbert: The Poems So Far | The Island Parson

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