In his book Specters of Marx, French philosopher Jacques Derrida observes that time is always “out of joint.” Citing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he notes that Hamlet’s tragedy arises from his mission to right a wrong that can never present itself, a crime that is always in the past. The disjunction of crime and correction is ever present in the world we inhabit, such that the words we use—restoration, redemption, reparation, correction, justice—always participate in their own absence. Restoration is never complete, redemption is never full, and correction is never ultimate. Not in this life, anyway.
Derrida’s and Shakespeare’s theme also resonates with Augustine’s distinction between proximate and ultimate justice. In The City of God, Augustine argues that ultimate justice will never occur in this life because one person (God) never gets his due. Until all people bow to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe, we will never experience full, true, and complete justice. The world is always “out of joint.” Again, at least in this life.
These ideas came back to me when the verdict was delivered in the murder trial for Ahmaud Arbery. As I scanned social media in the aftermath of the verdict, I heard different voices. Some rejoiced that justice had been done. Others were happy with the justness of the outcome, but bemoaned the unjust process, noting how the trial almost never happened. Still others were happy with the outcome, but since Ahmaud Arbery remains dead, they wondered if we could call the outcome truly just.
As I reflect on these three sentiments, it occurs to me that Derrida, Shakespeare, and Augustine are right: it is impossible to do justice in this life, even when we quite rightly declare justice to be done in a particular case. The murder of Arbery or the murder of anyone illustrates this quite well. Arbery will never return in this life. The millions (hundreds of millions?) of unborn persons who have been taken and are being taken right now—their voices have never been heard, and we will never hear from them in this life. The tens of millions who were taken under the foot of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century alone—their lives will never return to us in this life. The victims of school shootings, of police brutality, of gang warfare. Their blood cries out from the ground, but justice can never be done for them, because we will never see them again or hear them plead their case. Not in this life, anyway.
A murder is the most extreme example, but its structure is really no different from more petty crimes. The murder, the theft, the fraud—the injustices of those acts are always in the past and cannot present themselves. When a thief takes $500 and the judge issues damages of $500 to the plaintiff, not only is the theft itself never to be undone or made present, but neither can the wounds of time that exist between theft and correction ever present themselves. It would do no good, further, to issue damages of $750 to make up for what can never be recovered.
Finally, even if the outcomes approach justice, the processes to achieve that proximate justice are never perfect. Prosecutions are incomplete. Defenses are weak. Due process is a sham.
Justice always participates in injustice. Such is the aporia—the paradox—into which Derrida invites us.
In the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, the impossibility of justice comes through in a clear and strong way. At the end of the film, Solomon Northrup laments that he will never recover the time he missed as an enslaved man. The growth of his children, the birth of his grandchild. Those events can never be re-presented or reproduced. The injustice of that lost time can never be made right, even in his own emancipation.
We also feel this when Solomon rides off in his freedom. In the camera shot, we see his enslaved friend Patsey weeping in the background. Because we’ve been there the whole time, we know her likely future. Brutality, abuse, and violence. Even in the justice of his emancipation, the injustice of slavery remains.
But if time is out of joint in this life, if justice always participates in injustice in the here and now, where is the hope? Is there any hope at all? The only thing we can say is this: in the life to come there will be a full justice we can truly not understand. Our experience of injustice in this life—even in our best attempts at achieving justice—blinds us to the possibility that there can be a world where true justice actually reigns. And yet, that can be our only aspiration, our only hope.
Again, in 12 Years A Slave, during what is probably the most gruesome of all the movie’s scenes (the whipping of Patsey by Master Epps), Solomon yells the following: “Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!” In this statement, Solomon says more than he knows. Certainly in this life the injustice of the whipping can never be undone, even if the physical wounds are fully healed. But somehow in the course of eternal justice, God will make everything just, and He will do so in a way that does not implicate himself in injustice. What other hope is there for Arbery, for the unborn, for the victims of injustice throughout time, for any of us?
Christian colleges should then prepare students to be patient and confident mourners. They should be mournful because they know their justice is imperfect in the here and now; patient because they know the full justice of God is still coming; and confident because they know their attempts at justice somehow have meaning in light of God’s full justice. For while their attempts at justice are always imperfect, somehow they are not in vain—they are possible—as they anticipate the impossibly perfect, eternal justice of God.