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Confessions: Inward Justice

And I didn’t know about true inward justice, which judges not on the basis of mere habit, but on the basis of the faultlessly correct law of the all-powerful God. This law shapes customs to be appropriate to different times and places, but in itself it’s everywhere and eternal; it doesn’t vary from place to place or behave differently on different occasions. It was this law according to which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and David were righteous, and according to which they all had praise from God’s mouth. But I heard them condemned as wicked by people who didn’t know what they were talking about, when these people judged by the standard of human time and measured the customs of the whole human race by the portion of custom that happened to be their own.— Saint Augustine, Confessions 3.13

Augustine would have agreed with Martin Luther King when he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”[1] God governs the universe through a universal law that has judged all humans from the beginning of time until now. Augustine’s realization of this helped him perceive that those who criticized God’s judgments did so not on an objective standard, but a subjective one.

Anticipating people's criticism, “well why is God not consistent?” Augustine continues in the next few paragraphs by arguing that no intelligent person expects all things to be treated the same in two different times of the day or time periods or locations. One particularly funny illustration he uses is of a person seeing something happen behind the stable and complain that he cannot do the same in the living quarters of the house. Speaking of God’s judgments and commands in Scripture he says, “that God commanded those people to do one thing, and these here to do another, for reasons that are circumstantial, although both groups were bound to serve the same righteousness.” The same righteousness was at work, but it looked different given the time, place, people, understanding, and circumstance.

Augustine says that humans, unfortunately, “lack the perceptive power to link together causalities of earlier ages and other races… with causalities here and now, of which they do” yet, “Where past ages are concerned, they’re upset, but in the here and now they’re submissive adherents.” We easily judge the past, but we seldom judge the present. The United States is a prime example of Augustine’s critique of humanity. How many Americans right now are judging the past of American slavery yet do not have the perceptive power to link the casualties of the past with the casualties of the present? “We do not have slaves anymore” is the argument, as if slavery is the only way to oppress people.

God’s law may look different in every age, but it is the same law. We must have the discernment to see how God is judging us today according to his eternal law.

God’s laws are pure, eternal, just. They are more desirable than gold. They are sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb. For they warn us away from harm and give success to those who obey them.—Psalm 19:9-11 (TLB)

High King of Heaven, teach us your law that we may live justly and with wisdom.

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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