The limits of justice

In his excellent book on the just war tradition, The Just War Revisited, Oliver O’Donovan offers some important reflections on the role of time-limits in administering justice (pp. 122-123):

There should, however, be a time-limit. The authority of justice depends on its success in reacting to an offence. The reaction belongs within the same general context of action as the offence itself. Once that context has passed away and become the preserve of the historian, it is no longer possible to enter it again and act authentically within it. Where the limit should be set is indeterminate; it will always appear that you could have settled for six months less or six months more without making any difference. But we know it when we see the limit overstepped completely – as when we drag ex-Nazis from their bath chairs in the geriatric wards and charge them with crimes committed fifty years ago.

Perhaps a theologian is likely to be especially conscious of the danger of this proceeding, since he is aware how perilously placed the enterprise of human justice is as a whole. ‘Judge not that you be not judged,’ Christ taught us; and if our judgment is to serve any good at all, it must be conducted within the terms set by that warning ‘judge not!’ [Matthew 7:1] The crimes committed by those elderly defendants may probably have merited severe punishment; the question is simply about our own competence to judge them. How can we understand what it was that they did so long ago? How can we award them their deserts, having let our hand hang idle and the world move on for a whole half-century? The sudden zeal to tidy the matter up (before they should die peacefully in their beds!) is a piece of legal housekeeping worthy of Shakespeare’s Angelo in Measure for Measure, that great theological protest against a jurisprudence that thinks it can settle absolutely everything. We who settle things are ourselves subject to settlement. Humility is the first condition for any humane justice.

Only God has a right to carry justice to its limits, and, if he did, as Shakespeare asks us,

How would you be
If He, which is the tops of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips
Like man new made. [Measure for Measure 2.2]

I have been reflecting on this issue lately, especially with the G20/G8 coming up in Toronto along with their anticipated protests, many of which are motivated by long-term justice issues which involve issues like the one O’Donovan reflects on above (e.g., Palestine/Israel, native rights in Canada).

If anyone has given thought to this issue before, I have a question: is there any way the criteria for judging when a crime’s time for judgment has passed can be more clearly defined? Perhaps they cannot, but I can’t help but think this particular problem is at the root of a lot of the worlds continuing violent conflicts.