Graham Swift on justice and love

Before the flu hit I read Graham Swift “The Light of Day” (overall verdict: if I’d read it before I read “Last Orders” I would probably have thought it was AMAZING and told everyone to read it; as is, they might as well read “Last Orders”, which does a lot of the same stuff plus much much more; but this is still better than most).

One passage jumped out at me, where the narrator muses on what his ex-wife retained from the Christian faith she abandoned, and then moves to his own ‘secularisation’ of a half-remembered piece of teaching about God:

“I remember some passage being read out somewhere, that there’s no sinner so bad, so worthless, that God will ever let them slip through the net of his love… And whether he’s up there or not, and whether he’s got a net, I don’t know. But I think that’s how it ought to be, just among us. There ought to be at least one other person who won’t let us slip through their net. No matter what we do, no matter what we’ve done. It’s not a question of right and wrong. It’s not a question of justice. There ought even to be someone for [the violent criminal whose case he was involved in as a police officer], even [him]. I don’t know who it is. I know it’s not me”.

This strikes me as fascinating on many levels – not least within the story and the development of the narrator’s character (he’s constantly negotiating the space between questions of “justice” and questions that, as he puts it at another point, go “beyond the law”(!) without abrogating the law).  There’s something about the moral division of labour; justice has to be executed and the “net” has to be spread out, and both are the right thing to do, and usually they simply cannot be done by the same person.(On a trivial level, I remember the first and only time I “eldered” someone in a Meeting, and was of course terrified about the upset and hurt that this would cause while still pretty clear that it had to be done, and was told very directly by a much more experienced Friend “that was fine, you did the right thing, and now you leave him to the Meeting to look after, other people will deal with it). I think much of my dissatisfaction with “ethics of care” thinking arose from a sense that anything at all about justice was being portrayed, not just as limited, but as Bad (masculinist, rationalist, etc etc etc). Increasingly I feel we run short of ways of talking usefully (which also means e.g. without patronising anyone) about the non-systematisable range of different moral tasks.

Oh yes, and I’ve always been keen on the tradition of Torah-interpretation that has one divine name for the “attribute of justice” and another for the “attribute of mercy”. And yes, I suppose I could write a lecture on atonement starting from here (might work better than starting from the novel of that name).


One response to this post.

  1. hi Rachel, nice new blog!


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