I’ve just found the Puritan quote I half-remembered in a recent comment, courtesy of Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog:
“When sin grows ripe, and abounds in a land or nation, at such a time as this a man may know there is some fearful judgment approaching. But when is sin ripe? When it is impudent, when men grow bold in sin, making it their whole course and trade of life. When men’s wicked courses are their common lifestyle, and they don’t even know how to do otherwise . . . The more sin, the more danger. When men are secure in their sinning, it is as if they are daring the God of heaven to do his worst.”Richard Sibbes, Refreshment for the Soul, p. 76.
I recently read Oliver Twist, having wrongly assumed, probably from remembering a kids’ version or snatches of Lionel Bart, that I already had. As so often in Dickens, his castigation of an unjust legal system is prominent. He berates the fact that the legal institutions make an already impossible life even harder for the abjectly poor of c.1850. The book is based, of course, on the abuses of the Poor Laws that put Oliver to starvation in a workhouse. But in describing the law courts in London, he remarks drily how the same prison that houses a pauper for begging and not working also houses the poor street musician for working without paying for a licence. Idle or industrious, “It’s the poor wot gets the blame.”
In some ways there is an equality of injustice under the law in the book. The rich gentleman who objects to the neglect of due process when Oliver is summarily tried is himself threatened by the magistrate. And (as is developed more in other novels) Dickens points out how it is the legal entanglements over property rights that lead to whole areas falling into neglect, to become the slums that breed vice amongst the poor.
But it is the poor who suffer most, and if one may try to simplify a complex social situation, it is because they are effectively invisible to the well off, and particularly the lawmakers, as plantation slaves had been in the previous century. They are viewed en masse, as a self-created problem rather than as individual victims of social policy. We all now know the tales of enclosures of commons, cuts in agricultural wages and evictions, leading to mass migration to industrial cities where the infrastructure could not cope, and wages could not keep pace with prices, which were just as high for those without work.
Yet Dickens’s very reason for writing was to make the invisible visible, and he did succeed in arousing the consciences of the better off, or as we may put it “the national conscience.” He thus contributed to the nation’s efforts to remedy the evil, of which perhaps the most effective parts were drains and clean water. This indicates that, yes, there was a bloated and self-interested legal system, and a complacent upper class, but overall the problems were largely the inability to mitigate rapid societal changes. An ignorant and vicious poor, victims of the law rather than beneficiaries of its protection, was not the intended aim. That this is so is shown by the fact that in my generation the working class from which my parents had risen had cars, fridges and free university educations, and were shocked if cases of miscarriage of justice occurred, whether for petty thief Derek Bentley or Sub-postmasters wrongly accused of fraud.
Now, though, we see many signs that the judicial system has become not so much blind to those who, in the event, suffer injustice, but all too able to see the opponents of those in power, and to target them with the law. The law has become a means of coercion as it is in totalitarian states, not a means of redress for the weak, as it originated in this country.
In the US, Tara Reade has just had to seek political asylum in Moscow, having made accusations of sexual abuse against Joe Biden. She fears her actual life is in danger (“Epstein killed himself”), but has every reason to be as afraid of the legal system itself, given the fate of other whistleblowers on government misconduct like Edward Snowden, who was forced to end up in Moscow as an efficient international surveillance system (on which he blew the whistle) managed to cancel his passport in mid journey.
But in Britain, too, the targeting of inconvenient truth-tellers by the legal system is every bit as bad. It may be America that is seeking to imprison Julian Assange for life (or failing that, to assassinate him, as we learned not long ago), but it was a British judge who approved his extradition to the US, though an Australian citizen, and his health has been destroyed in British solitary confinement though he has not been charged with any offence. And let us not forget Tommy Robinson, whose crime was to expose official condoning of child sex-abuse rings, and who was not only demonized and silenced as a supposed “far right extremist,” but given recurrent spells in prison (one in the same block as Assange) to remind him who has the power of life and death in democratic England.
The other side of the coin, as we have seen repeatedly, is the absolutely brazen manner in which the powerful always avoid all significant legal sanctions. The latest is the token charges against Hunter Biden, and the plea bargain his lawyers struck, which simply enables the regime to say that he has faced the law, whilst ignoring an international corruption operation involving the now-President, that has severely compromised US security. You will remember how a similar plea-bargain enabled Jeffrey Epstein to serve a token prison sentence for offences against minors whilst being allowed out to work… before he became a danger to the system.
We see injustice piled on injustice for those caught up in the January 6th events, whilst the exposures of the malfeasance of those orchestrating the convictions (and possibly the event itself), leads to no darkening of the doors of criminal courts. And the free press usually ignores the revelations.
But once more, the same is true of Britain, where the architects of the Gulf War get knighthoods, whilst private soldiers acting under orders get charged as scapegoats with war crimes. Even the scandals of Partygate, though they may lose Boris Johnson his seat, have not ended up in court and large fines as the breaking of COVID regulations by lesser persons did. Who cares about political penalties when lucrative lecture tours may be given, and international posts with large salaries, large kickbacks, and diplomatic immunity, beckon?
What makes this so much worse is that it is all done quite openly by the powerful, whose ownership of the legal machinery is scarcely disguised as they turn it to serve injustice. But if Richard Sibbes was right in his assessment, the impunity of the sins of the ruling elites is the indication that their wrongdoing will not long persist, but that God himself will judge it. Injustice by judges and rulers is, I think, the clearest indicator in the Old Testament prophets of a coming disaster, usually from war from without or revolt from within. And whilst we civilised Christians wish ill on nobody, the Scripture dares to say that their downfall will be a cause of rejoicing, not mourning, by the righteous. The words of Psalm 58 sum it all up nicely: it’s only in evil times that we begin to understand godly imprecation.
1 Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
2 No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
3 Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.
6 Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
7 Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
8 May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”