Friday, December 23, 2011

Conscience vs. Justice?

About a week ago I spied a quote from Mohandas K. Gandhi (whom everyone has taken to calling "Mahatma," meaning "great soul," since the time he was still living) that a Facebook friend had posted. It went like this:
"There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts."
This got me thinking. If I were to be at the mercy of "conscience" or "justice," which would I prefer? If it were God's conscience or justice, well, let me just say that I am thankful that my sins are covered by Christ's sacrifice. But Gandhi was a practicing Hindu his entire life, and his view of "justice" and "conscience" do not match mine, nor any view bred in Western religious or philosophical thought.

So, my assumption, based on Gandhi's chosen philosophy of Hinduism, is that when he claims that "conscience" is a higher court than "justice," he is referring to man's conscience and justice. What happens when we as mere humans submit ourselves to conscience over justice?

Conscience, it seems to me, is subjective. It has indeed been shown that in every culture there are moral standards that are dominant and common, such as proscriptions to murder or theft or adultery. These can indeed be manifest in an individual in the form of conscience, which the dictionary defines as "an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one's behavior."

What if, however, an individual's, or a society's, conscience is damaged?

The first question to ask is, "can a conscience be damaged?" For one answer I will turn to a work that has been a source for moral, philosophical and theological teaching for Western civilization for the last two millennia, the Bible—specifically, the writings assembled as the New Testament.

In the apostle Paul's first letter to his young protege, Timothy, Paul encourages him thus, "This charge I entrust to youTimothymy childin accordance with the prophecies previously made about youthat by them you may wage the good warfareholding faith and good conscience." (1 Tim. 1:18-19; emphasis mine.)

Similarly, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages them thus: "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews 10:22; again, emphasis mine.)

Does this mean that there can be "good consciences" and "evil consciences"? And how would an "evil conscience" originate?

Again, Paul to Timothy: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demonsthrough the insincerity of liars whose consciences are searedwho forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." (1 Timothy 4:1-3; emphasis mine.) So, a conscience can be "seared" (some translations add an extra descriptor: "as with a hot iron"). And the letter seems to indicate that a "seared" conscience belongs to "liars" (and some translations describe them as "hypocrites").

Paul's letter to the Roman believers states "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." (Romans 1:18; emphasis mine.) So "unrighteousness" supresses "truth," and it seems to me leads to a substitution of truth by falsehood or, at the very least, error.

This says one thing pretty plainly to me: if you lie to yourself and others long enough and consistently enough, you sear your conscience.

If you are submitting to the "court of conscience," how can you be sure your are not submitting to a seared (evil) conscience?

There are many who contend there is such a thing as a "collective conscience," but it seems to me that that would be comprised of a bunch of potentially very broken consciences all reaching a consensus on right and wrong. What happens in that case is that a collection of people possessing these broken consciences pass very bad laws, leading to evil consequences, like the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of heretics and witches, and the genocide of Jews, Armenians, Romani, the infirm, homosexuals and those differing ideologically and politically from those in power.

"Justice" is such a more transcendent term than "conscience." It has universal implications. When we think of the ultimate disposition of evil men like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, and butchers on a smaller scale like John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson, the word "justice" is foremost in our minds. It speaks of a higher law wherein truth is laid bare and impartial scales employed to determine the ultimate fate of those we regard as the most heinous of offenders.

Hinduism does not have that concept of ultimate justice, only the very subjective and individually-activated karma. The gods of the Hindus are capricious, moody and changeable. It's no wonder Gandhi considered conscience to be more powerful than justice, since he could have personal experience with his own conscience. His own gods don't play by any sort of ultimate standard.

He should have known better, however. Being educated as a lawyer in the British system he would have been exposed to concepts based on the unchanging nature of God Almighty, including His ultimate justice. Those concepts are what Western jurisprudence has been based on for at least a thousand years, and is the foundation for a most of Western thought and philosophy.

Justice, founded on the unchanging moral character of God, is a far more firm foundation to rest on than the conscience of any one human being. Since conscience can be corrupted, relying on a "court of conscience" can lead to massive perversions of justice. Just ask the Jews who faced the "courts" of Nazi "conscience."

I'm thankful that, through the sacrifice of Christ, that I do not have to face the justice that is my due. But I take comfort that ultimately all humanity will face God's Court, including Hitler and the rest of the vilest of history's monsters.

And His standards will be just.

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