Proverbs 18:17 gives us the following piece of advice: “The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him.” We live in a world–and have always lived in a world–where people sought to justify themselves and get out ahead of a story as a means of trying to control how things were framed and explained and understood. Even if we have no nefarious purposes in seeking to frame stories and are entirely honest in presenting things as we see them and experience them and understand them, there has always been benefit in having multiple perspectives because other people see things and experience and understand them differently than we do. Even when these impressions and understandings are woefully mistaken–as they often are–they remind us that we are not necessarily infallible in how we read and interpret others and the situations in which we are intertwined with others.
The United States is notable for the development of an adversarial system of justice which, as I have noted elsewhere, has an asymmetry in how it operates. The interests of the defense and prosecution are, properly understood and practiced, not entirely at cross-purposes. The interest of the defense is in ensuring the best interests of the accused, while the state seeks truth. Quite often the interests of truth mean ensuring a conviction or at least obtaining a guilty plea from the accused, but not all who are accused of crimes are in fact guilty of them, and when the state moves from seeking truth to seeking conviction, miscarriages of justice are all too common. Indeed, even when it comes to receiving witnesses, the side that calls the witness gets to plead their case and seem right until they are cross-examined, at which point such witnesses may end up supporting the opposing side rather than the side that called them.
It is of vital importance that we have a critical attitude towards ourselves. It is a trivial matter to be critical to that which we are in opposition to. Such an attitude comes naturally to us if we have any native tendency towards combativeness and criticism, and as someone who has a fair amount of both tendencies it is an easy thing to be harsh on that which I oppose and abhor. It is a far more rare tendency to be critical to ourselves and to that which appears to favor us and our interests. To borrow an example from classical history and myth, the city of Troy was not defeated by the open opposition of the Greeks who attacked them in front of their city but in the apparent gift of the Trojan Horse that contained Greek soldiers. We are often endangered by that which appears to be our benefit but does not turn out to be far more than that which is openly hostile to us, that which tastes sweet to the mouth but ends up being a poison inside of us, that which people push us to partake of with promises of its benefit to us while remaining silent to the downsides while also showing an absolute refusal to own up to paying the cost to make things right for us when they turn out badly.
One of the lessons of the book of Job (and there are many good ones), is the fact that God can take honest and searching questioning. If Job found himself to be embarrassed at the stridency of his tone of questioning the justice of God, God was big enough to take such questioning and end up unscathed. If questions about the justice of God’s dealing with us are serious and often unpleasant when we reflect on the horror of what God allows in our present evil world, when viewed in the light of an eternity of blessings, the momentary suffering that we endure does tend to appear far less horrible than appears to be the case when viewed from the present moment. One of the areas in which Job’s friends fail worst is in their desire to wall of God from questioning by blaming the suffering of Job on the suffering Job himself. It is easy for us to wish to justify God by blaming those who suffer, but that is not the right answer. To be sure, sometimes we suffer for our own faults, but we often suffer simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong countries and communities and families, through no particular fault of our own. While this suffering is hardest for us to deal with, it is this suffering that allows us to gain the most benefit when it comes to empathy and compassion and understanding, because it allows us to see the evil of the present world most clearly and the way that tyrannical and oppressive authorities have often been far harsher towards the innocent than to the guilty. After all, the guilty are aware of their guilt and ready to bargain. The innocent only have their innocence to guard them against the cruelty of the powerful and that is often not nearly enough.