“The family now has closure.”

This is a classic “cant” saying: a “stock phrase temporarily in fashion” as the Oxford Dictionary tells us. Yet, despite its banality, the saying exposes what passes for contemporary moral thinking. And it gives us a way of talking about the unpopular opinion that there is a God who will judge the world.

For when do we hear it mainly? As a media declaration at the end of a trial, often a  murder trial, where the criminal has received his reward and there is satisfaction all round.

Well, more or less satisfaction. When the family is interviewed, the inconvenient fact of the irreversible death of a beloved person is often referred to and the inability of the family to find real “closure” is laid bare for all to see. But something has to be said to round off the story, and so “the family now has closure” is intoned.

And “intoned” is not a bad description. There is another element to the dictionary definition here: Cant involves, “language implying … goodness or piety which does not exist.” The gravity and self-satisfaction in the voices of those who use the phrase are also notable. Justice has been done.

But that is what makes the phrase really interesting. For what is justice and where does such a notion, even when dressed up in the word “closure,” come from? In fact, the word closure itself used in this way is fascinating.

Feeling Better vs Retribution

I am presuming that the word has been popularised because we don’t want to say “justice has been done.” And yet it expresses an important part of justice: namely that justice requires an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There has to be an element of equivalence in justice – else there is no justice, no closure.

If the word justice is no longer to be used, though, there is a reason. After all, in a world of moral relativism, there is no objective right and wrong and no guilt. We cannot say that justice has been done. But if we talk of closure, this suggests the emotions of the family have been attended to – they feel better now that they have closure. But, unavoidably, the idea of justice has been smuggled in. Their emotions are tied to a reality – in this case, punishment intended to express some sort of retribution. We long for justice.

Tell-tale Signs

I am pointing this out as a way of saying even in our world, the inner self cannot help bearing witness to the truth. It is very hard to be a secularist; you are talking and living against the grain of reality. Words like closure seem to avoid a problem but instead, their very peculiarity bears witness to your inner conviction that there are such things as right and wrong, justice and injustice, fault and forgiveness.

I am arguing that common language and expressions point beyond themselves to a reality of God-given standards to which we are accountable. It is, perhaps, an easier path to examine the phrase “it’s not fair,” a short sentence readily found even on the lips of two-year-olds.

When the parent gives a larger helping to one child, the eagle eyes of aggrieved justice notice at once and the cry goes up:

“It’s not fair!”

This demand for justice and equal treatment can only be met by instant redress, or by a relevant explanation as to why the other child is favoured. It would be sufficient to say, “but I gave you your chocolate five minutes ago when Jack was not here,” for example. Then, the infant might still complain, but even a two-year-old knows when the case is lost.

Yet what we cannot easily say is this: “in my world, where right and wrong accords with my own opinion, I wish to favour Jack – and I do.” For even parents have to submit to a higher law, and children can appeal to that law over their (parents’) heads. But whose law is that? Where does it come from? Why do we acquiesce to it?

A Judge-Shaped Gap

I do not doubt that there are different answers to these questions. But the questions need to be discussed, and the Christian answer given. We would want to say that it is the absence of a concept of divine justice which forces people to say something as anodyne as “the family has achieved closure.” And yet, paradoxically, the phrase itself is pointing to the gap where divine justice stands, a gap where one day all fairness will be done.

Perhaps the day will come when the TV reporter will say, “Human justice has been done; divine justice will be done; may the family find some closure in that.”

In the meantime, as Bible people, we can point to the gap and the only thing that can fill it: “You want justice? Have no fear, one day perfect justice will be done and all will be put to rights.”

But then perhaps it is precisely the fear of that which makes us think that closure is possible in this life.

Photo: Jason Morrison, freeimages.com