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WHAT EXCUSES FROM RESTITUTION





THOSE who do not obtain full justice from man in this world will obtain
it in the next from God. If we do not meet our obligations this side of
the tribunal of the just Judge, He will see to it that our accounts are
equitably balanced when the time for the final reckoning comes. This
supposes, naturally, that non-fulfilment of obligations is due on our
part to unwillingness--a positive refusal, or its equivalent, wilful
neglect, to undo the wrongs committed. For right reason and God's mercy
must recognize the existence of a state of unfeigned and hopeless
disability, when it is impossible for the delinquent to furnish the
wherewithal to repair the evils of which he has been guilty. When this
condition is permanent, and is beyond all remedy, all claims are
extinguished against the culprit, and all losses incurred must be
ascribed to "an act of God," as the coroner says. For no mart can be
held to what is impossible.

Chief among these moral, as well as legal, bankrupts is the
good-for-nothing fellow who is sorry too late, who has nothing, has no
hopes of ever having anything, and who therefore can give nothing. You
cannot extract blood from a beet, nor shekels from an empty purse. Then
a man may lose all his belongings in a catastrophe, and after striving
by labor and economy to pay off his debts, may see himself obliged to
give up the task through sickness, misfortune or other good causes. He
has given all he has, he cannot give more. Even though liabilities
were stacked up mountain-high against him, he cannot be held morally
responsible, and his creditors must attribute their losses to the
misfortune of life--a rather unsubstantial consolation, but as good a
one as the poor debtor has.

There are other cases where the obligations of restitution are not
annulled, but only cancelled for the time being, until such a time as
circumstances permit their being met without grave disaster to the
debtor. The latter may be in such a position that extreme, or great,
want would stare him in the face, if he parted with what he possesses
to make restitution. The difficulty here is out of all proportion with
the injustice committed for, after all, one must live, and charity
begins at home, our first duty is toward ourselves. The creditors of
this man have no just claim against him until he improves his
circumstances; in the meantime, the burden of responsibility is lifted
from his shoulders.

The same must be said when the paying off of a debt at any particular
time, be it long or short, would cripple a man's finances, wipe out his
earnings to such an extent as to make him fall considerably below his
present position in life. We might take a case during the late coal
famine, of a man who, in order to fill his contracts of coal at six
dollars a ton, would be obliged to buy it at fifteen and twenty dollars
a ton; and thereby sacrifice his fortune. The thing could not be
expected, it is preposterous. His obligee must wait and hope for better
times.

A man's family is a part of himself. Therefore the payment of a just
debt may be deferred In order to shield from want parents, wife,
children, brothers or sisters. Life, limb and reputation are greater
possessions than riches; consequently, rather than jeopardize these,
one may, for the time, put aside his obligations to make restitution.

All this supposes, of course, that during the interval of delay the
creditor does not suffer inconveniences greater than, or as great as,
those the debtor seeks to avoid. The latter's right to defer payment
ceases to exist the moment it comes into conflict with an equal right
of the former to said payment. It is against reason to expect that,
after suffering a first injustice, the victim should suffer a second in
order to spare the guilty party a lesser or an equal injury. Preference
therefore must be given to the creditor over the debtor when the
necessity for sacrifice is equal, and leniency must be refused when it
becomes cruelty to the former.

Outside these circumstances, which are rare indeed, it will be seen at
once that the creditor may act an unjust part in pressing claims that
accidentally and temporarily become invalid. He has a right to his own,
but he is not justified in vindicating that right, if in so doing, he
inflicts more damage than equity calls for. The culprit has a right not
to suffer more than he deserves, and it is mock justice that does not
respect that right. If the creditor does suffer some loss by the delay,
this might be a circumstance to remember at the final settlement but
for the present, there is an impediment to the working of justice,
placed by the fatal order of things and it is beyond power to remove
it.






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