Having spent the heart of my career pursuing “peace and justice,” "criminal justice,” and more recently, “restorative justice,” I continue to ask what the word justice means in our every day lives as well as in the public domain of the law. The Senate trial this week forces me to again question whether the meaning has any real foundation or is it just a vague ideal at the discretion to the manipulation of those in power?
Perhaps the place to start with my response is by asking what is injustice? We certainly know it fairly well when we see, or especially when we feel it our gut. For me injustice means circumstances are out of balance (symbol of the scales for justice) and fairness. Of course each of us will want to define unfairness out of our own situations and experiences, so the definition will always be somewhat subjective and seldom objective. But there is an innate sense in each of us when our values around equality are violated. (Children - or adults! - figuring out how to distribute a shared desert comes to mind.) Our sensibilities go on various levels of alert when we believe someone uses and abuses excessive power and money, especially at the neglect and expense of those with less.
We could say, then, that the pursuit of justice constitutes an aspiration to maintain a tolerable, equitable balance of distribution of almost everything in our lives - time with spouse and children, money, responsibility, and power over, for example. So we have written or unwritten rules in our families and organizations about how we share equitably. (We all know the “one cuts, the other chooses” rule with that shared dessert!”) And the noblest part of the American experiment of government called democracy states the ideal that "all are created equal" and the structure is designed, again ideally, to provide equal access under the law. When we experience confidence and assurance that there is equal access, we can accept there will always be tensions in calibrating the limits of equality. Further, we have ways of negotiating and determining whether we have crossed lines of equality and fairness through a governmental check and balance system and courts of law designed to signal and correct violations of inequality or the abuse of power.
In my own ethical framework, I consider our Quaker testimony of “equality” as the centerpiece of our six-part moral framework we call our testimonies.* If we assume an intrinsic equal, base-line value in each and every person ("that of God in each person and all of creation” in our tradition) we have the foundation for peace making, community, and a check on exploitation. Likewise, when we respect and practice the assumption of a basic equality in a society we are at least closer to creating and fostering a just community.
But the reality of life, sadly, is simply not in balance, and for most of the people in the world, life is not fair and just. In my field of criminal justice (or "criminal injustice” as I sometimes say) equal treatment under the law is a sham of racial, class, financial and privilege bias. Ideally when a law is broken and significant harm done, and the public safety is addressed, perhaps through incarceration or separation, a just system of law would want to ask some questions: Why did a person act so irresponsibly and harmfully and can we make sure that, if possible, they will no longer act that way?; Is there a failure in the social fabric of our society that allows, or even encourages, criminal behavior without accountability so that crime and intentional harm happens again and again? What are the structures in place that provide healing and reconciliation when someone acknowledges the truth of the harm in their wrongdoing and express remorse and a commitment to change?
The Senate trial this week offers little acknowledgement of truth, remorse or reconciliation. The closest the trial came to achieving “balance and equality” is to assure sustained resentment and, at worse, as in many situations when we are deeply hurt, a strong desire for revenge and the original harm is compounded. When “truth and reconciliation” about the inequality of injustice is denied, justice fails.
So I mourn the failure of justice this week, for those directly involved in Congress (both sides), for the diminishment in the honor of our Constitutional judicial system, and the failure of our democratic experiment itself.
I am consoled, however, to know that a better way is being created. A growing awareness and implementation of restorative justice practices is creating new possibilities for righting injustice. (If you want a long conversation with me sometime, ask me to tell you how restorative justice might work.) In terms of national and systemic restorative justice practice, South Africa was but a start.
I can imagine a world where every family and community will approach times of conflict by asking the simple question of what harm has been done and what is needed to right that harm so that the parties can be at least somewhat reconciled to the point of being able to affirm that “all hearts are clear” rather than sustained resentment and bitter feelings of revenge. And I can imagine a wider world where the injustice of inequality is seriously addressed because of the realization of the enormous harm being done to people through deprivation. I probably won’t live to see that vision fulfilled, but in my mind it is a realistic and achievable goal. I welcome others to join me.
Peace and justice,
*The Quaker testimonies include simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship - our “SPICES")