The Irony of Justice (May-Jun 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jeffrey B. Hammond
May – June, 2002

An attorney puts our standard views of justice on trial

A few weeks ago, a Houston, Texas jury returned a guilty verdict against Andrea Yates, the now infamous woman who systematically drowned her five children in a family bathtub.

Although it is not the purpose of this essay to analyze the Yates verdict, about which reasonable minds may disagree, it is interesting to note the cacophony of voices heard after the verdict was rendered. The media was replete with experts confidently declaring sound bites such as, “justice was done” and “those children were vindicated,” or, alternatively, “this was a travesty of justice” and “how could the jury have convicted an insane person?”The Yates trial is offered by way of example of the pedestrian view of justice. Too often, justice is conceived in the popular mind as something done by an apparatus of the state for the purpose of correcting a debt. In the Yates case and other criminal cases, guilty verdicts and the concomitant punishment that often accompany the verdicts are frequently seen as attempts to balance the egregiousness of the wrong against the victim and society at large. What do we sometimes say of a person that has completed a term in prison – he (or she) has served his debt to society?

Apart from everyman’s working notions of justice, the concept has a long and venerable tradition. The Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, delved deeply into the topic. Justice is a foundational idea for current systems of both philosophical and theological ethics. In fact, when intellectual historians look back on the twentieth century, they just might concede that the most important work of American philosophy during the century was John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, a weighty and elaborate complex of ideas based in part on the concept of the social contract that free people enter into with each other.

There is, however, a conception of justice that does not depend on satisfying debts to society through the judicial system. Nor does it necessarily depend on the principle-orientation found in theoretical construals of the concept. There is a biblical witness for seeing justice as a “live” concept, something to be proactively accomplished by those who seek after God. Quite simply, reconciliation is an important, if overlooked component of the biblical view of justice. It is radical to state that reconciliation is a part of justice because contemporary Americans have been conditioned to think of justice in criminological terms. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds, most of us hold the retributive theory of punishment as our working theory of justice. This idea roughly equates punishment of a guilty person with justice being accomplished. Or, to extrapolate the idea, there is visceral thought brooding in most of us that wants to see someone who commits a wrong against us pay dearly for his transgression. Retribution couches justice in transactional terms. Someone did something to us (or to society), and for the transaction to be complete, the wrongdoer must suffer a consequence. It is counterintuitive to consider that loving, forgiving, and working for a wrongdoer to have a right relationship with the wronged person would also be an accomplishment of justice. Nevertheless, person-to-person reconciliation is the practical, searching form of justice by which Christians model the divine reconciliation we have received through Jesus. Paul’s injunction for the church at Corinth to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) has a broad and deep resonance for the contemporary church. As Jesus perfected the ministry of reconciliation through his body, likewise we are to be ministers of reconciliation through the active use of our bodies, seeking just relationships with each other.

Justice, then, is a function of reconciliation, which itself is a function of love. To be reconciled with another person is to declare “justice has been done.”This is the irony of justice. Reconciliation is an act made in love, emanating from the freedom the believer has in Christ. To seek reconciliation one must be empowered by the Holy Spirit to scale the walls of bitterness, regret, and desire for revenge that keep a person locked to retributive ideas of punishment. Again, this groundwork for reconciliation can be laid only by the Spirit, who has the power to reconstitute even the most recalcitrant heart.

Some might claim that the reconciliation as justice model is too unwieldy and impractical for real world injustices. However, consider South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Charged with bringing to the light of day horrific brutalities committed during the apartheid era in South Africa, the TRC held years of proceedings in which victims of apartheid-related crimes were able to share their previously unspoken, but festering wounds. Equally as important was the Commission’s role in hearing from the perpetrators of apartheid-related crimes. The fulcrum on which the Commission’s work balanced was honesty. In exchange for complete candor with the TRC, an accused apartheid perpetrator was granted amnesty from prosecution. Only when atrocities were spoken and the white-hot glare of public attention was focused on the person responsible for particular actions, could the country fully scrutinize the grotesqueness of the crimes and thus gain deeper perspective on the long national trauma of apartheid. Importantly, truth came first, and then came the reconciliation in the form of amnesty and sometimes even forgiveness from victims. In the foreword to the Commission’s Report, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winning former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and the Chairperson of the Commission, summarized a purpose of the Commission:

We have been concerned, too, that many consider only one aspect of justice. Certainly, amnesty cannot be viewed as justice if we think of justice only as retributive and punitive in nature. We believe, however, that there is another kind of justice – a restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances,restoring broken relationships – with healing, harmony and reconciliation. Such justice focuses on the experience of victims; hence the importance of reparation.[1]

The honesty that was the foundation of the Commission’s work was designed to foster a dual sense of worth and reconciliation. Victims began to reclaim vestiges of their lives that were savagely stripped by members of the apartheid establishment. Conversely, instigators of atrocities could bare their souls, ask for supplication, and therefore begin their own processes of mending self-inflicted scars caused by hate and ignorance. Most importantly, the Commission taught the world that reconciliation is a mutual process. For justice to be done, wrongs must be unstintingly confessed. And as we have seen, for justice to be done, those aggrieved must forego punishment in favor of what Archbishop Tutu called “restorative justice.”

This particular understanding of justice would be impoverished if it were limited to reconciliation and justice in the context of personal or societal wrongs. The reader will notice that the word “active” has been used several times, as has its cousin, the recent addition to the modern lexicon “proactive.”This was done purposefully, as a biblical view of justice cannot be limited to a passive reaction to perceived injustices. Rather, affirmative curative steps to social wrongs are also within the mandate of the believer’s action in the world. Consider God’s mandate for the nascent people of Israel to leave behind some crops in their harvested fields and vineyards (Deut. 24:19-22).. This is social justice at its best. Israel’s dependence on God was ever present in God’s instruction: “Leave what remains for the alien, fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” (v.22)Nevertheless, the systemic problem of hunger was at least partially alleviated through heeding God’s mandate.

Some believers may be called to tackle great societal injustices, while other believers may be focused on smaller, more immediate societal injustices in their immediate surroundings. In recent years, trends in sociology of religion seem to indicate that conservative and evangelical Americans are becoming more engaged in aggressively seeking solutions to cultural and social problems.[2]Whichever track one is on, be confident that as followers of the exemplar of reconciliation, Jesus, Christians have power from above to discern social problems that need correction and a sustaining power to right them.

Finally, be mindful of this warning.Actually being just is much harder than talking or writing about justice.The first steps in acting as a minister of reconciliation are inevitably halting and provisional.My first reaction to the murder of the Yates children was like that of many Christians – we wanted to lock up Andrea Yates and throw away the key.Should Mrs. Yates be punished? Undoubtedly.The sentence of the Houston court to life imprisonment is commensurate with her crimes and her dire mental condition.Should she be abandoned in the Texas prisons to a life of desolation and despair, without a hope of restoration to herself, the rest of her family, or God?A biblical view of justice would say that such abandonment is revenge, which is not the human’s prerogative to mete out — that privilege is God’s alone. Only with time, experience, and manifestations of the “patience…[and] goodness” that are some of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), can a Christian become seasoned in giving and receiving the restorative form of justice.Notwithstanding this admonishment, the road of justice as reconciliation is certainly a worthy road on which to travel.

Jeffrey B. Hammond is an attorney in private practice in Nashville, Tennessee. He has co-written a chapter for the forthcoming book, Cultural Transformation and Human Rights (Zed Books), with leading international human rights scholar, Abdullahi An-Na’im. He is married to Susan Hammond, and they have a five-month old daughter, Katherine.

[1] The Very Rev. Desmond M. Tutu, “Foreword,” in Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Check www.macmillan-reference.co.uk/PandH/PDF/trc.1 at 5, 6.

[2] See generally, Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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