(Photo credit: Heiko Müller‘s painting, Enunciator Revisited. http://heikomüller.de)
Does justice exist?
As I have begun to read, discuss, and think about this topic, I have realized that I do not have a strong grip on what justice means. I have looked up the dictionary definitions, found the word itself used in many a literary context, and I have sought the understanding of individuals within my own circle: individuals from varying social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. What I have learned is this: justice has something to do with fairness.
Fairness is the idea that there is some inherent system of checks and balances written within the DNA of the earth itself, as well as on the minds and hearts of those who live here. To further focus the idea, Webster’s dictionary definition of the word fair is “agreeing with what is thought to be right or acceptable.”
Ah. The plot thickens.
“Fair” is based on rightness or the fact that something either is or is not acceptable. It naturally follows then that if I treat you in a way that I deem right, or at least acceptable, I am a fair person.
Lately, I have heard many news broadcasts and radio programs as well as a number of social media reactions to the Netflix documentary called Making a Murderer.
This is not a blog about Making a Murderer!
I have watched this documentary, which tells the story of a man wrongfully charged with a murder in 1985. He is eventually exonerated and set free from his false imprisonment. Within a short period of time of his release, he is accused of a totally separate crime: a heinous rape and murder. Eventually, he is sent to prison (again) for that crime. The documentary is edited together in a way that leaves the audience absolutely livid with the verdict in the case: if you watch the entire ten hours of the documentary, you will believe that the man being accused of murder for a second time is—for a second time—innocent and that the justice system in America has failed him greatly.
All of that being said…
This phrase, “The justice system is failing us,” is a common sentiment in our country today. I have even found myself saying it on occasion. The more I think it and say it, the more I wonder, “What exactly is justice? And why is this idea failing us as a human race?” As a common citizen of the United States—not a lawyer, a member of law enforcement, or a judge—I would like to share my perspective about what justice is, what it is not, and why I believe it does not really exist on this earth.
Stephen R. Lawhead, a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, writes, “If thou seek justice, thyself must be just.” Okay. Sounds good to me. So, based on Mr. Lawhead’s assertion, I offer for your approval the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word justice:
“The process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.”
Based on that definition, I guess Mr. Lawhead (whose name, in this instance, is a mere irony as he was not a man of the court) intended to say that if you want to deem an action just, you must also BE just. I will take it a step further by inferring that in order for you or I to choose what is fair, we must not only be filled with the understanding of what is fair but also BE fair within ourselves and in our daily actions.
I will stop here for a moment and make at attempt to siphon the above information through the sieve of an overly simple analogy:
Fairness is like milk. You are like a glass. If you have milk inside of you, you can pour milk out of yourself into another’s glass. If you have no milk, you cannot offer milk to anyone. Therefore, fairness is a possession of the mind, and justice is the act of extending that fairness (or milk) to others.
Let us leave the simple now and move to the words of one of the most brilliant civil rights leaders in history, Martin Luther King Jr. Consider his words:
“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
He has also been quoted as sharing this sentiment on the issue of justice:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
Whoa, Mr. King! Those are some heavy words…words that communicate the idea that justice is like an anchor, which steadies and secures the rights of not only each individual soul but also each state, each country, and indeed, the world. And if justice does not really exist…life is a tumultuous sea in which the plight of every human life is given to the whims of the ocean’s currents and the will of the bigger fish whose jaws are big enough to eat the smaller fish.
What Mr. King is saying is that if there is no justice, there is no peace.
Perhaps one could argue that there are two kinds of justice. The first kind is that which flows from the individual’s inalienable understanding of fairness, and the other is a man-made construct (based on each individual’s inalienable understanding of fairness) found in the rules and laws governing each land. Even Webster’s Dictionary makes room for the division of the two when it offers a second definition of justice, “the administration of law; especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.”
So, now we have fairness, which is the ingredient for justice, and justice, which is the ingredient for law. (I also notice that the word “equality” was mentioned…this could be another article in and of itself.)
Allow me one more diversion before I get to my main point:
Elie Wiesel, who claims to be a survivor of the Holocaust, has written, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Okay. Yes. There are times when a person or a situation or a circumstance will not bear witness to the idea of justice. Instead, the opposite of justice will prevail, and when that happens, we are wise to protest.
Or, maybe it is our duty to protest injustice?
Or, if we do not protest injustice, we are acting in a way that opens the door to further injustice?
Mr. Wiesel’s words imply that we as human beings are somehow “in charge of” justice. We are the keepers of the treasure trove in which justice is stored. Justice is our responsibility. And following that logic, if we are responsible for justice, we are also responsible for peace. We are the peace-keepers.
We, the tillers of the land, the namers of the animal kingdom, the builders of buildings, and the destructors of the rain forests, are responsible for the upkeep of justice and peace.
Does that feel a little…unrealistic…to anyone else reading these words? You (yes, you), my fellow finite creature who is filled with flaws, biases, weaknesses, and fears of your own: Do you feel equipped to be the keeper of justice and peace?
Let us look, for a moment; leave ourselves and our fellow human beings behind and look to the animal kingdom for these ideas: the ideas of fairness, justice, and, thereby, peace.
A lion can attack and eat a cheetah. So he does.
Do the monkeys then protest the right of the cheetah to live freely in the lion’s den?
A cat can chase and eat a mouse. So he does.
Do the dogs hold a parade to protest the right of the mouse to live his life in peace?
Animals live by the order of nature. Do we?
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist and nonfiction prose writer, has written, “Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone: the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”
I guess we could say that if the earth and the animal kingdom (nature) act savagely, they are excused of their actions. But if we as humans act savagely, we are held responsible for our actions. Nature and animals and life itself are not expected to act with fairness, but we humans are…and not only are we asked to ACT fairly, but we are also asked to maintain the fairness of others, as well.
Here is my point:
Human beings are born flawed. And our lives here on earth are not marked by fairness. We struggle to maintain a sense of fairness in our own relationships, as well as in the way we see others relating to those outside of ourselves, but, in the end, justice cannot truly be ours to mete out because we are not above nature or our own flesh: We are in it. We are of it.
For example, one of my good friends has a son who is three years old. When he was one year old, he would hit other children if they took a toy away from him. His instinct was to keep the toy that was his because he was motivated by his own selfish desire. Now that he is two years old, he does not hit other children who take away his toys. Instead, I can see him get angry at the injustice of being left with nothing, and I can see him make the choice not to hit the other child and take his toy back. I would not say he is acting with nobility. I would say he is acting with the manners taught to him as a means of getting a prize bigger than the toy: the freedom to continue playing instead of being punished by having to sit quietly on his own.
To further the example, when this three year old sees his girlfriend mistreated in some way, he will take matters into his own hands by either hitting or reasoning with the other three year old who is acting unfairly. This sense of fairness is inherent, and we do what we can do protect it as children. But we also learn at an early age that some actions have consequences that make us feel good, and have greater rewards, and some actions have consequences that make us feel bad.
You see? Even in the three year old on the playground, we see that his motives are already mixed up with his own desires. His own flaws, biases, weaknesses, and fears.
How can we imagine that as we grow into adults and become more and more knowledgeable of details of the moral constructs we espouse that we are somehow able to maintain the objectivity that would allow us—the keepers of justice and peace—to, well, judge fairly and live in peace?
I will end with my overly simple analogy, as it is stated above: Fairness is like milk. You are like a glass. If you have milk inside of you, you can pour milk out of yourself into another’s glass. If you have no milk, you cannot offer milk to anyone. Therefore, fairness is a possession of the mind, and justice is the act of extending that fairness (or milk) to others. And if you are not filled with milk, you cannot give anyone else a drink.
I remember standing in the concentration camp Auschwitz in the summer of 2013, when one of the guides told the story of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of the camp. She explained that Höss was hanged in 1947 near the gas chamber that stood a matter of feet from the house in which he and his family lived during the war. I looked at the place where his life was taken from him, and I was struck by the fact that I was glad he was killed—glad because I felt as though the wrong he committed deserved to be rectified—but I was also struck by the fact that his death meant so little. Höss was responsible for the death of countless Jewish men, women, and children during his tenure at Auschwitz: the death of this one man did not reestablish justice at the end of the war. His one human life did not make up for the loss of millions.
For that matter, when Hitler shot himself as he hid in his underground lair, his death did not restore fairness or justice for the millions of human lives he was responsible for ending. It feels good for us to read about it or hear the story retold, but did his death restore justice?
Justice has something to do with fairness. And fairness is not realistic. We need, therefore, a way to restore peace that does not solely rely on justice.
I assert that one way to restore peace is forgiveness. Where justice fails, forgiveness interjects true peace for the man or woman who forgives. Forgiveness dismisses a debt. Forgiveness is dismissing your demand that others owe you something. It is releasing your resentment toward an offender and releasing your rights regarding the offense: the right to dwell on the offense, hold on to the offense, and to keep bringing up the offense.
Every one of us has a reason to forgive and a reason to ask forgiveness. I posit that we would all prefer forgiveness to justice.
I will end with a quote from Agatha Christie’s book Murder at the Vicarage: “I was thinking, that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.”
—copyright Jill Szoo Wilson
Edited by: Miranda Dunning