Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

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