Pondering on Justice

Image from goodmenproject.com

Principle #6: The Universe is on the Side of Justice. …. 

As the country celebrated its “independence” last weekend, I found myself reflecting on the concept of justice.

Earlier that week, I watched a young man I’ve known for three years receive a life sentence. I watched the District Attorney and the friends of the victim advocate for “justice,” which for them meant this young man receiving the maximum penalty. And I found myself frustrated at how far apart our understanding of the concept of justice is. I watched the judge hand down the sentence, nonchalantly “doing her job” as she left another life and another family devastated. And I found myself indignant at how normalized this system of retribution has become.

I also watched this young man’s mother testify in tears about her son’s upbringing, and plead for leniency. I watched a passionate defense attorney fight for every legal right for her client. I watched the blank look on the young man’s face as he turned around one last time to see his family before being taken away. And I couldn’t help but hurt. I couldn’t help but think of how this system furthers harm instead of healing it.

I also watched the pain and the anger in the victim’s friend’s testimonies. I think about the victim’s young daughter and everything she will miss out on in life. I also saw the compassion and understanding in the judge’s eyes as she listened intently to my own testimony, to my own faith and conviction in this young man’s ability to give back to society. These are complicated issues, and part of our responsibility in seeing the complete picture is to honor the real harm that this young man caused, and to not dehumanize the people who are part of this larger system.

But I am convinced that what was handed down in that courtroom is not “justice.” I am convinced that it only furthered the harm, and in reality brought us further away from justice.

Nothing anyone does can change what this young man did. And yet, the ways in which we respond to incidents of harm can change the way we heal or don’t heal from that harm.

I want so badly for our society to heal. I want so badly for all parties to receive justice.

“Words are fingers pointing at the moon; they are not the moon itself.” Image from awakeningclaritynow.com

An old Zen saying teaches us that words are just fingers pointing at the moon; they are not the moon itself. We use words, which are nothing more than sounds that we make with our vocal chords, to convey a concept. Words are therefore dynamic, and different people can use the same word to convey different concepts, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

People often times use the word “justice” to describe the concept of punishment and retribution. And I think this is a dangerous and harmful interpretation.

Dr. King described justice as “balance.” And even that can lead to misunderstandings and furthering of harm. Many people could argue that “an eye for an eye” is balance. You took from me, therefore I take from you.

If justice is balance, then violence and harm takes us in one direction away from that balance. Furthering the harm does not bring things back into balance; it moves us even further away from balance towards the direction of harm and violence.

We often times see the concept of justice visualized as a scale. If we put weight on one side of the scale, it would take things out of balance. If we put weight on the side of harm, it skews the sense of balance towards the direction of harm. Adding more harm, putting more weight on the side of violence, investing further into pain and suffering brings us further away from balance, from order, from justice.

When harm is committed, we need to combat that by putting weight on the side of compassion. When violence is committed, we need to invest in peace. That is justice.

Scales of Justice. Image from ahmadiyyamalta.wordpress.com

After participating in six two-day workshops on nonviolence, this young man was on our list to join the next group of inmates to go into a six-month, advanced training to become certified as a nonviolence trainer. We talked about how much he has learned from the program, and how he would love the opportunity to talk to young people about it and to share his experience. We talked about how he would like to give back and invest in peace, so that he can tip the scales of justice back towards balance.

That, to me would be justice. Sadly, he will not be able to join our certification program as he gets shipped to a different state prison.

Incarceration does not allow people to be in service. It does not allow people to give back, to try to repair the harm they have committed, to invest in peace and to work for justice. It is those impacted by harm – on all sides – that have the biggest role to play in repairing that harm and bringing things back to balance. Incarceration takes away their ability to be leaders in the process of healing.

The universe does not care whether we as human beings continue to invest in violence and continue to tip the scale towards harm. If we continue to invest in harm, it is “just” that we continue to live in a society filled with it. It is up to us to invest in peace, and to tip the scale back into balance.

Let us all continue to work for a justice that leads to peace, healing and reconciliation. Let us all hold in our hearts all families impacted by violence on all sides of the story. And ECE, know that I am thinking of you.