What Is Justice?

Our senior minister, the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert, has invited a colleague, the Rev. Dr. Cathy Harrington, to write the following article about our January 2014 churchwide theological theme of justice.

What Is Justice? 

And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
 -Micah 6:8 

What is justice? What does “justice” mean when it is complicated by the pain and anger that arise in response to human-made tragedy, tragedy close to home? When you are broken-hearted, the future is bleak. Hopelessness and helplessness overwhelm you, and the simplest of tasks can be monumental.

I know this from my own experience and now from working with others as a victim outreach specialist. In my own life, I found the first light of hope when I could finally feel compassion for the mother of my daughter’s murderer. It was compassion that saved my life, and I was led to work toward restorative justice. It’s terribly hard and terribly important.

What does justice look like when it’s restorative? There are many answers, but it’s easiest to spot when it is gone. We see injustice everywhere. This is the best explanation of justice that I’ve ever found: “Justice envisions a wholly better world. In the garment of justice, your love is an irreplaceable thread. Justice is far bigger than trying to repair or make right what people have made wrong. Justice is a garment, billions of threads woven throughout humanity and when those threads, each a thread of love, are pulled apart, that garment starts to fray and unravel. Justice is more than patching holes like violence, war, poverty, oppression; justice envisions a wholly better world.” (found online at http://vimeo.com/35607903)

The New York Times reported in 2008 that one out of every one hundred adults is incarcerated in the United States. Adam Liptak reported, “The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.” Retributive justice, our present system, compounds the tragedy by perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Our hope for a “wholly better world” lies in a restorative model of justice. Restorative justice not only offers hope, it empowers victims to reclaim their lives without “betraying the devastation of their loss.” And, restorative justice can offer the offenders a chance at making amends and restoring their own humanity. A restorative justice model recognizes that the offender’s family members are also victims who need to be treated with care and compassion.

By reforming our flawed system and adopting a restorative justice approach, we can save billions of dollars. The death penalty costs individual states millions of dollars diverting resources that could be better spent on crime prevention and empowering families of victims and families of offenders. By working in solidarity with one another, we can ensure that all of our nation’s children have the opportunity to grow into whole and healthy adults. We cannot resolve the problem of violence without going to its core. Gilligan writes, “What we need to see—if we are to understand violence and prevent it—is that human agency or action is not only individual; it is also, unavoidably, familial, societal, and institutional.”

It is not unreasonable to hope for a compassionate nation that spends its money on nurturing, helping, and healing instead of wasting our money and so many precious lives following a hopeless path of vengeance and retribution. But it is up to us to choose love over hate, restorative justice over retributive justice, to choose life over death.