Are We Demanding Justice or Retribution? The Search for a Just World

Levi Ben-Shmuel - April 19, 2013

"When we call for justice, what are we really asking for?"

From President Obama on down, the call for justice in the wake of the Boston bombing has been unwavering. In the aftermath of such a horrific crime, isn't it natural to demand that justice is served? I think it is. Yet one question I have been thinking deeply about since reading James Kimmel, Jr.'s excellent novel, "The Trial of Fallen Angels," is what does it take for justice to be truly served?

In the book, a young lawyer dies under mysterious circumstances and finds herself in the afterlife being recruited to prosecute and defend souls in the courtroom of Heaven, where final judgments are decreed. There, in the process of solving the mystery of her own death, she must explore what it truly means in this world to seek justice, including how forgiveness fits into the picture. Kimmel himself became a lawyer in a quest to seek justice after being bullied and harassed for years as a youth, but after becoming a successful attorney he discovered the legal system many times perpetuates more injustice and does not lead us any closer to creating a more peaceful and loving world.

When we call for justice, what are we really asking for? Are we using the legitimacy of seeking justice as a cover for revenge and retribution, energies that inevitably perpetuate themselves, or are we seeking a fair resolution to a wrong that is crying out for a response?

In the Bible, the call for seeking justice is loud and clear. In Deuteronomy 16:20, God declares, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." The Hebrew word for justice, tzedek, is rooted in the idea of living a life of integrity in accordance with divine law. The energies of revenge and retribution have no place in pursuing justice when living a life in alignment with a worldview that sees all of creation as a manifestation of divine love.

This idea is reinforced later in Deuteronomy (chapters 24:25) where the laws for dealing with various situations are laid out. A striking theme in these chapters is how justice is administered to an individual. The Bible makes it clear that punishments should not be excessive, nor should they degrade an individual. Why? Because (24:18), "You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt..." Egypt is a metaphor for a narrow place. All of us have been in a narrow place of bondage that might have led us to make mistakes or see things in a distorted way. When it is time to pay a price for those mistakes, wouldn't you want to be treated with dignity and respect and receive a fair punishment that is not based on revenge or hate?

But what do we do with the very human response to demand an immediate payback for some terrible act that might lead to a perpetuation of injustice? Usually, forgiveness and fairness are very far notions in the moments, days and weeks after tragedy has struck. James Kimmel, Jr. proposes the idea of nonjustice as a first step on the road to true justice:

Nonjustice is not injustice, which means fundamental unfairness and inequity. Nonjustice means to not seek justice in the form of revenge. You don't have to forgive somebody. Most of the time you are not capable of that in the early stages. But you can just say, "I can do nothing. I can just stop. I am capable of nothing." When you do that, the doing nothing after being wronged, and staying in that space for a while, creates the space for what really becomes an act of grace that is forgiveness. You don't have to actively go out of your way to forgive; it follows.

Kimmel's idea of nonjustice is another call to remember our humanity when seeking justice after we have been wronged. We do not get to do things over. When we act rashly without thinking through the full ramifications of our actions, whether as individuals or collectively, we are in dangerous territory.

It is wise to keep in mind when seeking justice what we ultimately want. If it is a peaceful heart and a world that is moving closer to fairness for all, we are on the road to fulfilling the biblical prophet Isaiah's vision of peace, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare."

This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post.