FMBR Editorial: Feb, 1998
With the high-profile criminal trials filling the news recently, basic concepts of justice are in the forefront. People seem so certain they know what justice is, and so bitter at the verdict or the sentence after a defendant has been found guilty. One can sympathize with the victims of the crime and with those who have lost loved ones. The bitterness however is not limited to them. It extends also to many with no direct connection to the crime but who seem to feel certain they know what justice should be. Yet, what is justice? In our criminal system it is defined by the law and interpreted by the judge and jury according to how they see it as applying in the particular case. Since the judge and jury are the very basis of the law, how can others feel so certain they know better?
The law and the legal system presumably reflect the opinion and desire of the consensus, tempered only by the compromises necessary to make the system workable. Yet most people clearly believe there is a “higher” justice, one that transcends the imperfections of people and society. What is this justice that transcends the law? What is its source? Many see the hand of God or some other transcendent source. Yet, if God is the source, how can people criticize so bitterly the reality brought about by the court? Is it a cry for vengeance? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19) If that be a fundamental principle, why the bitterness with vengeance deferred?
Others believe there are principles embedded in the very nature of humanity which make for an inner sense of justice, and the law must reflect those principles. The law as it currently exists is presumably the best expression of them so far. No doubt it can be refined, brought ever closer to the fullness of that inner sense of justice, but the law is still the present reality and should be accepted as such. Yet the bitterness denies that acceptance and admits of no alternative except personal opinion.
I do not quarrel with the idea of a justice that is above decision and action. We may think we understand the principles of justice, but their application in any particular case is always open to uncertainty and even interpretation. There will always be differences of opinion and some conflict on how it should be applied. If the source is either transcendent or an ideal only dimly seem and imperfectly implemented, there will always be room for argument. But bitterness?
I suspect what is really involved in many cases is a deep fear of uncertainty and chaos. A person is convicted of a horrendous crime. The act is immediate proof of what is feared as the ultimate chaos of life. It does not matter if this was the criminal's intent or not. Regardless, I suspect many want the evidence wiped off the Earth so that they can continue to deny the reality of that chaos even though it is an essential part of life and the evident fact of much of our experience, both good and bad.
If this is indeed the deeper motivation which drives the bitterness and the certainty of personal judgment outside the law, those who succumb to it deny themselves much of the opportunity of life. As I suggested in the November editorial, “Fire and Ice,” and the January one, “Fear & Curiosity,” the essence of life may well be in discovering how to resolve the tension between the poles of chaos and order. In that case, to refuse either pole of the duality is to fail the challenge and the opportunity.