Defining Justice (or trying  to . . .)

Many
of us who think about how to bring about a more just world end up with a prior
question that needs answering before we can even think about the hows. It’s a definitional issue: namely, what is
this concept of justice in society? I’m not even certain this isn’t a
trick question. Is there such a thing as justice? What about social
justice? Can these words really be defined — do they contain a truth that
crosses barriers of time, culture and religion? Is there a way to define
justice that is true no matter where, when and who you are?

Maybe
it is easier to start with what justice is not. Creating a definition by
distinguishing it from a concept that is close to and yet understood as
distinct from it may help clarify the definition itself.

Justice
is not charity. Charity addresses hunger with food, nakedness with
clothes, and thirst with water. It is triage, while justice is more
preventative medicine, vaccines, wellness visits. Charity is important
and useful, but it addresses the results of a broken society. Justice
addresses the causes.

Justice
is not peace, though as Martin Luther King taught us, “True peace is not merely
the absence of some negative force – tension, confusion, or war; it is the
presence of some positive force – justice, goodwill, and brotherhood.” In that
larger context, justice is a necessary force toward the achievement of peace
even as it is separate from it.

With
this understanding of what justice is not, how do we define what it is? As an
attorney when I hear the word justice I am confronted with a set of images that
include a courtroom, a judge in a black robe, a defendant being given a
sentence (as a former prosecutor, the verdict is always guilty). This
image involves rehabilitative punishment as a deserved result of a conscious
action. This is obviously not the kind of justice we are talking about –
or is it? Is social justice merely the application of this kind of
courtroom justice across society?

When
a criminal is found guilty for stealing he is supposed to be given his sentence
based solely on two things – what he did and what he has done (his
record). This is our justice system – or it supposed to be.
Applying this principal broadly (across society – i.e. social justice) could
then be defined as giving everyone the same opportunity to be free from
consequences outside of their own actions – poverty, racism, sexism, and other
systematic issues that baselessly oppress groups and individuals and make
success so much more difficult.

While
this definition is neither perfect nor comprehensive I think it effectively
captures what we mean when we feel in our hearts the injustice of things that we
see around us. When a child of abuse and poverty becomes an adult and
ends up in and out of the justice system exactly as they had been in and out of
the foster care system. When a family is not welcomed in a certain
neighborhood because they do not look like their neighbors. When a
woman’s abuser is set free because he is her husband and she cannot yet find a
voice to accuse him. We know innately how wrong these things are. Our
very souls rebel against them. And I do not believe we would feel that dissonance
if we were not meant to act, to move, to change.

And
so if justice is not some unrealistic ideal to be discussed but never achieved,
then what remains is our response. Because the truth of its potential gives us
both agency and responsibility. We can take steps and make changes, however
large or small, to live in a way that both limits our participation in harmful
systems and promotes the development of more just societal structures.

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