Tag Archives: justice

Justice, Justice….

“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”

Yesterday, I read two unrelated items that brought that Talmudic injunction rather forcefully to mind. The first was a line in an excellent review in the Atlantic of two books about Sholem Aleichem, sometimes called the “Jewish Mark Twain.” (Aleichem was the creator of Tevye, the inspiration for the central character in Fiddler on the Roof.) The sentence that struck me was this: Jewish humor arises in the gap between reality and dreams, reality and justice.”

The other item was a story from the Huffington Post. The headline says it all: For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man.

The prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, possessed evidence that would have cleared the defendant, including a statement from the crime’s only eyewitness that the defendant wasn’t the perpetrator. Anderson sat on that evidence and obtained a conviction of the accused, who remained in prison for the next 25 years.  Meanwhile, Anderson’s career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.

As unjust as this situation was, as shocking to the conscience, what makes it newsworthy is the fact that Anderson actually was punished. As the story notes–and as most lawyers can attest– this is not an isolated case of malfeasance. Although most prosecutors and judges are ethical practitioners who take their obligations to the rule of law seriously, there are far too many who do not, and they are rarely, if ever, sanctioned. A recent study found prosecutorial misconduct in nearly a quarter of all capital cases in Arizona. Only two of those prosecutors have been reprimanded or punished in any way.

Evidence of gross misconduct leading to injustice isn’t limited to the legal system. It is increasingly impossible to ignore the corruption of our social and governing institutions. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen it everywhere–from rampant corporate misbehavior to major league sports doping to revelations of priestly child molestation to corrupt lobbyists to propagandists masquerading as journalists to Congressmen who cut food stamps for hungry children while fiercely protecting tax loopholes and corporate welfare for their patrons.

In this dismal ethical environment, justice isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

An unjust, unfair world invites–demands–political satire, and satire, at least, is thriving. You need only watch Jon Stewart for an example of Jewish humor that “arises in the gap between justice and reality.” It’s a big gap. The Sholem Aleichem reviewer suggests that the purpose of Jewish humor is to “give yourself some distance from your hopeless situation.” If that’s accurate, most humor these days is Jewish humor.

Gallows humor.

I enjoy a good laugh, but I’d prefer a more just world.

 

 

Fifty Years Later

I’ve been mulling over the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

Unlike many–actually, most–of those providing commentary around this milestone, I didn’t read about the event in class or see television reports after the fact. I was twenty-one when the March occurred–the coverage I saw was contemporaneous, and a great deal of it was far from positive.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of the population considered King an “agitator.” Even among people who genuinely wanted a more equal society, there were concerns that King’s approach was too “in your face,” and would end up making things even worse. Needless to say, there were plenty of people who were not just unconcerned with racial justice,  but who strongly believed that black people were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place,” and were outraged not just by the March on Washington, but by the entire civil rights movement.

So–fifty years later, where are we?

Are things better than they were when I was young? Absolutely. Are they where one might hope after fifty years? Not even close. Considerable racial animus persists, although its expression has (thankfully) changed.

Ironically, it was the election of an African-American President that brought long-buried racial resentments out from under the rocks that had obscured them. Perhaps progress is always like this: two steps forward, one back. Advance, then blowback. But Obama’s election unleashed a bitter undercurrent that surprised and disheartened many of us. The “birther” accusations, the racist emails, the hysterical opposition to everything the President does or says, the characterization of America’s Commander-in-Chief as a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi….as “other.” I suppose it is a measure of progress that even the haters feel the need for euphemisms, and use these labels rather than the “n” word they so clearly mean.

I suppose it’s progress that they shrink from acknowledging even to themselves that their blind hatred is motivated by race.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the social upheaval that we now simply call “the Sixties,” it would have been impossible to predict where social forces were taking the country. Despite the wrenching changes and excesses–and the enormous and often disproportionate reaction to those excesses–I would argue that the country emerged a fairer and more equal place. I  hope we can say the same thing about our current divisions fifty years from now.

Martin Luther King was certainly right about one thing: the arc of history does bend slowly.

 

Theology and Human Nature

This morning’s New York Times has an article about Paula Deen  and the black church’s tradition of forgiveness. (Hate the racism, love the racist.)

The article itself is less than newsworthy–it uses the current flap over Deen’s cluelessness as a “hook” for a general discussion of the black church and the theology of forgiveness–but it reminded me of an important difference between Christian and Jewish teachings that I have often pondered. Christians are told to love their neighbors; Jews are taught to “do justice.” In other words, we don’t have to love anyone, but we must treat everyone as we would want to be treated.

No offense to my Christian friends, but doing justice has always seemed a lot easier.

It’s sort of like the First Amendment. I don’t have to like what you have to say, but I do have to let you say it. I don’t have to agree with your ideas, but I do have to agree that you have as much right to express them as I have to express mine. If current behaviors are any indication, it’s hard enough to get people to respect each others’ rights. Love seems to be pushing it.

I mean, let’s be honest. There is no way I’m going to love Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann, and if they knew me, they’d be equally hard-pressed to love me. I realize that, unlike politics, theology isn’t “the art of the possible,” but I’m glad my tradition only requires me to be fair and just. Loving these people is probably beyond me.

I wonder how Christians manage it.

Understanding Scalia

Eric Vieth at Dangerous Intersections has a fascinating–and chilling–review of Antonin Scalia’s position on executing people who are proved innocent after being convicted in a “fair” trial.  Hint: “they probably did something wrong anyway…”