|What is justice? This is a difficult, perhaps impossible, question for which there is no satisfying answer. For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians (and others) have been trying to define what justice is. Ancient Mesopotamian laws attempted to define justice by lex talionis, otherwise known as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This retributive approach to justice certainly provides some deterrent for would-be offenders, but it also leaves no possibility of healing; rather, it encourages revenge and leaves communities of blinded and toothless citizens. A Greek philosopher famously said that justice is “the interest of the stronger,” meaning that whoever is in power defines justice in a way that benefits them. We can see where this might have its flaws. Aristotle, another Greek philosopher, defined justice as “the formalized conditions of cooperation, so that as cooperation increases both justice and fellow-feeling increase in proportion.” This definition hints at a modern definition of justice as “making things right,” but modernity leaves off the importance of relationship.
I haven’t found an adequate definition of justice, perhaps because of its complexity and the fact that justice often looks different for different people and situations. Nevertheless, I am in prison for committing a crime, so I am compelled to think of justice, both for myself and other prisoners and for the victims whom we harmed by our crimes. Naturally, many prisoners do not feel that their sentences (or convictions) were just. For some, this is because of real injustices and unequal treatment that runs rampant in today’s criminal justice system; for others, only a reversal of their convictions and clearing their name would be justice.
For some victims of crime, nothing short of the offender’s death would serve as true justice. Others would be content with a literal eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat equivalent of the crime committed against them being carried out against the offender. Still others find their sense of justice satisfied by the offender’s simple acknowledgment of the wrong committed and pledge to right that wrong. The important thing to note is that one’s definition of justice is highly personal and often narrowly focused to one’s own circumstances–both for victims and offenders.
To me, vital justice is restorative and relational. This justice allows for forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. That means practicing this kind of justice in my own relationships. When someone offends me or harms me, it means refusing to succumb to the temptation to “punish” them with my silence, disdain, or vengeance; instead, it means seeking harmony and healing in all my relationships when it is possible. This is what I hope for others to give to me, so it has become what I strive to give.
Because I believe that justice begins with making things right, it also means that more and more I seek to maintain a proper focus on justice for those I’ve harmed. I can’t change the prison sentence I’ve been given, but I don’t believe a prison sentence sets things right anyway. Instead, I believe it is my responsibility to do what is within my power to right my wrongs. It also means being a defender of the defenseless and an advocate for healing. For me, that’s where justice begins.
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Author: Bryan Noonan
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