A Passion For Justice

Today while I was driving to work I was listening to a radio station, which I rarely do since I almost always have some kind of audiobook playing, but I will be without an audiobook until the next time I go to the library (likely in a couple of days), and so in the news section that played as I made the short drive to work the hosts of the radio station’s morning show spent a bit of time talking about the fact that the serious case against Jessie Smollet was dropped by the Cook County prosecutor despite the seriousness of the charges (there were fourteen felonies included) and the efforts of the Chicago Police Department to investigate the case thoroughly so as to lead to convictions.  It is interesting that Chicago is such a notoriously corrupt city, and that some pressure from politically important people seems to have encouraged the prosecutors to go easy on someone who was engaging in helpful (to them) propaganda that had sought to bolster a bogus political message.  To be sure, this has not been the only bogus political message whose debunking has not led to the sort of repentance in dust and ashes that is appropriate–witness the debunking of claims that our president had colluded with the Russians, and where the rumormongers who sought to discredit a presidency have not been remotely chagrined by having been exposed as liars and frauds.

A few days ago an acquaintance of mine commented that it was very unusual in our particular religious tradition to be so vocal and so insistent on the interpretation and discussion of a law that demands that workers be paid on a daily basis [1].  It is worth pondering at least a little on why it is that I care so much about this law and why it is that the law would not receive a great deal of focus in general.  As for the first question, as is often the case in matters of justice, it is a matter both of observation and experience.  I have myself personally suffered from the way that companies and employers have kept payment in arrears because it simplifies the accounting, no matter what harm it does to employers.  It has been both my own experience and my own observation that the practice of having wages two or three weeks or even a month in arrears creates a great deal of difficulty when someone has to pay for various expenses like food, gas, as well as ongoing expenses like rent when one is not receiving money for one’s work for a considerable length of time.  It is not as if we can fill our tank on arrears without the use of credit cards, and while the credit card company charges interest when we seek to pay for goods in arrears, there is no interest penalty paid on wages in arrears by companies, demonstrating a certain lack of reciprocity in such dealings which amounts to fraud and theft.  As to the question of why it is that other people do not focus on such matters, I think that many people who write about God’s laws within my particular faith tradition do not do so from the point of view of working class day laborer sorts of people.  Those who have the most leisure to read and write about the more obscure corners of scripture are precisely those people who tend to be well-paid professionals who do not live under the stress of life in working poverty.  Again, we tend to notice aspects of justice that strike against us, which is why you are likely to hear more about the theft of time from the pulpit than the theft of wages through delaying payment for purposes of convenience.

Having a passion for justice is not something that we should see as necessarily an unmixed good.  For the passion for justice and the achievement of a standard of justice in one’s dealings with others are not necessarily closely related to each other.  Indeed, at times having a passion for justice, and a burning sense of the wrong of injustice, can lead us to behave monstrously unjustly to others.  How is this so?  Our own contemporary day and age has provided many ways that this can happen, and history has provided many more.  Let us assume that some person of color has suffered some injustice by some powerful white person based on his or her identity.  Such a thing is easy enough to imagine.  Then let us suppose that this person nurses a grievance and comes to hate whitey on what is supposed to be sound principles.  Then that person will act in ways that are racist, but will have a great passion for justice and will likely see oneself as being a crusader against the evils of racism while behaving in a racist fashion.  To the extent that we suffer injustice individually but mete out “justice” on a categorical basis in response, we turn our passion for justice into corrupt injustice against others.  For justice depends on responding appropriately to one’s individual deeds.  Regardless of one’s identity, if one has not committed a particular wrong, one does not deserve a particular negative sanction in response.  Yet all too easily a supposed passion for justice becomes subsumed in tribalism and becomes just another reason to keep up old feuds and nurse old wounds that refuse to heal.

How then are we to proceed?  To behave justly towards others, we must seek to see them as individuals and not merely as interchangeable members of some sort of group identity.  Proper justice and judgment is delivered on an individual basis and not a collective basis.  Otherwise it is merely unjust prejudice.  Properly seeing others as individuals helps us to recognize the complexity of individuals and the way that surface appearance often hides the content of someone’s heart and mind.  Additionally, we are more just to others when we reflect upon our own tendencies to being unjust.  The more we are conscious to the ways that we can behave unjustly towards others, the more we will attempt to counteract those tendencies and allow others the opportunity to reveal who they are, so that we can respond to them particularly.  We each have at least some native bias to our own side, and in the attempt to appease others for historical wrongs we can easily engage in self-hating behavior that is biased against our own side, in both cases equally unjustly, whether to the right side or to the left.  To the extent that our passion for justice gives us a sense of empathy for those who suffer unjustly (and many do), we can use it to build bridges and to encourage within ourselves the better angels of our nature that would inflict nothing on others that we have painfully endured ourselves.  To the extent that our passion for justice leads us to blindly strike against those who only superficially resemble those who have hurt us, our passion for justice may be an active prod and encouragement to becoming unjust, and that only makes us like our enemies, and all the more likely to inflame others with a desire to exercise justice against us.

[1] See, for example:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to A Passion For Justice

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Your insights are exactly the issues that our society faces today–on all sides–and calls into question: what is justice? The demand for reparations, for example, is an expression of unjust self-hate in the attempt to pay for the sins of our forefathers. The white population is pronounced guilty for America’s slave-owning history. If it hadn’t been for the cooperation of rival tribes in Africa, the European colonizing nations would have had a much more difficult time of it. They would have probably plied the bulk of their human trade elsewhere.

    It was just reported that there is a call for an inquiry against Chicago’s district attorney. Her refusal to file charges against Jussie Smollett is representative of her history of similar behavior; two cases were cited in which substantial injuries were sustained by police officers. She would not charge the accused with felony assault.

    History records how the oppressed become the oppressor. Many wars have occurred that way because justice is defined according to how each side views settling the score. Unfortunately, the method of doing so for one side leads the other to feeling that he has even to score. Each naturally does so to its own advantage. No balance is ever achieved because both sides are reactive and, too often, this mentality becomes generational.

    I don’t think that certain minorities think of themselves as prejudiced because they believe that their grievances against a different racial group are justified. Prejudice is not measured by whether it is justifiable or not; one either is or is not prejudiced. Breaking the cycle, as you stated, takes introspection and the realization that people cannot be held accountable for others’ actions. it take “rising above one’s raising.” Forgiving the sins of the past and letting go of the bitterness attached to it is part of the process. When we can all get to the point of internalizing personalization instead of generalization, we will have come far in the journey toward justice. Only then will we see each other for who we really are instead of which category we might have placed each other in.

    • Yes, that is precisely right. I just don’t think that we are prone to engage in self-examination. It is easy to think ourselves justified in whatever we do because of what others have done to us and to do unto others what people have done unto us, and not realize that we are as monstrously unjust as others have been. To rise above cycles of revenge and violence we have to forgive and reflect.

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