Thursday, February 16, 2006

#32 Justice Is Us

One of the things that makes me mad about death penalty advocates is their
position that the state’s ultimate punishment can somehow make things better
for those who have lost a loved one, that people can’t find “closure” or be
at peace without an act of retribution from on high. It seems like such an
abdication of responsibility, such a self-defeating defense of
powerlessness. After all, the state can’t do the work of our hearts; we are
the only ones who can do that grieving and healing and forgiving. As I get
more of a glimpse of the power of forgiveness, I wonder at institutions that
seem set up to shield people from the necessity of learning it.

When I shared this position in a conversation with a friend—-confident that
she would agree—-I was startled that she didn’t. She said that the state IS
responsible for the healing of its members, because the state is us.

I find this a role that I’m pretty unwilling to take on. I like my
formulation much better, that each of us is responsible for our own
healing. Yet it does have that tone of individualism and isolation that
gives me pause in so many other parts of our culture.

So, what is our shared role in restoring wholeness that has been broken by
the hurtful or violent action of one among us? It’s always easiest for me
to get a grip on what I would wish for all of us by thinking about what I
would wish for our children.

If one child has hurt another, I assume that it is my role to help restore
wholeness. I know about how both a bully and a victim need attention. I
know about checking with both parties about what can be made right, what can
be negotiated, and what just needs to be grieved (and I know our tendency to
jump quickly over the grieving to a focus on solutions that often brings
only a momentary and uneasy peace). I know my role of holding out
everybody’s underlying goodness, and addressing the roots of what made
someone lose track, I know the feel, the tone, of a situation that has
truly been made whole again.

I’m willing to do that in controlled situations with small children. But
how to make the leap to grown-ups, and to larger groups where people don’t
even acknowledge the existence of the relationships that might need repair?

I’m reminded of something I read on an e-mail list—-a story traveling
through cyberspace that lodged in my brain—-about a society (in Africa, I
think) that has done this. When a member of their community does something
to tear its fabric, they all gather with that person in a special place, and
they tell him or her all the things they value, all the strengths and
abilities and goodness they see. They do this—-sometimes for a very long
time—-until that person can claim his place in the community again. Then
they can move to repair the other parts of the situation that need

With this image of shared responsibility in mind, I can see the flaws in
both sides of the argument: the state must punish so that the person who has
been wronged can find closure, vs. state punishment undermines the power of
the individual to heal and forgive. If we, as victims, expect the state to
do the work of healing and repair in our name without our participation, we
have given up our individual responsibility. Yet if we, as bystanders, say
that the state is not in the business of healing its members, we have
abdicated our corporate responsibility. They’re both easy ways out--they
both let us off the hook.

We’re not good at being the state. We need to practice on a small scale
before we’ll get it right with murder. This means moving beyond the little
children, and finding the next level of holding each other accountable, in
our extended families, our neighborhoods, our social groups. “We love you
and you did this. You need to look.” “I don’t want to look, but the
reality is that I did this. Will you still have me?” “How can we,
together, make it right?”

I know the field of restorative justice is rich in examples. I wonder how
many of us, like me, have to get over the hurdle of individualism (in
whatever form it takes) to embrace the wisdom and experience that is there
to be found.

Pamela Haines
March 2005


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