Ground for Justice

The Rev. John Fairbrother

26 March 2015

New Zealand has a history of criminal trials and subsequent resolutions exposing miscarriages of justice. Re-trials, many years after an offence, are becoming almost common place. This may be seen as justice eventually being worked out or, alternatively, a failure of the country’s legal system.  Justice may be an elusive ideal.

Crime reporting fills a considerable amount of media content informing an ongoing public discourse. Within such discussion, balanced information and debate is not always as apparent as the immediate calls for public safety and firm punishment. More nuanced debates about causes, appropriate punishment and long term remedies for individuals and communities are often at risk of being seen as failure to confront society’s need for calm and good order.

News media readily reports dissatisfaction with sentences imposed by law courts and demands for change through parliamentary legislation. While not unreasonable in itself, the intimate, sometimes dramatized, context of such demands can cloud rather than enlighten the pursuit of justice.  Haste to apportion blame and inflict punishment, for example, can endanger the application of law being balanced by established fact and careful reason.

In this country citizens have a right to expect reasonable redress for crime through humane and reasonable punishment. However, what results from punishment being served? Is society better off in the public knowledge that punishment has been served? Is a punished person necessarily a better person? History shows the relationship of crime and punishment has a troubled record.

There is any amount of literature inspired by this record. Similarly, a number of academic disciplines are concerned with causes, motivations and consequences of criminal behaviour. Theology, too, has a stake.

Theologians seek to understand the human condition in terms of ultimate meaning. The saying attributed to Irenaeus, a second century bishop of Lyons, captures it thus: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Whatever perspective a criminal enquiry may take, victim and perpetrator will always share the fact of being human. Being human entails living in relationship with others. It is the combining of an almost infinite variety of relationships that provide the animation and substance of society. Everyone is linked to everyone else.

Punishment alone will never secure justice. The human condition is always giving rise to need for reconciliation of difference: Between criminals and victims and between enemies. That need may enlighten a profound ideal drawing from the meaning of being human, leading beyond punishment toward justice.

Yet, the impetus for reconciliation draws on the even deeper human capacity for compassion. That is willingness to suffer with another, to recognise and act in creative solidarity, for the sake of the interconnectedness of all life.  

Compassion for others and all living things bears unerring potential to reveal prospects for reconciliation. The life experience of one person is integral to the life experience of all people.

While punishment may be an initial step toward achieving justice, if applied alone it leaves the presence and pain of both punished and victim unreconciled. It remains as an open wound in the community. Justice remains unfulfilled.

Theology, the understanding of the ultimate value of life, emphasises the possibility of compassion animating reconciliation between victim, perpetrator and community. Even where such a possibility may be submerged by reason and emotion demanding punishment, a continuing compassionate response serves to limit the injustice of any individual becoming irredeemably estranged from community, objectified and dehumanised by punishment alone.

Such an ideal for reconciliation, arising from compassion for life itself, is an essential responsibility in securing ground for justice. Being a body defined by theological understanding, the Christian Church has a role to act justly in both public and Church life. It has this role for the sake of enhancing the human condition by building compassionate, reconciled, just communities.

©John Fairbrother 2015