What Is True Justice?

Many of our most heartbreaking human experiences happen over and over again because we fail to heal. We fail to honor our contribution and share our lessons. We fail to forgive. We seek vengeance in the name of justice and wonder why the world gets even more merciless. But forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive; although they are distinct, they are partners in healing us and the world in which we live.

It is hard not to tie in current affairs in our country, where we seem to be entrenched in a constant fight between what we think of as the forces of justice and injustice. But this fight itself is stuck in a wrong-headed conception of justice—as something that is retributive and punitive. We take revenge on the ones who hurt us by causing them pain in return. In many ways, because we all fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as the “good guy,” this process is one that we believe will bring everything back into balance. It will, as we tell ourselves, restore things back to their original “good” state and make up for the ways we have been wronged. Even our politicians speak in these terms—of taking our nations, our cities, our livelihoods, and our lives “back” and putting those who have threatened these things “in their place.”

With this type of justice, forgiveness not only has no place—it also serves to complicate our simplistic, polarized version of things, in which there is always one group of clearly “wronged” people and one group of people who must carry the burden of the punishment.

Forgiveness complicates all of this because it rests on the idea that even though what happened in the past may have been painful, there are no mistakes because even our darkest moments help to reveal our light. Every single one of us is evolving toward an as-yet unknown version of who we are to become, and even the upsets and hiccups along the way are a part of that unfolding. Justice rests on the idea that we can restore things back to some sort of pristine condition, but the truth is, that condition never existed as we see it in our mind’s eye. It is a phantom. Everything that has happened to us along the way forms the fabric of our morality and our values.

Of course, we as humans must be willing to look at the long history of violence and injustice that tells us the story of our human condition. We must acknowledge the painful chapters of our past and do everything we can to work toward greater equity, justice, and healing for all.

The challenge is in the evolution of understanding. We are evolving to a higher consciousness and comprehension of creative forces in the universe. Our institutions, however, were built in a time when control based on having a firm hand was believed to be in the best interest of society. But the way forward is not through the punitive model of justice with all of its limitations. Although we expect that the system will be blind, many factors determine who is punished, including race, poverty, geography, and personal and implicit bias. Yet, with a truer conception of causation – that retribution breeds resistance and restoration gives way to reintegration and contribution to the whole – we must actively work to transition our institutions to reflect our understanding.

We don’t build a more peaceful and harmonious world for ourselves without seeking genuine healing in the present and freeing ourselves from the chains of disciplinary thinking.

Forgiveness generates genuine justice. When we forgive, we are intimately tied to the truth of suffering. We are able to exercise compassion because we see that harmful behavior always arises as a consequence of the separation that people feel. Whether we recognize it or not, pain comes from not understanding the ways in which we are intimately connected. In not knowing this connection, we suffer. In suffering, we inflict harm upon ourselves and others.

Of course, there will be those who argue: “But what about corrective action for those who have done harm? We have to make them pay, don’t we?”

Accountability is not the same as punishment. Castigation alone rarely brings a cessation to the cycle of harm, and it probably plays a significant role in the continuation of harm. According to a 2014 study from the National Institute of Justice, within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6%) of released prisoners were back in the system. Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7%) were detained and charged by the end of the first year.

So how do we keep bad things from happening? In fact, we can’t. The evolution of human consciousness happens one person at a time, and we do not have control over the actions of others. The question is: Do we want to contribute to the problem or the solution? In focusing our attention on the values of mercy, compassion, equanimity, and equity, we model what true justice means.

We may be asking ourselves, “Well, what about the bad guy? How do we get them to participate in justice?” First of all, we cannot separate our world into “good” and “bad” guys. The truth is, whether we are aware of it or not, we have all been both victims and perpetrators in our own lives. When we see how we have perpetuated this false duality at the expense of recognizing our interconnectedness, we can instead turn our attention inward and offer ourselves self-forgiveness. When we learn self-forgiveness (which encompasses compassion, love, and empathy), we absolutely know the cost of causing ourselves and others harm. We recognize that we are part of a whole, and we naturally move toward a paradigm of justice that also sees this.

There are existing systems of justice that recognize the power of forgiveness. For example, restorative justice is a system of criminal justice whose focus is on the rehabilitation of offenders through reintegration into the larger community. This does not mean that they shrug off responsibility for their harmful actions; but in seeing that they too are part of a larger whole, they can become active participants in their own healing and, therefore, true justice.

True justice does not isolate the wrongdoer. Rather, it recognizes the ways in which we are all connected. It also sees, through the lens of tolerance, that the one who has done harm is also in pain. Only in being brought back into the fold will they be able to truly assume accountability and empathy.

True justice is connected to forgiveness because both enable us to accept that we are all human beings. None of us is separate from another, even one who may have harmed us. At the same time, despite the relationship between justice and forgiveness, they are independent processes. Forgiveness, ultimately, doesn’t require justice (whose more exalted forms might entail reconciliation). Forgiveness is an internal process of healing that does not require the buy-in of other parties. We can experience healing even if we never experience justice. And, as we as individuals realize the power in the understanding – that when we focus on our own healing the world around us heals too – the implementation of true justice becomes inevitable.