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What Does Justice Mean?

As Executive Director of The Justice Project I feel I have been remiss in not writing something about what justice means to me. I don’t think I’ve been avoiding the challenge. I do think that, like a lot of us, I have a more intuitive sense of justice than an articulated one. And if asked to explain justice, you too may find yourself at a loss for a precise definition.

In an attempt at a definition, many of us short cut the effort of speaking to the positive by eliminating the negative.  For example, “Justice is when we are not being unfair to others.” Or, “Justice is the opposite of unjust.”

Some of us give up on trying to capture a definition and go with: “Justice, oh you know, it just means being just to others.” Unfortunately, saying “you know” doesn’t mean the other party knows, and this appeal to a vague generality does little to communicate an explanation of justice.

An esteemed attorney likes to remind me that justice in a court of law can be either a shield or a spear depending on how the advocate decides to employ it or the court decides to rule on it.

Coming at it from another angle, a while back I sat down with one of the founders of the Crips street gang; a man who was incarcerated for a fair amount of his early life.  In the midst of our conversation, I asked what justice meant to him. And his answer was, “Just us.” Yes, I did shake my head and laugh, but not in laughter.

To him, the world was unfair and justice meant the only people you could count on for a fair shake was yourself or members of your “gang.” Sadly, this mind set is the shadow mind set of those on the top end of the social ladder for whom justice means what is good for “just us.” Not caring about the other nurtures not caring about the other.

Scripture reminds us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” And I have often referred to this as understanding that justice is something we may pursue but will be just beyond our reach. Certainly aspects in ourselves and in our society will always be unjust but that doesn’t diminish our responsibility personally, socially, and politically to continually aim toward the target of justice.  Especially after the moments when we know that we missed the mark.

Years ago in a speech to The Library of Congress I tried to encapsulate what constituted “civilization.” And after backward approaches to what did not constitute civilization, I again borrowed from Scripture’s view on the responsibility to care for the powerless in a community; the widow and orphan.  By this route I found my way to the notion that  “A society is measured as civilized by how people with power treat those without power.”

So, at the end of the day, what does justice mean to me? Here’s my non-academic blue collar just say it like it is answer:  Justice is when we feel like we’re getting a fair shake, and we treat others with the same respect we would like to expect.

I think when you put it this way, everyone understands, just like everyone understands when they’re being treated unjustly.

The reason we started The Justice Project is because in so many ways, the world is an unjust place to so many, and we want to do something about it. More than just making a difference we are trying to make a just difference. And we welcome your help, thinking, and suggestions on programs we might want to ally. At the same time, please, don’t allow yourself or your children or the 1% who own 50% of the world’s wealth to think, even for a moment, that what bothers just us or serves just us is justice.

Even in paraphrase, the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke got it right. For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.

The work is long. The day is short. We’re not expected to finish the work but neither are we excused from it. Be just.

Noah benShea
Executive Director, The Justice Project