The Paradoxical Nature of Justice Seeking

A few months after my husband and I got married in 2009, we went to Milwaukee to visit my family over the Christmas season. As much as I wanted to get out and do a few things around the city, it snowed a lot that year. Coupled with my pregnancy and all types of sickness throughout the day, we did not go out too much and found ourselves watching a lot of movies to pass the time. Now my mother did not have the greatest movie collection; she has always been into black and white movies and other classics that were really not my taste. However, she did have the Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Since I knew both of them, and was fairly satisfied with their acting ability, I felt pretty confident that I would enjoy the movie. And I did. It was action packed and kept me in suspense the entire 128 minutes that it lasted.

After all of these years, one single theme has remained with me that causes me to reflect on a notion that I wondered about for some time. Edward Zuwanie, the president of Matobo, though initially a liberator for the people, has become just as dictatorial of the government he overthrew. In his heydays, he was most concerned about freeing the people from the plight that they faced under an oppressive regime. But now he was the one doing the oppressing (Interpreter, 2005).

I found this to be incredibly ironic. How could the very one who was so concerned about liberation, freedom, rights, and so many other things, take those very things from people? Why would someone who fought to put an end to senseless murders and atrocities be held responsible for ethnic cleansing, or genocide? Now I realize that the Interpreter is a fictional film and so I am not likely to get any type of response to my questions. In this character, however, I believe we find thousands if not millions of Edward Zuwanie’s all over the world. Maybe these won’t go as far as to commit the scale of violence that Zuwanie did, but in their own limited power and influence they, after demanding for justice and freedom for others, have found themselves on the side of actually taking it from others.

Not too long ago, I read the Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute. In a modern day parable, almost, the book takes a refreshing approach in dealing with every day conflicts between family member, friends, nations, or governments. Addressing the nature of social justice and more specifically the scenario I have just described, the authors of the book say this:

“…Most who are trying to put an end to injustice only think of the injustices they believe they themselves have suffered. Which means that they are concerned not really with injustice but with themselves. They hide their focus on themselves behind the righteousness of their outward cause (Arbinger Institute, 186).”

When I first read this statement, I found it a pretty hard pill to swallow. But it resonated with me and explained to me this tendency that liberators have in becoming oppressors themselves. Looking at the American Revolution in the 18th century, I see this at play. Here you have a people in America fighting for their independence from the British, while at the same time they are killing the indigenous people left and right, stealing their land, and stealing someone else’s labor. And while we are now centuries away from this point in history, we still fight to retain our own freedom while denying it from others. How paradoxical!

As the Arbinger Institute shows, we are not as concerned about the prospect of freedom and justice in others as much as we concerned about it for ourselves. At a very basic level, in the name of justice, we are out to preserve our self-interests including health, wealth, and prestige. Even so, our lack of altruism does not mean that we should give up on our pursuit justice. In all actuality, it simply shows that justice in and of itself is not the end but rather the means to an end of a greater and more perfect goal: reconciliation.

The goal of all humanity, I believe, is to put people and things back into right relationship with the other – and ultimately, in right relationship with God. From the moment that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, found in Genesis 3 of the Torah, there is evidence that all relationships have been compromised. As a result, there is immediate blaming, shaming, greed, pride, power struggles, deceit, murder and war. And ever since that moment, these dynamics typify all relationships.

The good news, and yes there is good news, is that when Christ died, He made a way for these relationships to be restored. In His death, He made it possible for all of humanity to be reconciled back to God. Prior to His sacrifice, we were dead in our sins and so far away from God. But now, as 2 Corinthians 5 describes, everything has changed. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all of these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.17, 18, NASB).

So now that we are in Christ, God requires something of us. Inasmuch as God has reconciled us to himself, we have the duty to bring others into that restored relationship while at the same time living out a new relationship with each other. For the first time since the fall, we are introducing a new dynamic into the fabric of human relationships. And so, in our pursuit of justice, this is ultimately what we should be working toward. You see, justice can only get us there; it cannot keep us there. But renewed relationships that have been ridded of all of blame, and guilt, and envy, and greed, that will stick.

So let us continue working for justice. Let us continue meeting the needs of the poor, hungry and widow among us, and overturning systems of injustice that have caused these things in the first place. And let us continue even if we are doing it with our own self-interest in mind, because we find ourselves among the oppressed and exploited in the world. But while we pursue justice, let us stretch ourselves a little further and work for reconciliation. While we address social inequities, let us not only talk about redistribution of wealth and power, but let us begin to unite black and white, rich and poor, male and female in the name of Christ. Let us address the very things that have kept us at odds with each other – racism, sexism, partisan politics, and even dismantle them, so that we may find ourselves embracing those that we once excluded.

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