Derek Chauvin, Justice and Deuteronomy 16:20
Closing arguments in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd are unfolding as I write. The voices of protestors, speculators, and commentators rise, along with the voices of attorneys for both the state and for Mr. Chauvin, all calling for “Justice,” in these final hours before the case is handed to the jury.
There is no shortage of stridently held opinions about what should happen here — not from the lawyers, the protestors, the commentators or the speculators — most notably, from Rep. Maxine Waters, whose words both inspire and trouble me, if I am honest, not to mention them possibly creating grounds for overturning any conviction in this case.
While we are long on stridently held opinions, we remain far short of any agreement about what justice is, let alone what it might look like in this case. That all but guarantees the kind of pain and unrest which is sure to follow, no matter what the jury decides — the kind of pain and unrest which will only harden hearts and undermine real workable solutions to the challenges we face, regardless of how we understand “justice” in this case, or more broadly, about the issue of policing and/or race.
Whatever the verdict in this trial, we need to pull back — all of us — and ask some fundamental questions about justice. We need to stop and consider — what the word even means. Without that, we will continue to shout about justice for all, and likely see justice for fewer and fewer, however we define the meaning of that word. Easier said than done.
Pulling back and asking fundamental questions about justice, is hard because justice is one of those words that feel so wonderful to wield, even when doing so accomplishes so little. We might call debates about justice, the crack of contemporary political engagement.
In fact, we need to stop and ask ourselves whether or not “justice” has become a word devoid of any real meaning beyond, achieving the legal outcome which any of us personally desires. Not to mention that when that is our understanding of justice, we make ourselves witness, lawyer, judge, and jury, all-in-one, killing any meaningful system of justice at all.
So what is justice? Run, don’t walk, from anyone who tells you that they have a complete and comprehensive definition of the term! Seriously.
There are many understandings of justice, and there is wisdom to be found in all of them. There is corrective justice, which focuses on the relationship between the immediate perpetrator and their immediate victim. There is distributive justice, which takes a wider range of affected parties into consideration when thinking about what constitutes a just outcome.
There is procedural justice, which celebrates the processes and procedures by which a decision is reached, and rests in the assumption that if those processes and procedures were appropriate, then the outcome is basically just. And there is substantive justice, which aims to rebalance the scales in light of a larger conception of a just world. And those are just terribly over-simplified definitions of four out of many competing understandings of justice!
What becomes immediately clear, even in looking at these four understandings, is that to fully honor any one of them, will require turning away from some of the others. There is no one justice that, when properly implemented, will satisfy the needs of all those affected, especially by an event like the death of George Floyd, while under police custody. And that is exactly why, at moments like these, I turn to the Hebrew Bible — a work with many overlapping, and even competing, understandings of justice.
I know, starting with the Hebrew Bible is usually a terrible place from which to begin any conversation among people of differing views, precisely because like the US Constitution, it mirrors the views of its readers as much as it guides them. We all tend to find within both the Bible(s) we hold dear, and the Constitution we lift up, proofs for what we already believe, as opposed to new insight about emerging realities at hand.
But if we can be as courageous as readers and interpreters as are the Author/authors, editors of the Bible itself, then it may be among the best resources we have, to achieve a more just society. specifically, I turn to the oft-quoted words of Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Unlike most of those who invoke that famous phrase, I do so not as a rallying cry to do what is clearly the right thing, but precisely because it does the opposite. It treats justice as a moving target, with all of the ambiguity and complexity it demands.
We are not told by Deuteronomy not to achieve justice, but to pursue it, which is pretty noteworthy for a literature not shy about making lots of specific demands regarding what people are supposed to do and not do. In fact, there are many places where the Bible seems to have a very clear-cut understanding of what constitutes the just and righteous thing to do, but not here. Here we are reminded that it’s actually never quite that simple.
Would it be unjust, for example, if Derek Chauvin is not convicted of the top-line charge which has been brought against him? Would it be unjust if he is found not guilty of any of the charges that have been brought? Would it be just for him to be convicted, but for policing to go more or less unchanged? And what if he is fully, or even largely, acquitted, but policing culture is significantly altered in ways that make death’s like George Floyd’s much less likely? Would that be a case of justice served?
It’s not that I mind the activists who argue for specific outcomes in this case. In fact, I have my own deeply felt opinions about what that might look like. But unlike those activists, I also appreciate that there is a vast difference between satisfying our own understandings of justice in this case, and the claim that any of us knows what constitutes Justice, writ large.
Let’s start by asking for whom are we seeking justice. For George Floyd? For Derek Chauvin? For the people of Minnesota? For the people of our nation? For people of color? For all people who may one day find themselves in a confrontation with police officers? They are all real and important subjects of the search for justice, but they are not all the same, and it’s pretty clear that not all can be equally well-served at the same time.
So perhaps rule number one in the coming hours and days should be to reject any call for justice in which the speaker does not make explicitly clear for whom they seek justice, and how the achievement of that justice may well set back the cause of seeking the justice which others seek.
At the very least, living with the above practice would limit the dangerous and self-serving sanctimony which too often hides behind words like “justice,” and would help us instead to live into Deuteronomy’s appreciation that justice is so important, that the word is used twice in a row in a single verse, and that the target we seek, is always in motion, defined in various ways, never fully achieved, and found within a canon which appreciates the tensions between the competing needs of the many people involved in its pursuit.
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