This is my most recent article, just published (6/12) in Contemporary Justice Review. I would welcome your comments!

Justice as Active Peace

by John Wilmerding


Dennis Sullivan’s treatise ‘Rambling through the fields of justice,’ is a satisfying read, in and of itself. In writing it, Dennis has demonstrated that he knows what justice really is. However, more service can be done to justice’s description and definition. I thought I would try to do so by attempting to view justice through a ‘restorative justice’ perspective.


We know, of course, of restorative justice as a titular movement for change, for reform of western cultures’ punishment-based systems. That is what the term means in the conventional contemporary context. Yet, few stop to think that in the original cultures from whom the west borrowed many of the methods now called restorative justice, all those who used those methods were trying to do was achieve something called ‘justice’ itself.


Actually, the western concept of justice hearkens back to an ancient people … the Hebrews. The 3000-year-old tablets found in el-Amarna, Egypt tell us that proto-Semitic peoples of the Palestine region once worshipped a goddess whose name, approximated, was, in their mode of writing (without vowels), S-L-M. From this ancient name, many others and concepts have sprung, to wit; Salem, Salome, Shalom, Shlomo, Islam, Salaam, Muslim, etc. In Hebrew, as studied by rabbis, this name is still known as holy writ … effectively ‘one of the names of G-d.’


That is not to say that the Jews originated the concept of justice, mind you. On the contrary, it appears that justice is as old as the phenomenon of human beings sitting in a circle and ‘talking things out.’ It just happens that the tribal traditions of the Jews gave us our primary reference for justice, as the conceptual vocabulary we use to describe it (and many other things) was passed down to us through Hebraic writings … especially through the Bible. Never forget that among the seven articles of the postdiluvian Noachide Covenant, the last one – and the only one articulated as a positive, affirmative instruction – was ‘Thou shalt establish systems of justice.’


So today, when we talk about restorative justice as, say, the sentencing circles of Native American peoples, or the Gacaca of the Rwandans, or the Family Group Conferences passed to us by the Maori, perhaps we are merely talking about a process, outcome, thing that is universal, as second nature to humanity as sitting in a circle, perhaps around a fire, maybe sharing a meal, etc. Certainly, we are talking about methods that generate vastly superior participant satisfaction than, say, judicial punishments. Maybe human beings are genetically ‘hard-wired’ for peace and justice, and maybe, just maybe, the triumph of evil is only possible when our true inner human nature is interfered with – epigenetically – by violence and oppression in our lives and cultures.


‘Classical’ knowledge is sophisticated enough to give us a statuary representation of ‘Lady Justice’ (akin perhaps to ‘Lady Liberty’). Ms. Justice, if you will, is depicted blindfolded, holding a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. The scales are often lopsided, as if there were an unequal weighing of two things, with Ms. Justice blind to the fact of its inequality. Perhaps the point is that in the real world, and especially in terms of justice, true equality is very rare.


I believe, however, that the statuary representation is testimony to the truth that while justice can almost never embody true equality, particularly in its outcomes, and can, of course, never really return participants to ‘status quo ante,’ justice can assess equity – where outcomes are as nearly equitable as possible. In other words, whether harms have been reduced or eliminated as much as possible, with no new harm has been done. This is why in answering the perennial questions in matters of restorative justice – ‘What is restored, to whom, and how?’ we ultimately come to the realization that it is the community, via its human relationships, that is restored, though this restoration is all too seldom seamless. Scars from harms and injuries may remain, and indeed, even the most forgiving and charitable of people can be heard to say that while they forgive, they shall not forget.


So, while it is a handy ‘nom de guerre’ for a handful of methods that are being used by scholars, researchers, practitioners, teachers, and activists to wrench modern so-called justice methods back to the origins and precepts of true justice, restorative justice may actually be said to factually and truthfully represent nothing more nor less than justice itself.


If you have noticed the reference to an ancient proto-Semitic goddess, and the allusion to justice as a classical statue of a woman, you may also wish to infer that justice – the postdiluvian version – is also essentially feminist. I make these references deliberately, and would be inclined to agree.


Much of what Sullivan has written is in the character of a lament. Why is justice not taught in schools? Why do so few people understand what justice really is? The answer, in broad strokes, is that tribal teachings are, by and large, still only passed on in the tribal context. But also that for today’s world, the tribal context simply no longer exists. We no longer live in, or migrate among, our hunting grounds. We have settled, beginning with agriculture, and begun to produce more than what we need to sustain ourselves. And since when we began to produce more than what we needed, our populations grew far beyond what the old tribal ways would or could have supported. We have found ways to produce geometrically more and more. With this questionable outcome also came ‘feast and famine,’ hardship and prosperity, giving rise to wars over resources, beginning of course with food and water, and progressing through ‘lebensraum’ to the current trans-global struggles for energy resources and rare technologically useful minerals.


In addition to tribal ones, a few modern-age societies have realized en corpus that western ways have gone ‘beyond the pale’ and have forgotten cardinal virtues such as justice. The Amish in the USA are a good example. While at first blush their plain clothing, primary educational system, and refusal to adopt higher technologies seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to western advancements, when studied closer, one finds in the Amish a very valid final arbiter to their policies – family and community relationships. From television to automobiles to profligate telephones and computers, the Amish refuse to adopt anything that would take them away from one another; that is, from family and community into their own little individual worlds. You can recognize part of the sentiment behind this when you reflect on the last time you spoke in person with a teenager as they started ‘texting’ someone else in the middle of your conversation. Are Amish concerns valid? Obviously by their standards, the answer is in the affirmative. Do they take things too far? Many would say so. However, the 2006 incident at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania taught the world a lesson in forgiveness and is still remarked upon as an exemplary form of true justice.


In a world rife with injustice and inequality, how is it possible to teach justice, particularly in the academic setting?


In western societies, ‘justice-making’ is, by and large, relegated to gowned and decorous judges, sitting in staid and ornate courtrooms, who are appointed largely because they have demonstrated their support for, and non-threatening stance toward, the hierarchical and economically inequitable systems in which they live. Our only gesture toward ‘justice-keeping’ is the guns and other weapons we place in the hands of our uniformed service members, mostly the police and armed forces, along with the pronouncement or tacit premise that ‘the state has a monopoly on violence.’


From a whole host of observations, I have come to the conclusion that justice is a function of true community, along with the corollary belief that the state is incompetent to foster justice. Hence in Vermont, from where I write, restorative justice has become, at least in name, the ‘law of the land,’ as community justice centers have sprung up in our 12 largest cities and towns to practice mediation, family group conferencing, and a Vermont hybrid method called Reparative Probation. Since these centers benefit from State funding, justice cannot reasonably be said to have been taken back from the state by our communities. But at least a plurality of our residents have come to realize that this would be acceptable, even desirable.


What is restored, to whom, and how? For me, the answer is equity, best understood as the equitable fabric of relationships which constitute true community. What is restored, in effect, is ‘the peace.’


In that proto-Semitic concept of Shalom, one can find three component virtues … justice, peace, and a third virtue variously referred to as integrity, wholeness, salvation, healing, etc. Thus, no true measure and estimation of what justice really is can be articulated without reference to those other component and inseparable parts of what is known in Hebrew as Shalom.


The Campaign for Equity-Restorative Justice (CERJ) was founded in 1997 with the goal of making restorative justice a household concept. Perhaps we did not exactly succeed, but the Campaign helped to spark and inspire many new initiatives. In 2004, for its last major project, CERJ organized and sponsored a series of workshops in the maximum-security US prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Based on the Alternatives to Violence Project model and curriculum, these workshops also included an advanced restorative justice module and a third module based on traditional Navajo (Dineh) peacemaking – Leavenworth Prison has many First Nations men as inmates, including, at the time, the renowned political prisoner Leonard Peltier.


Later in 2004, the CERJ actually resolved to reconstitute itself as an unconventional educational institution known as the John Woolman College of Active Peace. It is named after a colonial American Quaker minister who, in the late 1700s, campaigned among his fellow Quakers to release their slaves. He was thus widely credited with giving the Quakers the post-colonial moral authority to later confront those of other religious traditions to end slavery altogether.


In our lifetimes, many of us have borne witness to, and perhaps even experienced, genocide, civil war, proxy war, world war, and every other kind of war one could possibly imagine … probably even a few that one could not. Von Clausewitz famously said ‘War is the continuance of diplomacy by other means.’ Yet the very concept of diplomacy already presupposes some estrangement. How strange it is, in the final analysis, that most people only understand peace as the absence of warlike fighting. Where we once had Pax Romana, we now have the Pax Americana … or more properly the 500 years of wars and conquest sparked by the European Renaissance, particularly its technological innovations, which permitted and abetted world conquest. Today we bear witness to a continuance of trends in international relations that began with Greece and Rome, and before them Alexander, the Hittites, and other peoples who created empires, and which perhaps found their classical European articulation beginning with Clovis of the Franks, the first European king who professed Christianity, and his violent and dramatic demonstrations of what we now think of as ‘Christian Exceptionalism.’


Suppose we were to teach and understand peace from a different theoretical basis; something simple and memorable?


Suppose we postulate a tri-partite concept of our own, Active Peace (including justice, of course), composed of three components, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding?


Peacebuilding, a term now in vogue but often misconstrued, is the fostering of right relationships through principled development … the creation of food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities of life, the spreading of a minimal standard of prosperity to all. Many, if not most, vocations, professions, crafts, and arts could be understood as peacebuilding, a concept destined to encompass most of what we all cherish and hold dear about our homes, our communities, our lands, and our peoples.


Where violence and inequitable circumstances persist, peacekeeping is understood, at its most basic, as nonviolent resistance, nonviolent accompaniment of the vulnerable and oppressed, and speaking up for those having little or no voice. One of the purest peacekeeping missions today is the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a group with ties to Friends Peace Teams and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Peacekeeping often requires a broader or more specialized educational preparation, and must be exercised and articulated with a different order of wisdom than, say, the artisan whose dedication is to quietly pursue a trade in the community context. Yet, both are obviously part of Active Peace.


Peacemaking is any of several types of applied exercises in intervention, or constructive social group processes. Restorative justice is constituted by a number of distinct peacemaking methods. These methods have as their result and their raison d’etre the transformation of conflict, having left behind the erroneous notion that conflict can be ‘resolved.’


There is conflict in all facets of human life, and the full measure of our humanity is in how we respond to it. When the objectives of the restorative justice movement are fulfilled, justice will be known as inseparable from peace. There will be no more state-sponsored murders, assassinations, official retaliations, or ‘summary justice’ as practiced increasingly today. Punishment will come to be seen for what it really is – the continuation of cycles of violence.


And today, we have, in the west, several great institutional orders based on the continuation of cycles of violence. We have military–industrial complexes and prison–industrial complexes. We have great industries and investment houses, now more successful and grand than ever before, largely because of the worldwide popularity of violence and the concomitant financial profits. We have whole systems, including perhaps the nation-state system itself, whose primary competency is the promulgation of violence. And so much of it is done in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ Go figure.


When will we understand that we are prey and subject to over 3000 years of conquest cultures and power elites? Has it always been in others’ pecuniary interest to cloud and obscure the true nature of justice and peace? Will they always take power away from the people, where it belongs, and arrogate it into the hands of the few? The 1% and the 99% – the allusion is clear.


Are we waking up? Do we dare to even begin to believe that we can wake up enough to foster equitable human systems of peace, justice, and prosperity?


I believe that it is high time for the rebirth of the teaching of the true nature of justice, peace, and human integrity. These are inseparable concepts, and must be taught in conjunction with one another. Our judges and lawyers must become facilitators and mediators. Our police and armies must become nonviolent accompaniers. Our tradespeople, craftspeople, artisans, and those of every other constructive and necessary endeavor must become true, conscious agents of Active Peace.


There is one concept around which justice, peace, and integrity can rally – healing. All which is done in the name of justice, when all is said and done, must also be done in aid of healing. Those in crisis are brought into circumstances where their healing and recovery can be promoted. Those who are victims of grievous violence are understood to need ‘grief work,’ which often cannot be rushed, but which can sometimes see dramatic transformations with the application of specific methods. The perennial questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘Why Me?’ can indeed have appropriate answers once restorative justice is understood to be a victim’s right.


And the cycle of violence can be broken once victims understand that their rights and ‘just deserts’ absolutely do not include seeing violence done to their own violators. The interests of society in breaking cycles of violence far transcend the drastic, though sometimes understandable, wishes of any victim for retaliation. Only in this manner can true justice – healing justice – be served.

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