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The elusive search for justice

What do Trumpers and Anti-Trumpers, pro-voice and anti-voice campaigners, have in common?

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‘If this is justice, I am a banana!’ The sentiments of journalist Ian Hislop’s words — uttered in 1989 after a sloppy decision by a British court — are now claimed by both Donald Trump’s supporters and his critics.

Last week, the former US President’s indictment was unsealed and he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to all 37 charges against him. Round and round we go. His critics and supporters continue to grow in ferocity with every headline. They both claim to be fighting against injustice.

Cries of injustice from opposing sides of an issue are common. As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its 16th month, both Presidents — Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky — maintain that their nations are victims of injustice. Australia’s national debate on the Indigenous Voice referendum is following suit. Those from the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camp claim that the opposing side’s preferred result would constitute racial injustice. And the game of ‘who knew what when?’ continues to be played out in parliament and in the media in relation to Brittany Higgins’ allegation of a sexual assault at parliament house in 2019. Again, both sides continue to cry out for justice.

Superman once exclaimed to his nemesis Lex Luthor, ‘The world is as it always was, with good fighting evil.’ Most would agree. But deciding what’s ‘good’ is trickier than it seems. In his recently released book The Saviour Syndrome, Professor of Sociology John Carroll observes that as traditional religion has declined, the label of ‘sacred’ has been transferred onto people. The ‘true self’ is the new sacred. And — as per Carroll — this call to authenticity is accompanied by a call for justice.

We’ve set ourselves a tough task. Having lost touch with the idea of a shared notion of the common good, we now find ourselves bitterly grasping for moral certainty in a world that tells us there is none to be found.

This seems to have led us to be more outraged with perpetrators of injustice than concerned for victims of it. Playing the man and not the ball has never really worked on the football field. But our hunger for justice has been overwhelmed by our anger with people who disagree with us.

In a recent episode of their ABC Radio podcast The Minefield, Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens remark that the humanity in our dialogue has been lost to the language of abstractions — big causes that reduce us from human beings to merely creatures bearing ideologies. We are either pro-voice or anti-voice. We are either Trumpers or anti-Trumpers. We have become abstractions disguised as people. And — as per philosopher Albert Camus — ‘There is no persuading an abstraction.’

If our pursuit of justice is abstract and angry, then even if we get what we want, bitterness tends to remain. To be sure, outrage — even anger — has a role in uncovering injustice. But an engine needs petrol as well as an ignition. Getting started is one thing, but keeping things moving is another. Even when our opponents morally exasperate us to the point of disbelief, it helps to remember that anger is a signal, not a solution.

In quoting the Bible, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior called for justice to roll on like a river and righteousness like a mighty stream. For King, justice is not abstract. It’s about people first. It therefore requires us to see each other charitably, humanly — even those with whom we disagree. We must hate injustice, not our opponents.

In 1967, boxing superstar Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter was wrongfully imprisoned for life for a triple-murder after a prosecution and trial mired in prejudice. If anyone has ever had a reason for bitterness, he did. Yet while in prison, Carter said that although hate put him in prison, love would bust him out. His conviction was overturned after 18 years. Carter was released and spent the rest of his life fighting for justice for the wrongfully imprisoned. Somehow, he wasn’t bitter. He looked beyond anger, to forgiveness and restoration.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that justice without strength is helpless. Perhaps — equally importantly — justice with bitterness is toothless. Justice without bitterness is harder to find these days. But the lives of people like Carter and King show us that it’s possible. Opponents need not be enemies. We can choose restoration over retribution. But we must refuse to allow the importance of our causes to cloud out the sanctity of our humanity.

This article was commissioned by the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) and first appeared in Eureka Street on 22nd June 2023.

CPX is a media company based in Sydney, Australia that offers a Christian perspective on contemporary life. Follow CPX on Instagram for more content. 

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