The responses to the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, have been exactly what we thought they would be. Those on the left were unsatisfied, claiming that justice was not done because racial injustice still exists and George Floyd should not be dead to begin with. “Justice for George Floyd Means No More Cop Terror,” read an activist’s sign. Real justice would be totally fair treatment for African Americans not only in terms of policing but also in every other aspect of social life where disparities exist.
The response from many on the right was all too predictable as well. The trial itself, they say, was a show trial with a pre-ordained outcome. Politicians, including President Joe Biden, knew what the “right verdict” should be before the jury even began deliberations.
Many in the media bemoaned the fact that we were even holding a trial. What for? We’ve got the video, what else do we need? Due process, they insinuated, was itself unjust. Apparently, the bedrock American legal belief that a fair trial means assuming innocence until proven guilty was just another expression of “white supremacy.”
There are important elements to each side that are true. In this case, I hope, justice was served, but that cannot rectify or change other injustices that exist in our world. The world we live in is filled with pain and injustice, and we should never grow numb to the cry of those who have suffered injustice or the desire to rectify facets of our legal system or society that are perpetuating or exacerbating injustice.
When I visited the Heritage Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the brutality of the slave trade and subsequent Jim Crow lynching perpetrated against black folks. Knowing the facts is one thing, but reading the inscriptions at the Peace and Justice Memorial of the reasons that each person was lynched, often for the most innocuous and innocent of behavior, was truly gut-wrenching. How could it be that ringing a doorbell or being in the wrong part of town was enough to lose one’s life?
The horror of injustice is an important part of our Christian faith. We should never be okay with wrongs done against the innocent.
And yet, the pathos for the victim and the desire to rectify injustice often lapse into an angry demand that cannot be satisfied by any worldly justice. The passions of the mob, even if justified, often lapse into unthinking cruelty that is unrestrained and destructive. History is filled with cases of mob violence and show trails that make a mockery of justice to satisfy the desire for vengeance. Our system of government and law is designed to guard against majoritarian temptations and mob passions so that objectivity and rule of law prevail.
Thucydides noted this aspect of human nature in the behavior of the different factions at Corcyra. Whatever the justice of their cause, human nature, taken over by “party spirit,” with a desire for revenge becomes the “master of laws,” willing to engage in unrestrained violence in the name of some greater good in view. A properly Christian view of justice will be concerned with not only achieving justice but also the propensity of human nature toward injustice, especially under the cover of righteous and benign motives. Augustine pointed out that everyone is seeking peace, just their own version of it (City of God 19.12). Our sense of being wronged quickly morphs into an insatiable desire for vengeance, and a pound of flesh will never be able to satisfy this insatiable desire.
If we take a step back, both responses reveal a deeply Christian but overly demanding, in fact, disordered, view of justice. As Tom Holland exhaustively chronicled in his latest book, the concern with victims of injustice is not a uniquely Christian belief, since most cultures and civilizations have had laws and punishments for those wronged by injustice. But what Christianity did bring was a deep moral concern for the weak, the poor, and the victim that was unprecedented. Why? At the center of their faith stood a crucified Jew. God himself was a victim of injustice.
The activist yells, “No justice, no peace,” and is unsatisfied even when justice is served because so many other injustices exist. Nothing short of the complete wiping away of all wrongs, including the complete and total equality of all persons in every facet of life, will satisfy this deep sense of injustice.
Yuval Levin has captured this fundamental outlook well in his distinction between conservative and progressive intuitions. The conservative starts from a position of gratitude for the good things in his or her life, amazed that anything in the world works at all, and seeks to preserve those good things while attempting to ameliorate the bad. Fixing the bad and reform should be slow because society is fragile and can fall apart quickly if we attempt to bring about the reign of justice with self-righteous zeal.
Progressives look out onto the world and see injustice. Rather than starting with gratitude, they start with a deep sense of indignation. They are overcome with a sense of pain and suffering, which is why progressives are moved by righteous zeal. They believe they are standing for good against evil.
Both intuitions are right, in a sense, even though we all tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Holding them in tension is the trick, and one that is done well by very few. What both views need, though, is a transcendent ground for justice that requires more from the conservative while satisfying the demands of the progressive. The desire to conserve and protect the goods in society is right and godly, but must be made aware of the constant need for reform so that injustices can be rectified.
On the other hand, progressives must accept the reality of the fall in human nature and society, not seeking to undo what cannot be undone through laws and institutions. Politics cannot regenerate, and every movement that seeks perfection turns into a tyranny. It must be left to the church and the Holy Spirit to heal and perfect our hearts, not the coercive power of the state and law.
Furthermore, an awareness of one’s own sin should be first and foremost upon every Christian’s mind. Our first reaction should be disillusionment at our own brokenness before we gaze with righteous zeal upon the injustices of our neighbors. Only the person who can pray, “Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner,” truly understands that they too stand guilty before an absolute, holy God. Absolute justice will come one day, and no one shall be justified before the bar of God’s justice based on their own goodness.
I, for one, am glad that justice was done for George Floyd. Yes, it is partial and does not make up for the wrong that was done. Like the blood of Able, the wrongs done to all victims of injustice—whether it be the poor people who lost their life savings to the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff or the victims of unjust police violence—cry out from the ground to heaven. George Floyd should not be dead, but such is the reality of life east of Eden. Imperfect justice is the best we can hope for in this life because we are not promised more than this. Until the reign of righteousness is brought about, we must be satisfied with this all-too-imperfect justice, looking forward to the day when all justice will be brought to judgment.