Monday, September 12, 2005

[Essay] Justice

Perhaps it’s because I live in a third-world country, but the word justice often comes up, and in various contexts. It could mean food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, fair wages for the masses, or simply punishing the unjust. The last point I want to expound on. In media, in literature, and in real life, the lines between justice and revenge (or vengeance, if you prefer) is blurred. If we want someone punished, we cry out for justice. If there’s a mass-murderer out there, we seek his capture so that he may be sentenced to death. And you know, that kind of reaction is natural, human nature. It’s as reflexive as kicking when the doctor taps you kneecap. Many supporters of this kind of belief will usually favor the Old Testament, quoting the passages of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Turning your other cheek is so unnatural that it’s what makes Christian doctrine so progressive for its time. Yet for all the beliefs that the Bible instills in its followers, people still clamor for revenge in the guise of justice. But is this what rational, enlightened people should ask, let alone a just and merciful deity should condone?

Throughout grade school and high school, I’m the kid that gets pushed around, a prime target of the bullies. In my eyes, if there’s anyone who should seek deific vengeance, it’s me, one of the oppressed. Some people might even carry bitter feelings inside them even if such incidents were a decade old. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. Perhaps the day I was converted to another kind of belief was when I met one of the people who bullied me. He approached me as a friend rather than an oppressor. He was asking if he could borrow some money for me, nothing large, just a few coins. While I suspected a part of the act was a farce, he didn’t retaliate when I couldn’t give him what he wanted. He merely thanked me and walked away. And over the course of many years, I’d meet people who were once the bullies, the guys on top, live reformed lives. This experience rather than Biblical text is perhaps what showed me that there’s something better than punishment.

Theoretically, reformation is something our society strives for. The reason we put criminals in jail is so that they can know the consequences of their actions and change for the better. Whether it’s effective or not (or even appropriate, as anyone who’s watched or read Les Miserables will know) is an entirely different matter. Yet when a crime is committed and the criminal is apprehended, society clamors the convict to be jailed, not because they hope that he or she will be converted, but in order to be punished. Once again, this is the normal human reaction. When someone kills one of your loved ones, steals your hard-earned money, or threatens your life, the immediate reaction is to strike back. I must admit, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in that. But in such a scenario, I think of the future and realize that at best, what we’ve managed to accomplish is only to rid the world of one less human being. To some people, that’s not so bad. But if you think about it, there’s actually something better.

Don’t you have a friend who was once a bully? Or perhaps someone who was very unlikable, but changed and is now one of your good buddies. It could easily have been a rival, an enemy, or simply someone who gave a wrong first impression. Despite all their faults, they’re your friends now. Let’s assume that you didn’t change, and that it was they who started acting differently. Wouldn’t you have someone, despite (or perhaps because of) their horrible past, be your friend in the present? The alternative of course is that they’d be jailed up somewhere, never to see the light of day. Or worse, sentenced to the death penalty. It’s simple math: zero, or something. Yet many of us prefer the former, thinking that revenge would be sweeter, or that the person would never change for the better. With regards to reformation, you never know unless you give the person a chance. It might not be something you can change in him or her, but circumstances have ways of altering a person, whether for good or ill. As for revenge, well, some do develop a taste for it. To me, it’s just a precious waste of resources. What rules us when it comes to revenge isn’t our intellect, but our appetite. While following our appetite when it comes to food is okay, it’s another thing when it comes to human life.

Let me take things to another level. A friend of mine once told me that she thinks in the afterlife, God will punish the unjust, even if they’ve been converted. She reasons that if that weren’t the case, what happens to the rest who’ve been good all their life? She and I agree on one point though: we don’t know how God will behave. God is, after all, the most justice and good character we can imagine. In this case, my friend believes that God will mete our justice. I don’t, at least not to those who are reformed. Admittedly, a part of me wants to see people punished. As my friend said, what happens to the rest of us who’ve been good the entire time? Where’s the justice in that? But that’s not the rational part of me speaking. An enlightened person would think things through. I mean honestly, if you used to be the most horrible person, and then you genuinely decided to be good, your past is enough to haunt you for the rest of your life. Punishing you in the afterlife is like giving medication to a person who’s cured. Not only is it inappropriate, it’s causing unnecessary pain. Sure, if the person wasn’t sincere in their reformation, go ahead and punish them. But punishing a good person because of their past is as fair as punishing the son for the sins of the father (that’s not to say that the guilty shouldn’t be punished; they have to live with the consequences, but they can expect forgiveness from the merciful).

If that was the case, some of you might be asking, what about the people who’ve been good all their lives? Would their rewards be the same in my vision of an utopian society? Well, there’s the parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder brother, the one who didn’t run away and stayed, asks his father the same question. What about me? There was forgiveness for the Prodigal Son, and the older brother’s initial reaction was where’s the justice in that? God’s answer to him was that he’ll inherit everything He’s built up so far. But in concrete terms, what is that? Well to me, at the very least, the people who’ve lived good lives won’t be bothered by their conscience. I mean if I was a criminal, for example, who eventually reformed, no matter what I do in the present, I’ll still be mentally haunted by my past. Because I can never undo my crimes, and whatever wrong I did to other people will linger in my mind. Call it whatever you want, be it trauma, nightmares, or guilt. If I truly lived my life as holy as I make it out to be, then I won’t have that burden, even if my final fate is the same as the converted.

Before I end, I’d like to point out that no one lives a pure and good life. We’ve all made mistakes, and aren’t we grateful for those who gave us a second, or even a third chance in life? We might not have committed crimes, but we have performed unjust acts. Whether it’s something mortal or venial, there’s always a chance for reformation, for change. The one thing I dislike about death is that it halts change. A dead prisoner can’t be enlightened and ask for penitence, at least not in this life. And for those who judge others in light of their own righteousness, well, it’ll be ironic if God sentenced you to the same punishments you’ve been clamoring for in others.

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