Courageous Justice vs. Fear Based Justice
There are two types of justice. The first type of justice is primarily concerned with equalizing the scales. You insult me, so I have the right to insult you back. You break into my home, so I have the right to break you. You attack my nation’s soil, so I have the right to put you into the soil. This type of justice is commonly referred to as punitive or retributive justice; it has its most popular basis in the Biblical sanction to redress harm by taking an “eye for an eye.”
Punitive justice relies on fear. A justice of fear is preoccupied with the loss of something deemed important or valuable, and it is generally fixated on the militant preservation of social comforts. These social comforts range from material possessions to intangibles such as relationships or values. The fear of losing respect has spilled more bloodshed than all of the isms combined. On a personal level, the cycle of violence that fear based justice perpetuates is founded on a lie that we must sometimes want to harm another person. Fear based justice is incapable of stopping the cycle of violence because it makes self- defense morally preferable to creative suffering. On a national and global scale, this mentality has resulted in unfathomable atrocities.
Countering a justice of fear, the supreme Chinese philosopher of the Tao Te Ching advises that, “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil. Thus you destroy your three treasures and become an enemy yourself.” (Mitchell 69). The three treasures are simplicity, patience, and compassion. If one is “patient with both friends and enemies, they will accord with the way things are” (Mitchell 69), and if we are compassionate toward ourselves, we will reconcile all beings to the world. Whereas fear based justice may succeed in presenting a mirage of mutual understanding, in actuality it only establishes the practical foundation for revenge.
Unlike the selfish and sometimes malicious characteristics that define fear based justice, the virtues of simplicity, patience and compassion are the cornerstones of authentic justice, or what can be referred to as courageous justice; it is a type of justice that radiates with luminescent empathy for the alienated and downtrodden. Courageous justice sees the scales of equality as a devious device of distraction that takes us away from the truth of our inner connectedness to each other and the Earth. The scales can never be even in the eyes of courageous justice because equality presupposes separation.
Courageous justice was totally embodied by the political saint Mohandas K. Gandhi. Throughout his life Gandhi worked for a type of justice rooted in the undying vitality of truth and principled action. Early in his career he became a barrister and strove to master British jurisprudence. As a leader of ashrams he was expected to arbitrate disputes and settle petty grievances. As an intrepid opponent of untouchability and child marriages he challenged Hinduism to renounce its dogmatic affiliation with hate injected casteism. And as a social reformer in South Africa and India he struggled against the barbaric precepts of white supremacy.
But perhaps the purest expression of courageous justice can be seen in the way Gandhi related to the rural poor of India. At the age of 51, he vowed to stop wearing his familiar garb and don simple Khadi dress. Gandhi wanted to completely self- identify with the poor. What did it mean to be called Mahatma (translated as “Great Soul in Beggars Clothing”) and own more than the lowliest child? Towards the end of his prolific life he had forgone eating anything except nuts, some fruit, and an insipid porridge. Gandhi could not stomach the thought of enjoying more nutrition than a starving mother. He once said that “there are people who are so hungry in this world that God can only come to them in the form of bread.” This is a beautiful example of courageous justice because Gandhi did not want to be equal to the poor; he wanted to become one with the poor. Courageous justice stands in opposition to the fallacy of separate but equal; it also stands for the proposition that we are all inseparable.
Finally, courageous justice is a significant feature of a larger scientific, social, and spiritual phenomenon called ahimsa. Ahimsa can be understood as the power which emerges within an individual once they eradicate the desire to harm any living entity. The individual who is consumed with the power of ahimsa is not at all concerned with fear based incentives such as personal reputation, the protection of commodities, or even national pride.
So according to Gandhi, we can trust ahimsa to achieve a type of justice that does not leave dirt and destruction in its wake. Ahimsa is a clean and constructive justice that can only be understood “in its positive form, which means the largest love, the greatest charity.” A follower of ahimsa must love their enemy. Gandhi said, “The gift of life is the greatest of all gifts. A person who gives it in reality disarms all hostility… And no one who is himself or herself subject of fear can bestow that gift. She must therefore herself be fearless. We cannot practice ahimsa and be a coward at the same time. The practice of ahimsa calls forth the greatest courage.”
All quotes from Gandhi are taken from The Penguin Gandhi Reader, Edited by Rudrangshu Mukerjee (Penguin Books 1993)
Tao Te Ching, Translated by Stephen Mitchell (Harper Perennial 1998)