What purpose justice?

In one of the recent debates for the republican nomination, Brian Williams prefaced his question to Governor Rick Perry about the death penalty by saying that his state had executed over 234 prison inmates, more than any other Governor in modern times.

What was shocking was not the Governor’s claim that the he was unbothered by the prospect that even one of those executed might have been innocent, but rather the crowd’s response.

They applauded, whistled and hooted.

You can hear it yourself here.

That left me with a sick feeling and a very profound sense of how perverted our idea of justice has become.

Another way

In the book Shantaram the author Gregory David Roberts, gives the following account of Bombay slum dwellers administering a different and perhaps more admirable form of justice.

The crime

A husband had become drunk and out of control and had been beating his wife for over three hours when neighbors sent for the head man to intervene.

When the head man arrived, he ordered that the wife, who was now unconscious and bloody, be taken away and sent to her relatives who lived nearby.

Slum justice

The head man (Qasim Ali) then ordered the offender to be brought into the midst of a circle of strong young men, where he was forced to drink more of the same alcohol that made him drunk until he passed out.

A few hours later he was forcibly awoken and made to drink more alcohol, only this time they began to accuse him of murdering his wife.  (She was not dead.)

The man seemed truly horrified by this and begged forgiveness, but still he was made to drink more, and then they began to beat him with the same stick he had used on his wife.

This went on for hours until Qasim Ali ordered the man’s family and the family of his wife to be brought.  These relatives then formed the circle around the man and took up the berating and beating under the direction of Qasim Ali who kept a constant pressure on the man while preventing the punishment from drawing blood, breaking bones or otherwise going to far.

This went on for most of the following day until at one point the man broke down with all of his defiance and arrogance gone. He sobbed the name of his wife (whom he thought dead) and called her name repeatedly begging for forgiveness.

At that moment, the head man stopped the beating and chastisement and ordered water and fresh towels to be brought.

The men who had been beating him moments before now began to wipe him clean, comb his hair and hug him.

They then told him that if he was genuinely sorry, he would be forgiven and given help.  He was made to kneel and touch the feet of every villager brought before him, and then he was given clean clothes.

A just punishment

The women of the man’s family and the wife’s family were the ones who decided on this punishment.

He would not see his wife for two months while she recovered, during which time he would work very hard, and he would fast and not drink anything but water.

During this time the wife would decide if she would have him back.  If the answer was yes, he would use the money he had earned over his two months of hard work to take his wife on a retreat to the mountains where he would face the ugliness within himself, and he would try to overcome it and make a happy and virtuous future for his wife and himself.

Justice is not vengeance

This Bombay slum of 25,000 people had no policemen, courts or jails, yet they seemed to have a better practice of justice than what we in the West practice today.

The offender was punished by a group of his peers, made to feel the impact of his actions upon those that were affected, and also made to feel the shame of his transgression; all under the guidance of someone wise and far enough removed from the drama and emotion of the crime.

The punishment was also just in that it was swift and allowed the man to return and be accepted by the community whose rules he had broken.

“Justice is a judgment that is both fair and forgiving.”  Qasim Ali


Somewhere along the way, society has come to equate vengeance with justice, and common (and incorrect) Old Testament interpretations to punish violently—an eye for an eye (Exodus 23-24)—have eclipsed Jesus’ entreaties (Matthew 38-48) to “… turn the other cheek” “.. love thine enemy” and (Luke 23:34) “… forgive them for they know what they do.”

Thirst for vengeance has become some such a blood lust that evidence to the non-deterrent effect of the death penalty fails to persuade and no compassion can be found even when it is clear that the system is executing innocent men.

Today, despite evidence that there was reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Troy Davis the state refused to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, and he was executed.

Why?  Do we really think justice was served?

Our sole purpose seems to be to punish.

For non-capital offenses we put young people into a system that all but banishes them from a normal return to society, and for capital offenses we insist on a mob justice kind of retribution unmitigated by circumstance, compassion or even as it would seem … evidence.

I don’t know what is more ironic.  The fact that this mob justice is being carried out by supposedly learned men and women, or that many of them profess to being called Christians.

“Justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong, it is also the way we try to save them.”  Qasim Ali

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.