Is there justice in such a world?

By Madronna Holden

“He is confined to solitary twenty-three hours a day in a prison cell that measures 9’X12′.  The cell has a solid front, preventing any view of the outside world…Like most of his fellow prisoners on Arkansas’s Death Row, he claims to be innocent. In Damien Echols’s case, however, there’s substantial evidence that the claim is true”.

So begins Jeff Zaleskki’s introduction to the issue of Parabola on the theme of justice. In line with this theme Parabola interviewed Echols, “but not because he probably is innocent. We all have suffered injustice and we all have tolerated, even caused it.”  Parabola is interested in Echol’s case because he is a Zen master who lives day in and day out in the face of the injustice that committed him to death row.

There is clearly ample injustice in our world today– injustice that those organizations linked to this site under the category of “environmental justice” dedicate themselves to changing.  Injustice in climate change, for instance, that causes the oceans to rise over island nations that contribute little if anything to this global problem. And there is injustice surely in the growing disparity between the rich and poor everywhere.

But is there justice and if so, where do we find it?  In God, in religion, in humanism?  Some of the Parabola articles examine these directions, including the one that honors the words of the strikingly compassionate believer Etty Hillesum, who died in the Holocaust, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who lays out the “sacred foundations of justice in Islam”.

For myself, I find justice in the natural model of reciprocity expressed in the folktales of ancient peoples. I am honored that Parabola allowed me to add my own voice to such eloquent ones as those above on this score. Such wise tales assure us that life does not abandon her children– even if a great injustices take more than one generation to redress, as expressed in an eloquent tale many of  those stolen into slavery from Africa knew.

As always, this issue of Parabola indicates that we cannot know ourselves too well.

I am moved by those who meditate on this topic alongside me.

But I am moved most of all by those of you who work for justice on our shared earth.

Many public and university libraries carry Parabola.

12 Responses

  1. Dr. Holden, it it true that some people have been wrongly accused and were put to death or are still on death row. What is confusing is the idea to get rid of death penalty completely.
    I have heard of rulings that have given a criminal who committed multiple murders, “multiple life sentences.” I believe it is unwise to allow the murderer who took another’s life to live at the expense of the victim’s family. How can he be suffering when he eats, exercizes, talks to his family by phone and visitations, writes letters, reads books, and watches TV?
    What bothers me Dr. Holden, is the aggressive way certain societal norms are being changed. All these animosity for what? Just about every ethical and moral code is being dismantled one by one by certain people, thinking they will some day be in control of this country. By then, I wonder over who will they rule?
    Everything good and wholesome they are replacing by bad and immoral ones. Never did the indigenous peoples have such anti-family, anti-social, and anti-religious cravings. It seems we are moving backwards even as we are advancing scientifically.

  2. We cannot call it justice when one person wrongly accused dies but nine others who were convicted of murder(s) are let go. Upon what basis do the “experts” arrive at their decisions?

  3. Hi Sayed,
    I am always glad to see your thoughtful comments on this site.The issue of balance in terms of justice is an important one. I am personally not in favor of the death penalty for several reasons.
    1. As you indicate we are not very good “experts” at actually finding guilty persons. As DNA testing has proved, a substantial percentage of those on death row are actually innocent. It turns out that eye witness evidence is not very reliable– especially with respect to strangers seen in a traumatic situation.
    2. This brings us another issue: in emotional judgments our unacknowledged prejudices come up, for instance, racism. Though people of color are obviously not the majority of the US population– or the majority of those who commit crimes in the US., they are the overwhelming majority of those on death row. It turns out that juries are more likely to allot the death penalty to a person of color. This adds to the danger of misjudging someone guilty when they are not.
    3. I don’t feel that we really honor the families of victims by putting even the truly guilty to death. In programs on restorative justice, it turns out that forgiveness is more healing than retribution. Holding on to the feeling of the harm one has done to us or our family seems to keep us experiencing the harm as a victim. Letting go allows us to move beyond victimhood and take our power back, and that letting go is linked to forgiveness. Such retribution can also cause the cycle of violence to escalate. If we are right in avenging someone, we have sanctioned this type of vengeance for all to see and model.
    I would add that protecting someone we love (or ourselves) from attack is a different matter, but if we are in no physical danger, I think cold blooded killing for whatever reason does no justice to our souls. In fact, those who return from war with post traumatic stress syndrome have a soul sickness due to having killed others, according to many indigenous traditions– no matter how “just” the war. Some of these vets have experienced healing as a result of participating in healing ceremonies for returning warriors in some indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, we don’t offer our returning vets such social re-integration ceremonies.
    4. Only God knows what is in the heart of another; and who are we to judge them? Or to take the life God has given them? Or to declare that they are incapable of redemption?
    5. It does not make sense to me to murder another in order to redeem a murder: we are just repeating the crime again. In fact, many indigenous societies are very careful not to contribute to the escalation of violence that can be created by retribution. In this context, families who have lost someone never feel balance, but are always looking for revenge.
    Carefully working to avoid this cycle or feuding the traditional Chinook did the following if they had a serious grievance. First, they would try to negotiate a trade: for instance, a gift that would compensate for the harm. If another were killed, a member of the family who did the harm might be placed in the family of the harmed one to act as “slave” to make up for that family’s loss.
    If no satisfactory compensation could be worked out, a village would publicly announce their intention to have a fight with another. Usually this would motivate more negotiation. If that did not work out, people attacked wearing ritual armor arrows could not penetrate. Since the battle was announced, the other side would also be wearing armor. The arrows would be bounced off the armor until the original anger was satisfied. In the unlikely event someone was harmed in this battle, it would immediately be called off.
    In traditional Sioux culture, it was understood that there was more courage needed to touch an enemy than to wound them.The least courage and honor of all went to one who killed another.
    Looking at such examples, I think you are right that we have lost some wisdom of ancient civilizations. Part of the problem is that we have the technology to kill others (or send others to do this) without directly experiencing this.
    This turned out to be a long answer, but you bring up something important to consider.
    In sum, I think our major goal should be to restore the balance of society after a murder–and another killing does not seem to be a very good way of doing this. Such terrible events call for healing, not more killing.
    I have not yet read the essay on the idea of justice in Islam in this Parabola issue, but will be very interested in seeing what it says.

  4. Some people do find justice in their religion or God and some find in in not having a specific religion or belief. But whatever the case may be, I think our “justice” system has been set up to the best that society knew how to do. Granted, it is my belief that only God can judge us and so I believe he should deal with the criminals but at the same time I think the good people should be protected from the bad and it would absolutely not be fair to let bad people run around free. So I’ve given this a lot of thought and have decided rather than the death penalty I think we should have an island dedicated to Death Row and let nature take it’s course on them that way we’re not judging anyone or taking their lives. It will also eliminate the injustice of taxing us hard-working citizens to pay for the criminals’ food, shelter cable TV and who knows what else. I know our justice system isn’t always correct but in all honesty, how does one fix that kind of problem without being over lenient? I don’t have an answer. I do find it very interesting that Damien Echols is a Zen master. If he is indeed innocent and is living with this horrible injustice, I can’t think of a better way to deal with it. I too believe our society has the need for healing but society has to want it before it can be achieved.

  5. Thanks for a creative as well as deeply thoughtful response, Renee.
    It is interesting that many indigenous societies used outcasting of dangerous individuals from within them.
    Some medieval European prisons carried this idea out in the worst possible ways: putting together the poor and the murderers in penal colonies. I think this is something we don’t want to recreate. However, recently one indigenous people canoed two young men out to an island off the coast of northern Puget Sound to live by themselves for two months. Evidently they returned to the society after having found their spirits.
    Kind of like the Outward Bound programs…
    Thanks again for the response.

  6. Hello again, Sayed and Renee,
    I don’t want to neglect the seriousness of the issue of those who are guilty of the serious crimes against others as the outward bound folks are not.
    After protecting ourselves and our families from harm by these, the next thing we must do, I think, is turn to prevention– by examining the cultural underpinnings of violent crimes.
    Individualism: it is no coincidence that those dangerous individuals with attachment disorder, who cannot connect to the world around them in any emotional way come out of a society which proclaims the importance of individualism. Attachment disorder is the extreme culmination of this individualism, in which nothing and no one else counts outside of the individual. This, I want to add, is very different from the unique value of an individual person: it is the “ism” here that is the problem. In this sense, the crimes committed by those with attachment disorder are showing us this terrible “shadow” of individualism in our own culture.
    Don’t we allot heroic standing to those who triumph over others in the business arena? We may not count it as such, but it is not a terrible expression of attachment disorder when a doctor conducts fake experiments for a drug company (as one did in the case of Lupron)– causing a drug to be approved by the FDA that is of questionable use and has caused the deaths of at least 25 women and the maiming of countless others. (See the article in the latest issue of the Women’s Health Activist, produced by the National Women’s Health Network:
    And so is the case of the CEOs of a large consortium of plastics manufacturers who conspired to consciously hide the fact that many of their workers were dying as a result of the conditions of labor they created.
    Not only do we have to change the idea that we exist in isolation from others– we need to stop giving social rewards to those who act as if this were true.
    This dangerous individualism is supported by the idea that violent crime is the result of evil individuals–and we can solve it by simply doing away with these individuals.

    Might makes right (or “the cream rises to the top”, or Manifest Destiny): all of these ideas have in common the perception that there is something heroic (and even ethical) about physical power exerted over others. A few years back Sweden, realizing the dangers of modeling the idea that difficulties should be solves by violence on the part of those in power embarked on a radical cultural change: the eradication of spanking of children. It took a concerted national effort, as well as support for parents in the transition with education as to alternative ways to discipline children, but they felt it was worth the ultimate decline of violence as a way to solve social problems.

    “Progress” that tells us the past is of consequence only as a thing to leave behind–and generations have nothing to share with one another. I am touched by Malidoma Some’s description of the “male mothers” in his society: those elders who stand by a young man becoming of age to teach him what to do with his masculine energy. Michael Meade, who has worked with prison populations, has a parallel idea: we need initiation ceremonies for our young men (the vast majority of violent crimes in this society are committed by men under thirty-five) to teach them how to direct their passion and energy to a pro-social direction.
    I am thinking of the need for purpose in many young lives: there was Lily Yeh’s experience in Philadelphia, for instance, in which particular leaders of drug cartels became her allies in cleaning up neighborhoods (literally, with garbage clean up and creation of parks and gardens) when they were given this alternative opportunity.
    Other projects, like Daniel Coleman’s teaching of “emotional intelligence” to middle school students are parallel directions.

  7. I believe there is justice in the world, no matter how bleak things may seem. After the numerous readings we have studied about the natural model of reciprocity, it makes sense that the world revolves around the “what goes around, comes around” way of life. Even if justice isn’t served immediately, next month, next year, ten years from now, or even a century later, I believe justice will happen.

    I do know there are people who have been on death row or currently on death row who are innocent, yet the “justice” system found them guilty. Perhaps these people were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, or the jury had some biased against the accused, or there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the defendant was not guilty of the murder. It is sad that the justice system doesn’t work all the time; however, I believe it does work a lot of the time. Do I think it’s wrong a man kills another fellow human being? Heck yes I do. Do I believe in the death penalty? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s right that killing a man for the killing of another provides justice. Yet, I don’t know if it’s right for our tax dollars to pay for a murderer to live in prison for the rest of his or her life. I do believe a lot of inmates on death row or those who are serving life sentences do think about the murder(s) they’ve committed. I do believe a lot of them are haunted by their inhumane actions. People may think just because some are allowed to work out, eat decent meals, watch TV, and have social interactions, they don’t think about the crimes they committed. I think they do think about what they’ve done. There are a lot of other inmates who are confined to solitary and are always alone for 23 hours of the day. How do those people not think about the crimes they committed? However, it does happen that the justice system finds the innocent guilty of a murder they did not commit. It’s not fair but it does happen. But I do think their innocence will be found eventually. But I do think our justice system needs to be reformed so we further limit the amount of innocent people we find guilty of murder.

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Ashley. There are no easy answers here. I think one thing we must do is change our social values in order to change the social climate in which murder is committed. I gave just a few suggestions as to such changes we might make above. Interesting, those kinds of changes are also the ones we need to begin to take care of our earth as the gift of life that it is.

  9. Dr. Holden what an excellent article! I do not believe in the death penalty. The Prison Industrial Complex in our nation is not about justice. We see that African-Americans make up 12% of the population and 50% of the prison population. Something is wrong with that picture. We also see the over population of prison with people of color in general. I once asked my grandmother about her opinion of the death penalty and she looked at me and simply said, “Never take what you can’t give!” In essence a human life. I do believe in restorative justice. I believe that if the judicial system allowed an alternative they would be a lot better if they practiced restorative justice overall. They could learn from the indigenous people in the United States. I also wanted to say that there was an African tribe in Africa who when someone did something wrong they had to stand in the middle of the village and all day long the villagers would come up to that person and remind them of all the good things that they have done and all of their positive attributes. When I did an artistic residency in a Women’s prison I did this same thing with the women. Each woman took turns standing in the circle as we reminded them as a group of their power, beauty, and positive attributes. Is it no surprise we had wonderful results? Even women looking physically different. Everything responds to love and restoration. We can come up with alternatives that can bring forth justice and healing in ways that are powerful and profound. We must go to the heart of the matter by challenging ourselves to see another way of living and being.

  10. Dear Frances: this is an essential response to a pressing contemporary issue. I have place some of it in the new post on this topic.
    Thank you for clarifying and added heart to an issue like this! (Perhaps the addition of heart is the only way to cure the cycle of violence in this culture).

  11. I used to believe in the penalty but have really come to question by beliefs as we learn about more and more CSI labs that have produced false information such as the lab in Houston has done time and time again, just to get a conviction. The media has been wonderful at showing some of the rehabilitated inmates on Death Row, that have a much greater respect and appreciation of life than many of us ever will, and yet, they have no change in getting out and becoming a productive member of society. This makes me very angry because may times there are inmates that are released and then return backt o prison withing the week, month or year. It seems they are not at all interested in changes, and sometimes their crimes are not much different than those inmates on Death Row. There needs to be a more measurable sentencing plan nation wide so that we are able to better judge where we need to work as a community and society to ensure that our young people are not leaning towards violence.

  12. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kelly. I do believe we need to change some cultural values and find a way to reintegrate this people into society if we are to have some success at stemming such violence.

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