Justice and human agency


The recent trial of the teenager who, while toting an AR-15 amidst demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killed two people and wounded a third, caused me to reflect on the meaning of justice, as well as on our much-neglected sense of personal responsibility.

In doing so, I have tried to “put on the mind of Christ” as we were once urged to do in a different Catholic Church environment, one in which larger social justice matters overshadowed current obsessions intrinsic to the culture wars. Now I admit that no one — least of all, me — can truly see and think as Jesus did, but I believe that we who call ourselves Jesus-followers have the responsibility to try.

“Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor…? If you do [these things] …your light will rise in the darkness, and your darkest hour will be like noon…. You will be called ‘Breach-mender.’” [Isaiah 58: 6, 9, 12]

In our heart of hearts, I believe we all yearn for a state of peace, a condition in which not only are rage and division absent but, more positively, one in which all of us have the opportunity to flourish. When violence and disharmony intrude upon this peace, the ideal resolution would be one that makes things whole. This is restorative justice.


Unfortunately, in our world, we lack the power to restore wholeness; the best we can do is to strive to create that rightness between and among us that minimizes harm and wrongdoing in the first place. However, when such occurs — as happened in Wisconsin with the loss of two lives — then our human systems do their best to adjudicate punitive justice in which parties guilty of breaking the peace are punished for their actions.

The Wisconsin verdict acquitting the young man of murder because his actions could be explained, (if definitely not “justified”) by self-defense is an example of how such decisions inevitably fall short of true restorative justice. The fault is not of the jury but, rather, because we cannot restore life once taken or undo our actions however harmful.

(For what it is worth, I personally think the jury’s decision in this case was correct given all that they could not address.)

Human agency
Which brings me to the important matter of human agency, that is, our responsibility for our words and actions. In this country, the air has been full of bombastic claims about “my rights,” but nary a word about “my responsibilities.” Way back in Catholic grade school I learned about human agency, and how each of us bears responsibility for the consequences of our words and actions.

In the larger context of what went down in Wisconsin, what are we to make of all of those figures — mostly men! — who rushed into an already tense scene bearing weapons! The teenager found not guilty of murder was but one of them, and he was not the only one carrying a semi-automatic weapon designed for military use.

Was he exercising sound judgment? Were the others?

In our current culture — in which guns appear to me very close to the “idols” denounced in the Old Testament (those things apart from God in which we place our trust) — we are inundated with statements about “my right to carry.” Where do we hear any discussion or caution about how such a “right” carries with it very serious responsibilities? Moreover, when does my decision to carry a weapon create a condition or occasion of sin?

If you try to take my weapon from me and, in a claim of self-defense, I shoot you, am I “innocent”? How much was my act of self-defense initially triggered by my decision to carry a weapon in the first place?

I do not pretend that there are easy answers to such questions, but it is clear to me that they are not even being asked in the first place. All of us who claim to be Jesus-followers ought to remember: If you want peace, work for justice [Pope Paul VI].

Whenever you pick up or strap on a gun, you are indicating to all that you are prepared to use it, including to kill with it. How does this accord with the mind of Jesus?

(Greg Cusack taught college, served on the Davenport City Council from 1969-73, and the Iowa House of Representatives from 1971-81. He then served as executive director of National Catholic Rural Life Conference from 1981 until late 1986. His public service continued in other areas until he retired as Chief Benefits Officer of the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System in 2004.)

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