I went to the doctor’s recently to receive an injection. The shot was recommended to enhance my bone density. Like Ezekiel, I held to a vision of walking bones.
I don’t normally read disclaimers. I read this one at the office. I thought to myself –– dear God –this injection I’m getting to extend my mobility will end my life. The nurse practitioner saw my anxiety. She assured me not to be alarmed. As I pondered my mortality she looked at me kindly and said: “Drug companies write intimidating disclaimers; they’re just covering their ass, if you know what I mean.” I did know what she meant and I felt somewhat reassured. I had the shot, my bones still walk around and I am here to tell the story.
Two page disclaimers with prescriptions (both sides) are common today. What the nurse identified is commonly known as the CYA phenomenon, and serves as another reminder of the prevailing attitude of mistrust governing our common life. There’s a cloud of retribution hovering above us always threatening rain; with any misstep, a lawsuit awaits our dealings, whether commercial, medical and particularly political. The honorable handshake of yesteryear is history. Suing is in. Lawyers advertise 24/7. And what about justice?
Journalist Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times, wrote about his interview with one of Trump’s top high end lawyers, Jay Goldberg. Goldberg shows Mahler a letter from Trump, saying, “there had never been a lawyer more important to me.” Goldberg belongs to a significant cadre of trial lawyers known in the trade as ‘Courtroom Killers.’ In the interview Mahler quotes Goldberg speaking of the court room experience that he loves: “It’s the only place where you can emote and try to convince juries that black is white.” It’s estimated that the president has been and is involved in somewhere around 4000 litigations.
I suppose this is a candid portrait of the down and dirty of big money, power and politics. I found the article chilling. Perhaps my reaction speaks to the depth of my naïveté about the realities in the corridors of justice and in government. It’s apparent how justice has become primarily an exercise in winning by cleverly-crafted doublespeak. What’s right, or even true is inconsequential. There seems little by way of morality or any collective sense of what’s right.
Goldberg’s description of how he works for justice also reveals how generously rewarded he is by huge sums of money. His assets include a palatial mansion in Bridgehampton on Long Island. The mentality he expresses is now so institutionalized in our culture, and the winning mentality implied in it is so unchallenged, as to be regarded as normative, just the way it works. I suspect this has also spawned the hundreds of unflattering lawyer gags. It’s scary.
What is it that informs a mindset committed to doing justice and is there a point of reference other than winning? Historically there has been a frame of reference.
I looked for a larger historical context for thinking about justice. I made some cursory explorations of the word ‘justice’ as it appears throughout the Bible. By no means is America a Christian nation but the Judeo-Christian religious tradition has strongly influenced many assumptions we make regarding moral conduct.
For the ancient Israelites, justice and judgment were the essence of governance, and the guiding principles of their community life. Both were closely related. Inspired judgments were, by their nature, the essence of justice. When Solomon handled the case of the two women claiming a baby was theirs, his decision reflected wise judgement, and as harsh as it seemed, it was in fact, inspired and kind. Justice was also understood to be a divine attribute; acting justly described the way God behaved. “Keep the way of the Lord to do justice.” The practice of temporal justice was understood to be informed by a higher power, something greater than the ones who administered it, while mirroring the spiritual nature of our human condition.
Among others, I identified a common thread running through references to justice and descriptions of what justice looked like. Here’s one: “Defend the poor and fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and needy.” The focus was on the vulnerable. When justice becomes perverted, it looks like this. “None calleth for justice nor any pleadeth for the truth: they trust in vanity and lies.” In other Biblical references, a corrupt justice is one that favors the oppressor and oppresses the oppressed. Any of this seem familiar? If Goldberg represents today’s gold standard for American justice, we can at least depend on this; we’ll get what we pay for.
The practice of administering justice, like sculpting, is an art. As with any art, the character of its practitioners has everything to do what finally results. I imagine the practitioners of justice like potters. Both give a form to inert substances –– the clay and written briefs are both inert. They shape them, in the way an artist brings the medium alive, according to the inner vision that inspires his or her work. Character does count.
My fellow survivors of our children’s adolescent years know how hard it was to do the right thing. We parents were confronted daily with mercurial emotions and reckless behavior that could be unnerving and we had to address it. We tried to approach the youngsters in ways that did not exacerbate the dangers we recognized but at the same time sought ways to help protect them. The issue, then, was never how we might cover our ass, but how we could save theirs. Doing right, in this instance, was other-directed, not self-referential. Sometimes we did well, other times we tanked, but what redeemed us was not how often we got it right, but that we cared enough to keep trying.
I think that defines justice nicely: it’s not about always getting it right; it’s that we keep trying to do the right thing.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.