Turning Justice to Wormwood

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
~ Proverbs 21. 3 (NRSV–CE)

Ah! You that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!
~ Amos 5. 7 (NRSV–CE)

Justice – the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments; the quality of being just, impartial, or fair; conformity to truth, fact, or reason; correctness.
~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2015)

LawJustice is imperative to the stability and continuance of any society, yet too it is often something one desires for others but not for oneself. This is human nature: To want the other person, of group, to receive their “just deserts,” but crave mercy and leniency when it comes to ourselves. This is pedantic, shortsighted and potentially dangerous, which is the reason we have in place an established system of jurisprudence rooted, at least theoretically, in the Constitution (in the United States.) And “we the people” live under this constitutionally-based structure of jurisprudence in a society of law and order. This juridical paradigm is not perfect, but it is ideal and serves us well as a nation … again, not perfectly to be sure, but at least ideally. It provides for us the necessary platform from which to forge ahead, continue growing, progressing, maturing as one people living together in one expansive community.

During the ongoing riots in Baltimore, some people are lashing out against law enforcement officials and agencies, committing crimes they feel justified to commit in order, so they claim, to draw attention to and (hopefully) correct “systemic problems” in law enforcement and the whole process of justice. However, their tactics are quite obviously self-defeating. You cannot tear down infrastructure, destroy the property of your fellow citizens, and bring harm to others in the hope of achieving legal reformation and genuine justice. Whatever gains you make will soon be wrecked by the next wave of malcontents. These tactics simply do not work. There is a place for peaceful protests, for expressing thoughts and opinion, for petitioning government for the redress of grievances, and even for taking officials themselves to court.

If the purported injustices – the systemic problems – are so egregious that people simply cannot live any longer under the present conditions, and if none of the normal, legal tactics work effectively toward any real, viable solution, then perhaps people can proceed along another necessary course of action. Even still, this should not be violent and should not serve to tear down the whole house, foundation included, that the people supposedly want to repair. All you are left with then is a pile of rubble, and it’s extremely difficult to pick up the pieces, after all is finally said and done, and construct a new and better abode. At best you’ll have an unstable shanty that will very soon itself be torn down. As Pope St. John Paul II so aptly taught, “Social justice cannot be obtained by violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.” Touché! And the violent rioters in Baltimore are threatening to murder the very body they want to heal. They are turning justice into wormwood – the very acrid Artemisia absinthium … something bitter, grievous – and this now most fittingly defines the psycho-spiritual health of the whole city. Will it spread? Perhaps this thoughtless, ill-fated reaction to perceived injustices was already spreading like cancer across the country and has just now reached Baltimore, as it is doubtless finding its way into communities across the land.

Are there systemic problems in Baltimore? Quite evidently so, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reports in his provocative commentary in The Atlantic:

The money paid out by the city to cover for the brutal acts of its police department would be enough to build ‘a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.’ Instead, the money was used to cover for the brutal acts of the city’s police department and ensure they remained well beyond any semblance of justice.[1]

Reformation is undoubtedly needed; however, riots do not equal reformation. If left unchecked, they lead to an anarchy in which untold numbers of innocent people of every stripe and shade inevitably suffer. And yet, presumably thinking to bolster his own inflammatory perspective, Coates also reports that:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations … and in almost every case, prosecutors or judges have dismissed the charges against the victims, if charges were filed at all.[2]

This is not idyllic, to be sure, but it does show that the system of jurisprudence is not so broken, or systemically problematic, that there is no hope of obtaining justice in Baltimore. At least over 100 people have, in fact, obtained just reparations. So far as Freddie Gray is concerned, there assuredly and without question ought to be an investigation, and this latest and very sorrowful episode centered on this man should certainly serve as the catalyst for remediation and improvement of the whole criminal justice system (to the extent reasonably necessary.) For the present, though, the National Guard has been called in to quell the riots – rightly so – and a strict curfew has been put in place, thank the heavenlies![3] When boiling tempters cool, and reasonable people stand up and come to the fore, then and only then can Baltimore realistically hope to truly correct its “systemic problems.” Right now an unthinking, angry mob – albeit only a fraction of the total number of protestors – is driving the whole city away from its intended goal of rectification and improvement.

God help them, and bring peace to the people of Baltimore!



[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nonviolence as Compliance,” as published in The Atlantic on April 29, 2015, and accessed at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/nonviolence-as-compliance/391640/

[2] Ibid

[3] As reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg in “Crowds Scatter as Baltimore Curfew Takes Hold,” on April 28, 2015, in The New York Times, accessed on April 29, 2015, at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/29/us/baltimore-riots.html?_r=0



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