As people across the country exhaled after the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin on Tuesday (April 20), social media quickly lit up with cries of “justice.” But while holding someone accountable for murdering George Floyd is a step toward justice, we must not confuse it with justice itself.
Justice would be Floyd hugging his kids and grandkids today. But our “justice” system doesn’t have the power to correct such fatal wrongs.
Justice would be a land where an unarmed man isn’t quickly executed for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Of course, we’ve lynched people for a lot less for centuries.
Justice would be a society where the color of your skin didn’t determine how likely you are to get pulled over while driving, convicted of a crime, or even killed during a police interaction. Accountability for one person doesn’t fix our systemic problems.
Justice would be a place where Cain did not kill Abel and carry that mark for the rest of his life. We should not take joy in a man being sent to prison; if only we could turn back the clock and learn from our mistakes.
Justice would be a legal system where people across the country weren’t shocked by the guilty verdicts for a murder we literally watched for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Building faith in our “justice” system for many people will take more than one conviction.
Justice would be a complete reworking of our legal system and society. But that takes a lot of work, so perhaps we’d rather just celebrate one small step as we ignore generations of injustices.
We can celebrate the guilty verdict as an act of justice. As we’re reminded in Amos 5, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” For too long even that level of justice remained outside the reach for individuals like Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and many more. We’ve too long been a place under the indictment of Proverbs 17: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both.”
Tuesday’s verdict remains important. But it’s not the end. And to pretend it is enough would be an injustice. People didn’t rally across the nation — and even globally — just to convict one person for one murder. The reason so many people marched for justice was precisely because the case represented a larger trend. And it shouldn’t take global protests, the courage of a cellphone-wielding teenager, the intervention of a state attorney general, and more just to get one conviction. That suggests a “justice” system barely working.
So, the work remains. The struggle for justice — real, systemic justice — continues. We live in an age where we can find some justice and yet still need to work for more justice.
Martin Luther King Jr. talked about his “conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.” But this cosmic understanding of justice goes well beyond one conviction in one murder trial.
“This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums,” King explained. “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. So, in Montgomery we can walk and never get weary, because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.”
Justice is here and also not yet here. We celebrate and mourn. We sigh in relief and we take a breath as we continue the work.
Brian Kaylor is president & editor-in-chief of Word&Way. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianKaylor.