A cloud is shown in the sky with a gray background.

Our dangerous unbalanced love of justice

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.

So declared Micah, a Hebrew prophet in the 8th Century BC. It is an extraordinarily concise summary of 3 priorities in a life well-lived. Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly. 

As increasingly toxic battle lines are evident in conflict throughout the world – real as in the Ukraine, and figurative as in vaccination mandate debates – justice is often claimed as the justification for aggressive action. Putin baldly asserts that the invasion of Ukraine is necessary to prevent acts of genocide. Violent anti-vaccine protesters in the UK are reported to have claimed the government has engaged in “vaccine genocide“. The election was stolen, the sanctions are unfair, etc.

Perpetrators of violence routinely lay claim (and often no doubt believe) to being on the side of justice, leaving them little choice but to defend it come what may.

Whole industries have been constructed in the pursuit of justice. Elections are won and lost on perceptions of whether one party is soft on justice. TV shows and movies about setting right injustices abound. Justice is big business. It contributes to the nation’s GDP. We literally go to war on the basis of our perceptions of justice.

As a litigation lawyer for over 20 years, I have some familiarity with the anatomy of a dispute. Routinely, they involve participants:

  •  who regard each other as “opponents”
  •  each creating a narrative that claims justice is on their side and allows them to demonise the “wrongdoer”
  •  amassing and diverting resources to defeat the opponent and right the injustice.

This same pattern exists in court battles, political battles and military battles. It is equally true in workplace battles and interpersonal conflict. The self-righteous indignation that comes from assurance that an injustice has occurred generates and releases considerable energy and diverts resources to the crusade of righting the wrong. The release of that energy inevitably generates a retaliatory response. And so it goes.

In Australia we have a Minister for Defence, a Minister for Defence Industry, a Minister for Defence Personnel, and an Assistant Minister for Defence. We have an Attorney-General and an Assistant Attorney General. That is before we get to the States and Territories with their Ministers for police, courts and prisons.

We LOVE justice! 

Micah never suggested we should love justice. He suggested we should act justly. And love mercy.

Micah’s insight was that we should have a personal priority to act fairly in our dealings with others (justly), but that the orientation of our heart should be to celebrate expressions of compassion or forgiveness (mercy). His was a classic ‘both/and’ mindset, now sometimes expressed as balancing polarities (opposing forces within a system which pull at each other to maintain system balance) and paying attention to the dangers of over-preferencing one polarity over the other.

Mercy doesn’t drive the gears of the economy. It is difficult to think of an example in history of nations competing as to which is the most merciful. This week, as the missiles continue to wreak havoc in Ukraine and whole communities are shredded, we are right to demand justice for the oppressed, and to do what is in our power to contribute to it. Micah’s voice might echo through the conflicts of the last three thousand years to invite us to consider whether retributive justice will lead to greater peace in the days, years, and decades to come, if not tempered by mercy.

If justice is hard to measure, compassion is an order of magnitude more difficult again. But we know it when we see it. And we never forget it when we receive it.

As we work with organisations to build their conflict competence, we pay attention to the stories people tell. When we hear frequent assertions of injustice, we know there is painstaking work to be done. Rarely, they provide evidence of a person behaving badly. More commonly, these stories suggest the team involved has lost sight of shared purpose, or is not valuing the strength that comes from diversity, or is ignoring the hope that every one of us holds that we will be treated with compassion for the way we behave when we are not at our best. 

And we look out for stories of mercy. They are like antibodies of disease in an organisation. When leaders are described through stories of compassion, we know we have found evidence of system resilience.