The Sense of Justice


Dr. King, Laquan McDonald, and the Sense of Justice

By David Crawford, President, McCormick Theological Seminary

I hate, I despise your festivals,
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

                                            ~ Amos 5:21-24 (NRSV)

Last Friday evening, I joined McCormick friends and colleagues at the 13th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Praise and Worship Service sponsored by the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies and led by Rev. Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn.

About an hour before the service began, Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Jason Van Dyke to 81 months in jail for the murder of Laquan McDonald. 81 months. Three months short of 7 years. He could be out in less than four years.

I was in the car listening to the radio when the sentence was announced. The reporter first said that Van Dyke had been sentenced to “81 years” only to quickly correct herself and say “81 months, not years.”

I must say that when I heard the correction “81 months”, my initial response was a combination of surprise and sadness; surprise that the judge went to the very “low” end of the sentencing range; sadness that the term was being expressed in months, not years. My sadness was not, I don’t think, the product of vindictiveness. It was a sadness that somehow justice had not been done—or at least justice as I see and feel it. My sense of justice.

Last Friday began with anticipation and uncertainty as I drove down to the courthouse at 26th and California accompanied by my 13 year-old daughter, Katie. Although I knew her age might keep her from actually getting into the courtroom, I thought it was worth a try. I wanted her to see, in person, this final stage of the legal process. I wanted her to see through her own eyes the people entering the courthouse and sitting in the courtroom, the reporters, the spectators, the lawyers, the families of Laquan and of Jason Van Dyke--all human beings, different in many ways, but the same in others. In a perhaps naïve, idealistic sense, I wanted her to see “justice” done, to witness human beings engaged in a human process that would culminate in two individuals, one present, one not, and their respective families and communities receiving his or their “due.”

It seems somewhat simplistic to think of justice in that way, but our various senses of justice, stem at least in part from this seemingly simple notion.

The Justinian Code, a codification of Roman civil law from the 6th century A.D., defined justice as “the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due.” This concept flows throughout the stream of Western moral and political philosophy from the ancient Greeks, to Augustine and Aquinas, to the social contract theorists from Hobbes and Locke, to the Scottish moral philosophers Hutcheson and Hume, to the more recent work of John Rawls and many others. Similar threads or related concepts can also be found among non-Western philosophies and are often tied to concepts of love, harmony, and community.

Working from that Justinian definition, David Miller, a political theorist and Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, attempts to “map” justice in an article that appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Please note that my reference to Professor Miller, and others cited below, is not an endorsement of any of his or their specific, philosophical viewpoints. I make note of his article here as I found his notion of “mapping” justice useful.)

At the outset, he explores the concept of justice in relationship with individual claims, charity and enforceable obligation, impartiality, and agency.

In relationship with charity and enforceable obligation, Miller states that the Justinian definition of justice:

  • underlines that just treatment is something due to each person, in other words that justice is a matter of claims that can be rightfully made against the agent dispensing justice, whether a person or an institution. Here there is a contrast with other virtues: we demand justice, but we beg for charity or forgiveness. This also means that justice is a matter of obligation for the agent dispensing it, and that the agent wrongs the recipient if the latter is denied what is due to her [emphasis added].

When we think of what is “due” someone who has been wronged, or “doing” right, or righting a wrong, there is, of course, need to consider how exactly we accomplish that end. Comparing corrective and distributive justice, authors Brian Barry and Matt Matravers offer this:

  • Corrective justice covers that which is due to a person as punishment, distributive that which is due by way of benefits and burdens other than punishments. Within the sphere of corrective justice there is disagreement about the justification of punishment itself. But there has been – and is widespread agreement on the criteria for just punishment: just punishments must be properly imposed and the quantum of punishment must reflect the seriousness of the offence [emphasis added].

What is a just punishment for a police officer who is convicted of killing a 17-year old young man by shooting him 16 times, nine of those shots in the back? Does “just” punishment change when the police officer is white, and the dead young man is black? What if the roles were reversed? And what of forgiveness? Of mercy?

I didn’t try to explain that to my daughter as we went through the first security line at the courthouse. But it was somewhere in my mind as we watched the family of Jason Van Dyke, his wife and daughters, walk past us. And it was in my mind when we watched Pastor Marvin Hunter, Laquan’s great-uncle speaking to the media. I wonder if it was somewhere in Katie’s mind, as well.

Once beyond the lobby security, we headed to the fifth floor courtroom where we stood in the next security line with Assistant Professor of Practical Theology Stephanie Crumpton. Stephanie noted the emotions that stirred as she prepared to enter the courtroom. A former witness victim advocate in Georgia, Stephanie had been in court the day before to witness the verdict in the case of two former and one current Chicago Police Department officers accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in covering up the case against Jason Van Dyke. And here she was, back in the courthouse for another day to be present, present for all of us, a physical presence, a witness to whether justice would or would not be done.

Behind us in line was Will Calloway, a lead activist who helped force the release of the Laquan MacDonald police dashcam video. Without Will, this moment that had brought us all together would likely never have happened (notwithstanding assertions made in a recent television commercial from a certain Chicago mayoral candidate.)

After introducing my daughter to Will, I was summoned forward in the security line to show my identification and sign in. Leaving Katie in line, I presented my driver’s license, explained that I’d brought my daughter with me, and asked if she might be allowed in the courtroom despite her age. The courthouse staff person was very considerate and told me that Katie was not actually old enough, but that she would check with the judge’s staff. After a brief wait, she returned and informed me that we would not be able to get into the courtroom. I thanked the staffer for her efforts and we went downstairs to the courthouse lobby where we saw Tracy Turner and others heading up to the courtroom. As the hearing began, we decided to head home and wait for news.

Seven hours later, the hearing still proceeding, I was back in the car, this time alone, heading to Progressive Community Church for the MLK Praise and Worship Service.

When I arrived at Progressive, a few flakes of snow were just beginning to fall. As I walked in the sanctuary, I saw friendly, familiar faces from Progressive and McCormick. I saw the faces of the young members of the Imani Ya Watume choir from Trinity United Church of Christ and the dancers from Progressive’s Chosen Generation liturgical dance ministry. I saw Rev. Stacey and Dean Steed Davidson, and I got a chance to say hello to Presiding Elder and Interim Pastor at Progressive, McCormick alum Rita Rupert-Hester. I took a seat in a pew near the front. Alumni/ae and Church Relations Director Rev. Nannette Banks and third-year student Antonia Coleman were in front of me and another McCormick student Lavonne Burleigh and Vice President of Advancement Lisa Dagher sat in the pew just behind me. We all shared greetings and caught up on our comings and goings. As folks began to take their seats, I found myself thinking about the 81-month sentence and wondering if, or how best, to address it in my welcoming remarks.

In my prepared text, I did make reference to the acquittals in the conspiracy trial and did note the Van Dyke sentencing hearing. But, I had not written anything that anticipated 81 months or attempted to find a theological, philosophical, or legal foundation for assessing what is just. Then the music began, and Rev. Stacey called us to worship. The choir sang. Rev. Nannette read Scripture, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Then, it was my turn to bring welcome.

After offering thanks to all those who made the event possible and expressing our gratitude to our brilliant guest speaker, Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, Senior Pastor and Teacher of the South Euclid (Ohio) United Church of Christ, I said:

  • Friends, given the unfortunate court decision yesterday in the conspiracy trial of a current and two former members of the Chicago Police Department, and the sentencing today of Jason Van Dyke, I find myself asking how might Dr. King respond to the news of this time and of this city.
  • Justice, as we’ve seen this week, is never a given. Two days ago, I sat with a great pastor, someone well known here at Progressive, Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, and a great historian and teacher, a long time member of this church, Professor Ken Sawyer. We discussed the concepts of “progress” and “justice.” Our conversation, I must admit, was not an altogether happy one; we looked at the world around us and, frankly, struggled to make a hopeful case that we are, in fact, progressing as a nation, state, or city or moving closer toward a world where justice was indeed for all and not a powerful, privileged few.
  • Fifty-six years ago, Dr. King wrote his now famous letter from Birmingham Jail. As he contemplated justice alone in that narrow jail cell he wrote:
  • “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine… with all their scintillating beauty.”

It was a hopeful ending, and in hindsight, was neither the point I wanted to make nor the part of Dr. King’s letter I really wanted to talk about.

Dr. King’s famous letter was written in pieces—literally, in pieces. His letter was a response to a letter from eight, local white clergymen entitled “A Call for Unity” published in the local paper. The clergymen’s letter acknowledged social injustice, but was critical of Dr. King and the public protests. These issues should be settled in the courts, not the streets, they argued. Elements of the Civil Rights Movement were, in their view, “extreme.” Dr. King’s point-by-point response was composed on various scraps of paper and, ultimately, a legal pad his lawyers had been permitted to leave with him. The pieces were smuggled out by his lawyers.

The part of Dr. King’s letter I wish I had shared Friday, and share here with you now is his response to suggestions that the civil rights movement had become “extreme.” Dr. King wrote:

  • But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

These words ring in my mind today and have been chasing me since Friday night.

Despite having read Dr. King’s letter dozens of times over the years, it wasn’t until this weekend that I ever really stopped to focus on the words from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness from an ever-flowing stream.” I have, sadly, created a beer commercial-like image of those waters: inviting, refreshing, powerful, yet comforting, beautiful, majestic, but always within their banks. Justice light. Just enough to wet our whistle, but never enough to quench our thirst. I don’t think that is what Amos or Dr. King had in mind.

Dean Davidson noted in his compelling closing remarks Friday night that Dr. King was formed, in part, in seminary. The titles of “Reverend” and “Doctor” were granted as a result of his pursuit of theological education, first at Crozier Theological Seminary where he earned his masters of divinity, and at Boston University where he earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology.

As Dean Davidson invited all the young people in attendance to consider the possibilities presented by the pursuit of theological education, I wondered: if McCormick does not produce the creative extremists Dr. King described, who will?

Perhaps now it is time we ask ourselves what kind of extremists are we prepared to be? Are we prepared to be extremists for love? For justice? Will we rise above our environment or will we fall below it? Can we align and unite our individual senses of justice and find ways to work together in its pursuit or will we sit back and just wait?

I do not believe the verdict in the conspiracy trial or the sentence handed down for Jason Van Dyke ultimately “did” justice as the “quantum of punishment” did not reflect the seriousness of the crime. But, what I or any of us may think or feel about these events is meaningless unless those thoughts and feelings are translated into action.

Following the verdict in the Van Dyke trial last October, we said we would not succumb to the temptation to rest, to move on, or forget. Our work must continue for those whose names we know and those countless others whose names have not made the news. So, in the weeks ahead, we will follow Will Calloway’s advice and vote. We will continue to monitor the action of the federal court on the consent decree. We will identify other opportunities to participate in the issues of police and criminal justice reform. And we will continue to find ways to be present in the lives of the people and communities we serve.