Justice League - Nathan Thomas - Scene4 Magazine Special Issue - July 2014

Nathan Thomas


July 2014

"I'm not so sure about life after death, but I know there's death after life."  -- Michael Rapp


Justice.  A huge word and a huge concept.


Justice and the arts.  Yikes.

The editor wanders through the "bullpen," clean shirt neatly pressed. Nattily put together.  A fresh martini in his hand.  "Folks," says he, "just a couple thousand words about justice and the arts.  Easy as pie." He whistles a happy tune as he exits. The writer, bloodshot eyes working to focus on the screen of the computer to which he's manacled with rusty chains and waxes nostalgic for the stale rye crisps – his last form of nourishment – of two days ago.   Ah, where's the justice?  I ask you. Where's the justice for the working man?


Of course, that scene is all kidding (except for the martini).  In actuality, since this is a virtual journal, we're all very trim, sexy folks, just like The Matrix.  And I'm not chained to anything as I have a trained lemur who takes dictation and types pretty well – for a lemur.


But what is justice?


Frankly, I'm not sure that there's justice in this life.  Justice for whom?  One of the aphorisms I hear often is "There's no peace without justice, and there's no justice without peace."  Well, as a starting place, I think if people had to worry less about being shot or blown up on a daily basis, that'd be a nice start.  Plain old peace is a good starting place.   I'll take a rain check on the justice part if the shooting stopped. 


Ah, you say, we have to keep fighting.  That's the only way to redress the wrongs of the past.


Uhhhmmmmmm . . . . .ok. . . . .uhhhmmmm . . . .this is where I start to wonder about justice in this life.


The scales can never be balanced.  I say again, the scales will never be balanced.


The history of civilization is riddled with a wide diversity of means to try to handle that fact.


The blood feud.  You harm one of my sheep.  I destroy you and your family and your flocks and your land.  You harm me in any way, I will come at you with everything I've got and wring "justice" out of any hope of existence you might have.  Or die nobly in the attempt.


The story goes that the Hebraic call to "an eye for an eye" was an attempt to temper the blood feud.  You put out my eye.  I put out your eye.  We're even. Call it a day.  And since the Egyptians taught us how to brew beer, let's have some suds.


But is that just?  The harm I've done you in response to the harm done me does nothing to rejuvenate my eye. I remain half-blind.  What if you started out one-eyed to begin with?  I take your one eye in response to your taking out my eye.  Now I'm one-eyed, but you're blind.  Is that just? And doing you harm in response to harm done to me will never restore the harm done to me.  Besides, is justice simply revenge in an up-town suit?  If that's all justice is, we should just call it revenge and be done.


And that's just about harm done to me as an individual.  What about harm done to my family?  My tribe?  My ethnic/religious/etc group?  Poke around far enough in history, you were on the losing side of some really nasty evil. People can come up with amazingly creative ways to destroy folks they don't like.  And the losing folks due to ambush and/or weakness or whatever experienced humiliation that rested in the bones of the survivors.  Those survivors longed for justice – the justice of seeing the oppressors being brought low.  It's not simply that the oppressors are brought low.  It must be seen and known.  (Start your Google search here with the Balkans conflicts, but heck, go back far enough, you can get to pretty much everyone on the planet in some way.)


I don't mean to make light of the very real evil that is genocide and "ethnic cleansing" and lynching and mob violence.  The use of rape, for example, as a tool of war is a true evil that makes the gorge rise.  Nor should people rest in the face of evil or blindly accept the violence engendered by oppression of all kinds.


My point is that vengeance is not restoration.  Vengeance hath its pleasures.  But it's not restoration.


And how long shall it continue?  My people, the German Brethren, emigrated from Europe to get away from the madness of the religious wars of the 17th century. Catholics and Protestants were doing a pretty good job of working to wipe each other out.  I'm a Protestant.  My wife is Roman Catholic.  Am I supposed to be mad at her for what her people did to my people?  How long do I hold on to that?  After three generations, is the statute of limitations in effect for tribal letting-it-go?  Then, why not after two generations?  One? Is a person bounden to these historical poundings forever?


Some parts of ancient Judaism spoke of the "Day of the Lord." The Day of the Lord is a time of apocalypse.  We tend to think of apocalypse as being a violent battle.  Rather, the word simply indicates a revealing of what was previously hidden.   The apocalypse brings clarity.  In the words of Amos, the Day of the Lord will not be particularly happy. What will happen is a clear accounting of what destruction has been wrought by people. All will be clear.  And the human race will experience the justice of the Name.


And let's briefly mention Jesus here.


Americans get a fair amount of gas about being a party of a Christian nation.  Maybe. But not when it comes to justice, and certainly not when we speak of the American criminal justice system. 


Jesus in his usually confounding way spoke of the first being last and the last being first and a radical form of forgiveness that seems to have little resemblance to the American legal system.  Jesus told a bizarre story about how a farmer hired some guys to work in the field in the morning, more workers at noon, more workers in the afternoon, and more workers rather late in the day.  At the end of the day, the farmer paid all of them the same wage regardless of the amount of time they worked.


Now whenever I tell people the story about the laborers and the farmer, I ask them if they think the farmer is being just in giving the same wage to all of the workers.  Every American I've ever asked has said, "No."  This is a completely un-scientific survey.  No computers were used in figuring the statistics.


If we take Jesus at His word (as Gospel, one might say), then the Christian concept of justice is extremely radical compared with any other concept of justice with which I'm familiar.  And that concept has absolutely nothing to do with the American system of criminal justice.


With one curious exception.  The Framers of the Constitution gave the Executive a clear unilateral power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States (except for cases of impeachment).  (Article II, Section 2.)  Curiously, the Framers gave the Executive an unimpeded power to forgive.  Obviously they knew that if someone needed forgiveness in the form of a pardon, the pardoned person was likely no saint.  The pardoned person had committed an offense against the United States – it says so explicitly.  Yet the President can forgive that person through a pardon. And, curiously, this particular power is one that causes a great deal of upset in some of our fellow citizens, because how can the President pardon that person?  With what they did?  Why, the scandal of it! 


Forgiveness is a scandal.


I'm human.  I am not any kind of god.  I want genocidal Nazis to be tried and locked up.  I want rapists to suffer.  I want bad and evil people to go away.  I don't have beatific quality of soul to forgive evil.  I don't believe in capital punishment – I don't think the state should ever have the right to end the life of one of its own citizens.  That being said, Tim McVeigh's execution doesn't keep me up nights.


So, American justice isn't Christian.  Put your Ten Commandments or the "Golden Rule" plaque on the courtyard steps or on the wall of the court, if you like, but don't confuse that with saying that our system of justice is Christian.  It's not.


And don't let's get started in talking about the many faults in the system. Consider Robert H. Richards IV, a DuPont heir who received no jail time for a 4th degree rape conviction. I'll pause for you to Google the case. And we could come up with numerous similar situations in which justice was not "served."


So what does that have to do with the arts?


Theatre has given us our sense of justice.  Not religion.


I'm not speaking here of the logistics of the system.  In America we'd need to look back to German systems of legal proceedings and how they developed over the centuries in England and blah blah blah.


No, I'm speaking of our sense of justice.  Of completion.  And that has everything to do with theatre.


Tragedy developed in Athens concurrently with a new system of justice in which representatives of the sides of a dispute argued their case in front of a kind of jury.  The dispute was settled by the vote of that jury-like group of folks.  Justice meets democracy.


But the Greeks had deep in their hearts a strong belief in the zero-sum contest – the agon.  The way to some existence after death was the kleos – or eternal fame – of having won the contest. In a battle, there are winners and losers.  In the Olympics, there is a winner and everyone else loses.  The opening of the Iliad states that the story is about thekleos of Achilles.  And it tells the truth.  As long as the Iliad is told, Achilles' fame continues, and his post-life existence continues.  But it's a zero-sum game.  If someone wins, everyone else loses.  The modern concept of everyone wins is not Greek.


And our one remaining complete three-play tragedy is the Oresteia by Aeschylus.  Notably, it ends with a court-room play.  Disputants argue their case in front of an audience.  Decisions are made.


But note some important features of this early tragedy.


IF we posit a universe with some kind of deity that we believe in, is it not extremely moral to follow the dictates of that deity?  Or, put another way, if god tells us to do something, shouldn't we do it?  And, by definition, isn't god's will supremely moral? The obvious answer to these rhetorical questions is a resounding yes.  IF we believe in a god, we should -- by that morality -- follow the dictates of that god.  To fight the will of god is generally thought of as evil and immoral. 


Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to save his men and his brother's cause.  As warriors, do we not want a general who would sacrifice everything for us, his troops? Again, yes.  Even the ultimate sacrifice, his own daughter?  How much more will we serve under the leadership of a man who would give so much for his brother and his men.


Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and her lover.  Agamemnon's son is left with a conundrum of justice.    Can Orestes let the murderer of his father go free? No.  But that murderer is his own mother.  Can he be just in balancing the murder of his father by killing his mother? Apollo seemed to think so.


It can be very simple for us to look at this and go, "Oh, ancient Greeks. We don't have human sacrifice anymore. This is just some ancient culture. Feh." 


I think Aeschylus is better than that.  The Athenians in his audience weren't committing human sacrifice either. But there were veterans in the audience. He was one himself.  And he's asking them questions in the form of an old story.  It's as if he were saying to them, "You fought the Persians.  You were in camp the night before battle.  What did you want from your commander?  You saw the slaughter.  You saw the death and the broken bodies on both sides.  You know friends who died that day.  Was that god's work?  Who willed this?  If it is god's will, were we the winners?  What does that mean?  Sure, you didn't kill your mother, but you killed someone's brother – someone's son. Is that so much different?"


Aeschylus is very sophisticated.  He doesn't give a lot of answers to the big questions.  In the days before Socrates, he asked these questions in a mighty big public forum – the theatron.  He raised doubts about listening to the gods.  He questioned justice.


But notice that the end is unsatisfying.  We want clarity at the end of a story.  We want the good and the heroic to be rewarded.  We want the evil and villains to meet a just reward.  And we want it to be seen publicly. We want the Day of the Lord.  But in a zero-sum way in which the great and the good are rewarded for public virtue, not for keeping the Law.  (In fact, in the case of super-heroes and vigilantes and cowboys, we like our heroes "above" the law.)


Our notion of justice, developed by theatre and the court system suggests the court case ends.  There's a "winner" – some victim or victim's family sees the wrong-doer found guilty. They won.  There's a loser – the corrupt company has to pay up, or the wrong-doer is sent away.  They lost. The story ends, right? 

Except the story doesn't end there.  The family of the victim just goes home with whatever feelings they have.  The loser goes away – to prison or the board-room.  The lawyers, winners and losers, get a drink.  And life goes on for them all.  And every last one of them, as will every last one of us, faces their end.


And, so, in the arts from the very beginning, we have the beginnings of our notions of justice.  A real set of questions with very few answers.  And a desire to have a zero-sum clarity of an end in which rewards are meted out.  And we get a kind of illusion of justice in this life.


But don't be surprised if that illusion is often very unsatisfactory.

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Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas | www.scene4.comNathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column in Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2014 Nathan Thomas
©2014 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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