Dearest EXPLORE Reader,
Plato once said, “He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.”
The concept of “injustice” is a topic that I’ve spent a little time on lately. I’ve even written about it in these little Publisher letters, and I’m not sure I’ve made a lot of progress with the whole concept, but maybe I’m getting a little closer to finding some sort of conclusion. I am not entirely clear on exactly why I’ve spent time thinking about injustice (guess I’m weird), but it’s just been a topic that I think can actually contain some extraordinary growth for us as humans and how we respond. As a lover of people, I suppose I find that pretty interesting.
In today’s media-driven world, the word “injustice” can sometimes mean “I didn’t get into the college I wanted because I identify as a tomato!” or “I dress like a gangster and those darn police profiled me while I was doing gangster activities!” In centuries and millennia past, it sure meant something else. Is injustice a word with different levels? Is it injustice to one person when it is simply a nuisance to another? Has our definition changed altogether?
When I was probably 14, I went to the little gas station that is there across from Boerne High School (yes, it’s been there that long). My mom doesn’t even know this story, but a group of us kids went in and we were horsing around and being idiots when suddenly the owner grabbed my wrist firmly and said “Give me back the candy you shoved in your pockets!” Wide eyed and frightened I stared at her and said “What? I don’t have anything!” She called me a liar, patted at my pockets, and wouldn’t stop until the police arrived. As a terrified 14 year old kid, they took me aside and with their very large and scary personas, proceeded to interrogate me and get me to spill my pockets. They threatened me with arrest, they were going to call my parents, and spoke to how much trouble I was in. Trembling, I emptied my pockets and out poured a few coins, an old pen, and some lint. With one final pat down, they patted my head and wished me good day. I don’t think I had taken a breath for 15 minutes.
My silly story isn’t a story of injustice in the sense that I was facing the death penalty and was being framed by the prosecutor, but I’ll tell you, I didn’t do anything wrong. I was a kid being a kid and for whatever reason, the shop owner THOUGHT she saw me do something. I was accused, interrogated, threatened, ultimately found innocent, and released. Was it injustice? Probably. Did I survive? Yeah.
I’m sure that there are some pretty staggering stories of “injustice” in the history of this world, but for me, the Hebrews and the Egyptians is at the top of the list. For 400 years the Egyptians beat and terrorized the Hebrews simply because they could. Generation upon generation of people born into slavery and tortured from birth until death. Of course, the Nazi Holocaust is up there, too. American slavery. And countless other stories of people inflicting injustice on one another. Nobody is meaner to people than other people. It’s pretty depressing when you think about it.
There’s a line in the classic Shawshank Redemption where Red says, “Did I do it? Yep. I’m the only guilty man in Shawshank.” I also read a parable (or tall tale or whatever) that Abraham Lincoln visited a prison and after asking countless prisoners about their crimes (and being told over and over that they were all innocent), one man confessed his guilt and ol’ Abe released him on the spot. It’s a dark joke about the innocence of convicts, but I’ll admit I’ve spent more than one evening awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about the insane numbers of men and women in our penal system that are, in fact, innocent. One of my recurring nightmares is about being thrown in prison so the idea of being innocent and tossed into prison makes me break out in a cold sweat. Yet I know that it happens. More than any of us probably want to admit. Is that “injustice”? Yes. Probably in its purest sense.
I read a quote once that said “I would rather let 1000 guilty men go free than for one innocent man to be imprisoned.” Some people might gasp at the idea of 1000 guilty men being set free, but I focus more on the power and reverence that it applies to the JUSTICE for the one innocent man. Which is more important? The mercy for the 1000 guilty or the justice for the one innocent?
The acceptance of injustice in our own lives is one serious journey of frustration. Ask me how I know. When you KNOW you are right, and yet you are still proclaimed to be WRONG…and there’s literally nothing you can do about it. All you can do sometimes is flop back into your easy chair, throw your arms up and just shout “Well, that’s that.” You’re rendered weaponless, and while you might know the truth (and your innocence), you’re forced to allow the proclamation to read that you are GUILTY (or wrong). Man, it’s frustrating.
But I think that it can also be one serious moment for growth.
If you ultimately find that, despite your best efforts, you are to be found the “guilty” party, what do you have left? I’ll tell you exactly what you have left: YOURSELF and that’s just about it. While that might sound crummy, the strength that it requires of you to stand and accept that it’s “you against the world” is also wildly satisfying. You begin to learn a few things about yourself. When faced with your new reality, you realize the control that you have over your own life, despite the best efforts of others. You realize that, at the end of the day, the only thing that you can really focus on is YOU.
I know I’m rambling, and I apologize. I suppose I’ve just spent the past couple of years having to unpack this concept, and through all of the ups and downs, the clinched fists of frustration, and the forehead-slapping confusion, I can now look around and know that things might not always be what you THINK they are. The guilty can actually be innocent. The innocent can actually be very, very guilty. The persecuted can be undeserving, and the tormentors can be unjust. People are sad, and glad, and broken, and tired…and they are experiencing injustice. Sometimes it’s small, and sometimes it’s huge. Sometimes it messes up their Friday, and sometimes it messes up their lives. Sometimes it even messes up the lives of those around them. It happens, and I suppose, it’s life.
I’m sitting on the small patio of my office that overlooks Blanco Road. Dozens of cars zoom past me each few minutes, and I watch as you stare intently down the road. How many of you are guilty and have been granted mercy from your crimes? How many of you are innocent and been wrongly condemned? How many of you are seeking justice, yet no matter how many rocks you look under, are unable to find it? How many of you, like me, are out there looking at your friends and neighbors with a newfound sense of empathy and compassion?
Right or wrong, I suppose we’re all guilty. Of something. Maybe if we saw one another as guilty and equally as condemned, we’d all enjoy this ride called “life” just a little more.
I’d like that a lot.
Welcome to April. Life springs eternal, as do the wildflowers. Take a minute to smell them all, friends. Your innocence is fleeting, and your guilt is assured when you really think about it. EXPLORE the beauty you might find, even if it’s from behind your bars.
Benjamin D. Schooley