What Is Justice?: A Personal Exploration

By Bill Denham. Fernwood Press, 2019. 70 pages. $14/paperback.

The murder of Bill Denham’s informally adopted “stepson,” Matthew, and the young man’s friend, Noel, in 2008 led to the arrest in 2018 of three young men on capital charges for the murders. Not recognizing justice in such a retributive process, the grieving author of What Is Justice? takes us with him on a journey toward an alternative process and a developing understanding of a justice that reclaims our common humanity. This authentic and powerful account is presented through narrative, contemporary letters, poetry, and selected quotations that served as signposts along the way. A letterpress printer, now retired, Denham is a gifted poet. Such is the power of this slim book that it engages the reader on many different levels: emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual.

What Is Justice? is at once a remarkable account of Denham’s struggle to wrest meaning from the murder of Matthew as well as a deep exploration of the profoundly complicated nature of justice. It lays bare the ambiguity of human attempts to answer injustice with “justice”—creating almost always a terrible gap between the happy justice of irenic conduct, practice, and institutions, on the one hand, and the “justice” that is offered as an appropriate response to injustice and that is supposed to balance out the evil or harm that a particular injustice comprises. Denham remarks:

It looks like the retributive system of justice, especially in capital cases, is based upon making a distinction between the perpetrator and the victim, based upon erasing what they have in common, their sameness, their essential humanity, robbing both of that fundamental truth—we are all human beings. . . . When this truth is denied, we are unable to seek justice.

Retributive justice, so called, replicates the original injustice—adding injustice to injustice. Denham realized that the execution of the three young men who had been arrested would do nothing to assuage his grief or give meaning to the murder of his stepson. And so, he set out on a most difficult and tortuous path toward finding a justice that would “do right” by “each party—victim and perpetrator.”

The path he has taken has led him to plumb the nature of being human, ruthlessly interrogating himself into recognizing his shadow side (each of us, being human, has the capacity to commit great evils as well as great good) and into a compassion that opens us to accessing “our interrelatedness, our connection with each other” rather than our customary projection of the evil in us onto others. This psychological mechanism of projection, he asserts, facilitates the self-deception that we are “innocent” and thus different in kind from the perpetrators of evil. He charts a difficult course. It is still early days for Denham on this journey, and he does not claim to know what is coming next, let alone further into the future. I hope that in a year or two he’ll write a follow-up to this compelling book. The path toward restorative justice is harder, much harder, than that to retributive justice, though potentially more satisfying in the long run.

What Is Justice? doesn’t dive into the thicket of theological discussions regarding forgiveness, repentance, memories of past injustice, and the like, but focuses instead on implications of a compassion rooted in deep appreciation of shared humanity. This book invites us into the reflective, lived experience of Denham’s journey and invites us to take up the cross of Jesus’s compassion, a compassion that requires of us the acceptance of the complexity of our full humanity—our own and that of everyone else—and of our essential connectedness. It is an invitation to be accepted.

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