A modern Easter message of justice

Jesus Christ was a criminal — at least, he was branded as such and excruciatingly executed for it in accordance with the law. That is Easter. That was justice then.

Well, they were rough times. Christ was a rebel and a nuisance to the authorities in a region that was troublesome to the world’s greatest empire (as it is now). So he was strung up.

That is a tale from two millennia ago. Justice has been rough for most of human existence (and for most people right now in places we think uncivilised). We can recoil in distant, superior horror, sure there is no message for us now.

We can also surely comfortably put out of our modern minds that only five centuries ago the forebears of most of us were alternately cheering on or running scared of the eviscerators of people who got on the wrong side of the swinging door of religious correctness about Christ’s ideas. We have since then learnt tolerance and the rule of law, haven’t we?

Not so fast. Within the generational memory of many here now the colonial authorities did not scruple unduly about the rule of law in dealing with peaceful dissidents at Parihaka.

Still, that was 12 decades ago. We’ve got better since then, haven’t we?

Not so fast. Last week we got Dame Margaret Bazley’s Easter message: only two decades ago there was no access to justice for those preyed on by some police who had gone bad and who were protected back at the shop.

Some did get to court eventually but did they get justice?

Annette King has renewed her call for ill-used women to tell their story to police. But three who did were put on trial in our legal system, their histories hacked about by attack-lawyers, their stories dismissed by juries who were manoeuvred into “reasonable” doubt, in part by an evidence suppression order which was right in law.

Note, right in “law”. That distinction is important. Justice and the law are not coterminous; they are coincidental.

The good news is that as the law and the legal system have been redefined over the years the coincidences have become more common.

The bad news is that there is still a way to go. Criminal bar lawyers are adamant that past convictions must not be divulged to a jury because that risks injustices. The police rape trials raised the disturbing possibility that that blanket ban can itself generate injustice. Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission, which has a wider purview than that of attack-lawyers, is inquiring.

Turn the telescope round. Look into our stuffed jails. It is a matter of perverse pride to a government stuffed with liberals that it has been building prisons. It has thereby publicly equated justice with retribution, in deference to public demand. But retribution didn’t cut crime two centuries ago when Britain loaded up barges on the Thames with criminals. It doesn’t now.

Retribution is a part of dealing with hurt. It tells those who cause harm that there are consequences. It comforts those who were harmed. There is a place for retribution.

But it doesn’t make harm go away. That needs a different message, one to do with a different sort of justice, a justice that looks at how bad can be made better.

Commissioner Howard Broad is a decent man. He heads a too-small force of human men and women who do a harsh, difficult job that requires patience and grit beyond the capacity of most of us. We have perhaps the world’s least corrupt and least violent police force. If you don’t agree, try out the Sydney or Melbourne lot.

If you still don’t agree, ask yourself if policing is a job you crave to do. Then ask yourself if you would be keen to guard prisoners. Then ask yourself why others do such jobs and expose themselves not just daily to killers, bashers, cheats, the drug-addled, deadbeats and deviants and to gruesome events, but also, when mistakes are made, to the gleeful glare of our bloodthirsty politics. Ask yourself how perfect you would be doing those jobs.

Now refocus on that criminal, Christ, who famously invited people to eschew “an eye for an eye” (utu) and instead treat others as they themselves would want to be treated.

What does that suggest about “justice” and the legal system?

It tells us that the present arrangement of warring lawyers who intensify conflict and division is the antithesis of treating others as you would have them treat you. It suggests our legal system should be reconstructed — and lawyers re-educated — to bridge divisions, conciliate and mediate.

That is a daringly dangerous message. You can see why Christ had to be put away. It spells challenge to lawyerly authority.

We have navigated our way out of that danger in these post-Christian times. Our modern Easter is not about justice or even about execution and revival and mystic ritual. It is about shopping.

If Christ had been in this country this Easter just past, he probably would have been noisomely overturning the eftpos machines (figuratively speaking). And you would have demanded his arrest and sequestration.