As cool-sounding as the word comeuppance is, I’m not a fan of it at all. Its backbone is the principle of vengeance, illustrated with Old Testament-meets-Greek mythology pissed off jealous deities, mobs armed with raised pitchforks and torches yelling “Hang ‘im!”, jilted spouses dumping arsenic into philandering husbands’ morning cups of coffee, all that ilk.
The prevailing idea of justice is as busted as an egg on a crowded trampoline. Its basis pretends to be the idea that payback will be enough of a bitch to inspire the original offender of an injustice to pull a 180 and exclaim in his best Lou Costello voice what a bad boy he’d been.
Have we not watched enough street-gang movies? You know, where the one guy bumps into Merrick, so he’s going to get him back by having Gustafson’s brother whacked, then Gustafson kills off Merrick’s entire family, his financial advisor, his team of attorneys, and his best mechanic. Never at this point does Merrick say “Maybe I took this too far.” No, what Merrick does is hire a team of assassin infantry to take out the entire township where Gustafson lives, including the bakery where he gets his favorite baklava. That’ll show him. After all, he got what was coming to him, right?
I don’t necessarily get the math that the book of Genesis’ ghost writers employed, but apparently Cain had some mark that was akin to a backgammon doubling cube, where if someone wanted to have Cain taken out the guy doing the wet work would be avenged seven times, then vengeance on the whacker would be seven times seven, going on and on like an exponentially generating Matryoshka doll fractal factory. That makes sense to me. The meting out of justice rarely resolves with the recipient saying “I guess I deserved that”.
In all reality, justice has nothing to do with reversing the damage inflicted by an act of malice or careless indifference. In our society it has everything to do with the illusion that as a victim or victims we will feel great joy and relief once the smiting has commenced upon our wrongdoers. We somehow think that we can reach a nice warm bath level of joy and relaxation once that bastard Rutherford had been sentenced to 25 to life or better yet, fed to cannibals with halitosis on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of rush hour traffic in triple digit heat index.
Truly, in that definition of justice there is no joy in retribution. The avenged are merely left grinding their teeth at the knowledge that an injustice occurred. The “justice” brought onto the perpetrator does not magically create a time machine that erases the past infraction, so in reality there really has been no correction, despite the watered-down nomenclature used to describe our penal system.
So here’s what I consider justice: Justice is a reckoning with a resulting recompense. Justice occurs when the offender comes to the realization that a great damage has been done to their fellow human being and finds themselves called to take action that prevents themselves and others from inflicting the same harms as they once did. They carry out these actions in perpetuity, knowing their work is never done and this purpose had now become their life’s central theme.
For us to experience true healing in our society in the face of malice and depraved indifference, we need to rethink the idea of justice as setting all the “wrongdoers” adrift in the ocean, far away from us, or slapping them even harder than they slapped us so they can “feel a bigger hurt than they made us feel”. If we can take the approach of there but for the grace of [insert deity or theology here] go I we can see these assailants as not separate from us, but as part of the giant organism that is the human species. Only then can we understand that through facilitating their healing can there be any possibility that they themselves will work toward healing others through acts of recompense. Any other means of dispensing justice leaves us with an n factorial level of runaway retribution with no end in sight.