logo Sylvia Clute

Sylvia Clute

Unitive Justice: Bending the Arc of Justice Toward Love

Chapter 1
From There to Here

Justice is essential to me and has been from an early age. That is why, in 1970, I entered law school—after surmounting the quotas designed to keep women and minorities out of the legal profession. I saw becoming an attorney as an opportunity to help, in my small way, to make the world a more just place.

Throughout my earlier education, I learned that our legal system was exceptionally fair and just—our guarantee of due process made it so. On my first day of law school, the new students were told that our (the U.S.) legal system is the best in the world. I now wonder why I didn’t ask, “The best for whom?”, when law school admissions had long barred or limited women and minorities from entering.

In the 1970s, discrimination against women and minorities was still prevalent and generally legal in many places. Upon graduation from law school, I met all the requirements for practicing law only to find that I could not get an interview in a law firm in Richmond, Virginia, where my husband and I settled down with our children. I was told on several occasions, “There is no need to interview you—our clients don’t want to be represented by a woman.”

Fortunately, that has since changed, albeit women remain marginalized, often prevented from accessing more senior roles in private law firms and the It is still a system that is best for some but not for others.
While a Richmond law firm would not hire me, there was one job open to a woman. I became the first female attorney ever hired at the Reynolds Metals Headquarters in Richmond. At the time, Reynolds did not hire women for their law department. Ironically, I was hired to work on compliance with federal affirmative action requirements in its Equal Opportunity Affairs Division. It was not long, however, before my desire to be a trial attorney prevailed. In 1975 I left Reynolds to hang out my shingle and become a solo practitioner.

It was now the height of the Women’s Movement. One advantage of being out on my own was that there was no senior partner to tell me what I could or could not do, so I chose to become an activist for women’s rights while also trying civil cases. The fact that women had to fight for their rights in the 1970s was another indication of bias in the system, but our fight was not as herculean as it was for those in the civil rights movement—women were not being lynched. Many people have been fighting for fairness in our justice system for a long time, yet many accept the punitive model as what is best.

Yet another early challenge to my trust in the justice system came when I read Nils Christie’s description of the Western system of justice in his renowned article, “Conflicts as Property.” It was a counternarrative to what I learned in law school—but I knew it was true.

Christie, a Norwegian sociologist, and criminologist explains that the Western justice system is like a state-owned business. This state-owned system for addressing crime has enabled those in control (judges, lawyers, therapists, and criminologists, to name a few) to treat conflict as though it is an asset of their privately-owned business. While the people theoretically own the legal system—they might be compared to the shareholders of the business—their say in the process is even more limited than those who own stock certificates. Citizens cannot dispose of their interest in the system even if they find it dysfunctional and sometimes immoral, and they have little say in its operation.

Christie describes the role of lawyers in the business of justice as follows:

  • Lawyers are particularly good at stealing conflicts. . . . They are trained to prevent and solve conflicts. They are socialized into a subculture with a surprisingly high agreement concerning interpretation of norms, and regarding what sort of information can be accepted as relevant in each case. Many among us have, as laymen, experienced the sad moments of truth when our lawyers tell us that our best arguments in our fight against our neighbour are without any legal relevance whatsoever and that we for God’s sake ought to keep quiet about them in court. Instead, they pick out arguments we might find irrelevant or even wrong to use.

I had done enough trial work to recognize Christie’s description of what lawyers often do in litigation. The attorney’s winning theory of the case and the client’s understanding of what happened can be worlds apart. Often, the client is not permitted to tell their story about what occurred, which may feel confusing, disempowering, and demoralizing to the client.

Treatment personnel, including criminologists, are another group Christie describes as using conflicts for their own self-interest. They benefit from ensuring the offender in a criminal case is seen not merely as a criminal, but as “a legitimate target for treatment.” Christie describes the role of criminologists (his profession) as:

  • . . . an auxiliary science for the professionals within the crime control system. We have focused on the offender, made her or him into an object for study, manipulation, and control. We have added to all those forces that have reduced the victim to a nonentity and the offender to a thing.

In fact, our basic social structure according to Christie, tends to define each of us by our individual roles, not as total persons. Seeing our individual roles as disconnected silos forces us to be separate and segregated according to characteristics, such as gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or age. These add to our depersonalization, lack of information, and lack of understanding of one another. It ignores our interconnectedness.

When a conflict arises, this compartmentalization renders us less able to cope with the situation ourselves, so we turn to the experts. That objectification never felt right to me, and as a female, I was directly impacted by it. But my system blindness (described in Chapter Two) kept me from realizing that it could be different.

In 1987, I had an even more profound revelation, one that changed my life forever. It was about ten years into my career as a trial attorney and perhaps fifteen years after setting upon my spiritual journey. I realized from my study of A Course in Miracles that there are two models of justice: vengeance and love. That changed everything. I knew what justice as vengeance was—that is the punitive model of justice found in our court system and that was all I could offer my clients. By then, I had already seen more than enough of the injustice that our legal system produces. I had no clue what Justice as Love looked like or how to implement it, but at that moment, I committed to finding out—a much longer journey than I ever expected.

As I delved deeper into this new insight I came to have a deeper understanding of what it meant. Not only is the traditional system hierarchical and so complex it forces people to rely on the experts, I encountered much that confirmed my assessment that punitive justice is a seriously flawed model. It uses punishment to maintain control, but it has no means of addressing the underlying causes of crime. In fact, it excludes that information from consideration by characterizing it as “collateral.” As I traveled this journey, I also realized that Justice as Love is a reality.

It eventually became increasingly difficult to walk into a courtroom. The more I understood the true potential of a legal justice system with no punitive elements, the harder it was for me to accept retribution and revenge as justice. I felt like Alice attending the Mad Hatter’s birthday party—more and more surreal. I was expected to participate in the insanity and pretend this is reality.

In 2003, after 27 years as a trial attorney I stopped practicing law. The first two years I spent back in graduate school and healing from my years in the trial attorney gladiator pit. I had learned how to gird myself against the pain I was present to as a trial attorney and the cases I handled. I had learned to live with dishonesty by people I knew were inherently honest when not in this win-lose system, including some of the lawyers. When I ceased being a part of that system, I welcomed the opportunity to turn my focus to what I now call “Unitive Justice,” or “Justice as Love.” This model has no punitive elements. It is grounded in lovingkindness and sees our connection to one another as paramount.

For clarity, I would like to share my definitions of some of the terms I use in this book. I intentionally capitalize Unitive Justice and Love to designate them as key terms.

justice: one’s foundational belief in what is right and just.

Punitive justice: a system of proportional revenge that answers harm with more harm. When the counter harm is proportional (in equal measure) to the original harm being answered, it is deemed moral and just in the punitive system.

Punitive justice is sometimes called “retributive justice” because it uses punishment as retribution for a wrong or criminal act—or as a threat, if someone does not comply.

Unitive Justice: a system that builds on our interconnectedness and our shared humanity to create a model of justice that achieves individual and community
wellbeing and safety; it has no punitive elements. Unitive Justice recognizes that beneath all the complexity of our conflicts, separation is the problem, and so it follows that connection is the solution. As Unitive Justice progressively dismantles our barriers to connection, we grow stronger individually, as a community and as a culture.

Unitive Justice is not just a modification of the traditional justice system; it represents an entirely different understanding of justice. How we can implement Justice as Love with intention, where justice as vengeance now prevails, is what I seek to demonstrate throughout this book.

Love: the benevolent feeling for others that embodies connection beyond judgment and separation; Oneness. The term will be capitalized hereafter when it refers to the emotion in its most valid form; to be distinguished from when we use the term “love” to mean feelings or activities such as personal intimacy, sexual relations, or affection for material objects.

shared humanity: the bond created by simultaneously recognizing the inestimable worth of one’s self and the inestimable worth of one’s neighbor. At the level of our shared humanity, we are equal; anything that appears to be less is mere judgment and separation.

Justice as Love
Justice as Love has roots that are at least as old as the roots of retributive justice. We find evidence of justice with no punitive elements in various places if we know what to look for and where. For instance, the ancient system of Ubuntu in Africa was a way to organize an orderly society that did not rely on penal institutions, such as jails or prisons. In the 1600s, the Quakers organized themselves in a non-hierarchical, non-judgmental, and non-punitive system that has held reasonably steady for centuries. Quakerism is a pacifist religion, as are the Amish.

From time to time, we see compelling, humbling examples of Justice as Love, which for many of us are difficult to comprehend. On October 2, 2006, in a small Amish enclave in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a man murdered five young schoolgirls, wounded others, and then killed himself in a planned attack. The people of this quiet Amish community sought no revenge. Instead, some of the elders visited the widow of the killer to offer forgiveness. Nearly a decade later in 2015, a twenty-one-year-old young man with an automatic weapon murdered nine people during a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to incite racial violence. The family members of those who were murdered did not seek the expected revenge. One said, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.”

One of the most remarkable applications of Justice as Love that I am aware of was created by two men, Paul Taylor and Weldon “Prince” Bunn, during their twenty-plus years of incarceration in Virginia prisons. They transformed themselves and the prison culture by transcending the ultra-punitive prison system while they were in it. They had not heard of Ubuntu or attended a Quaker meeting, yet they intuitively found within themselves what was required; guided by our internal moral compass, it springs from the heart.

While Paul Taylor is his birth name, I will refer to him as “Taylor Paul,” the name he took for himself while he was incarcerated. This was his way of letting those in “free society” know that he was the complete opposite of who they described him to be.

Taylor and Prince had a determination not to die in prison, despite life-plus-26 and life-plus-80-year sentences. They knew that the path that got them into prison was not the path to their release. Although they were confined to prison, they had everything they needed to achieve transformation. First, they had to give up their retribution and revenge thinking—that was the key to bringing their inherent goodness to the fore. In essence, they transcended duality consciousness, enabling them to experience Unity consciousness.

duality consciousness: the mistaken belief that separation is real. In duality, only fragmentation is universal, nothing is whole; it is the lower order of reality. It is a mental state of sustained opposition, for example, good versus evil, us versus them. Fear of the “other” fuels sustained chaos and conflict, an uncreative use of one’s mind.

Only in duality consciousness can retribution and revenge be understood as justice.

Unitive Consciousness: the state of being interconnected in wholeness; the non-dual nature of self and all of creation; the higher order of reality. In this mental state, Love and justice are one. When we awaken to Unitive Consciousness, we discover who we truly are—the embodiment of lovingkindness. When we extend Love to another, the receiver has more Love but we also increase the Love within our self, reversing the physical law that says your gain is my loss. (While in duality thinking, the concept of Unity consciousness may be difficult to understand. I hope that changes as readers delve further into the book.)

When Taylor and Prince escaped the dualistic thinking that mired them in separation and the us-versus-them worldview, they were able to draw on the wisdom they had within themselves to guide their paths to transformation. This was how they came to create a process of Justice as Love that changed not only themselves but the prison culture as well. Throughout this book, I will share more about the inspiration and insight into Unitive Justice that I received from both Taylor and Prince.

In large part, as a result of what I have learned from Taylor and Prince, and despite the ubiquitous nature of our punitive legal systems, culture and institutions, I am convinced that Justice as Love is inherent in who we are. This is why Justice as Love continues to show up in random acts of kindness that manifest unexpectedly, even in a prison pod.

Some might fear that this book supports an idealistic approach, such as the release of all inmates in jails and prisons because those institutions violate the principles of Unitive Justice. As you will learn, that is far from what I support. I note later in the book that jails and prisons may be a good place to start as we begin to create Unitive Justice communities. Transformation takes time, and inmates have time. Time provides the opportunity to learn about transformation that benefits them and will benefit their communities upon their release—if they are given the necessary tools needed to take this path. Taylor and Prince prove this is possible.

Unitive Justice is not a “quick fix” for the brokenness in our world, but it is a start. A small Unitive Justice community would not have stopped Hitler when he was ravaging Europe and exterminating millions of people. But the fact that grave injustices on that scale have existed and can happen again is a compelling reason to begin to create our small pockets of Unitive Justice wherever we can and to nurture them with all the Love we can muster.

The promise that Justice as Love holds for transforming our justice system (and our world) is at once both idealistic and practical. It may take many lifetimes to transform a world tethered to dualistic thinking, and yet it can be implemented by one person, in one prison pod, in one family, in one relationship as soon as right now. To the extent that you can suspend dualistic thinking while reading this book, the possibilities and opportunities for applying Unitive Justice will more easily be seen and understood.

Justice remains as important to me as it ever was, but I now reject retribution—answering one harm with another—as worthy of being called justice. I also now know that true justice can be achieved; I am more certain of this than I have ever been. “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Mart in Luther King, Jr. in 1968. This may be truer now than at any time in human history, providing we change our thoughts, words and actions from a dualistic lens to a unitive one, seeing Justice as Love, not as retribution.

This book comes with an urgent message. If we hope to create peace, save our environment, end systemic racism and other debilitating prejudices, address deep pockets of poverty and achieve lasting positive change, we must transform our understanding of justice. It took me decades to realize this and years to see an alternate path. I hope this book helps my readers recognize Justice as Love, not only as a realistic possibility but as an imperative.

The invitation for you to join this journey includes some questions at the end of each chapter for you to consider. If you are so inclined, please keep a Unitive Justice journal nearby to record your reflections. Before you begin reading Chapter Two, I invite you to write your answers to the following questions in your journal. Hopefully, comparing what you write now and your understanding after reading the book will strengthen any seeds of change that are planted in the process.

Invitation to Journal.
Consider these questions:

  • What is your present definition of “justice”?
  • Why is justice important to you?
  • What would your ideal system of justice look like?

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