Excerpted from Kai Cheng Thom’s book in progress, Loving Justice
”Justice is what love looks like in public.”
I crave justice. My body aches for it like a hunger for food I’ve never tasted. How can you miss something that you’ve had in the first place? How can we do justice, make justice happen, when we have never known it?
In 2018, I wrote in an essay for my book I HOPE WE CHOOSE LOVE that I did not believe in justice because I have never experienced it – that while I had lost faith in justice, I still believed in love: Redeeming love, merciful love, love with the power to hold us and heal us even in our worst moments of loss and self-betrayal. Now, three years, a global pandemic, and several cataclysmic political upheavals later, the word “justice” is all around me and yet I still struggle to know what it means. Like many in the so-called “social justice movement,” I am caught in a maelstrom of conflicting urges, imperatives, moral and ideological values.
Is justice revenge? Well-served desserts for the wealthy and privileged who live their lives at others’ expense? Oppressed peoples surely have a right to be angry, to want to see their own pain – sometimes whole centuries and generations’ worth of pain – reflected in the bodies of the oppressors, don’t they? Our rage is a just emotion, for it tells us the depth of what has been done wrong. If not revenge, then surely some punishment, something done to perpetrators of harm so that they realize the error of their ways? But revenge and punishment are such stigmatized words in this time of supposedly enlightened moral consciousness and psychological awareness.
Perhaps instead we could define justice as “consequences.” Yes, consequences is a more neutral word, it feels less morally charged. Consequences: Taking away power and privilege from the oppressor or harmdoer so that they cannot do harm anymore. The line between consequences and punishment can be so blurry, though, in this time of disaster capitalism and increased vulnerability. A mere slap-on-the-wrist “consequence” such as public denunciation and shaming for a wealthy businessperson can become a death sentence for a trans woman sex worker who relies upon her community for her basic life needs.
Or is justice the making of amends and forgiveness, perhaps? Christianity and similar religious traditions have long made much of the ritual of asking and giving forgiveness. While the hegemony (and frequent, violent hypocrisy) of the colonizing Christian worldview makes it essential for many activists, myself included, to examine this perspective with a critical eye, there is an undeniable psychological and spiritual resonance to the notion of forgiveness. To ask someone humbly, I beg your forgiveness for what I have done,and to grant it generously can, in the right conditions, be incredibly healing and even revolutionary.
Of particular interest to me as an anarchist with family roots in the Chinese Evangelical church, is the notion of grace, the divine love and forgiveness that is given to all, even those who do not deserve it. Grace, paradoxically, can guide us back into goodness when we have done wrong, because it keeps us from despair – from giving up on trying to be good. There is a kind of justice there too, but it feels deeply unreliable because it requires us all to act from good faith and clear hearts. And what happens when we try to enforce forgiveness as a moral rule? Do we end up being too permissive with perpetrators and oppressors, blaming survivors and the oppressed for failing to forgive unimaginable harms?
On the other side of my family, there is some Buddhist and Daoist tradition that suggest balance and compassion as a way forward. Could justice be about compassion, rather than forgiveness?
Compassion, to me, suggests a recognition of the suffering and deep humanity of every human and non-human being, but it does not require us to forgive in the sense of letting someone off the hook for what they have done. Compassion might allow us to engage in processes of justice that are rooted in our interdependence and need for transformative change. But where is the line between compassion and permissiveness? Compassion sounds well and good in theory, but how we do we actually find it in those terrible moments when a harm has actually been done – when a police officer shoots an Indigenous or Black person, when a sex worker is raped on the job, when migrant children are put in cages and imperialist nations bomb weddings and schools in other countries?
Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice have emerged as partial answers to the questions above – and indeed, this essay and the entire concept of Loving Justice as I have framed it, are rooted in Transformative Justice. In particular, the traditions of Black and racialized, queer feminist thought in the area of justice shine as beacons in the contemporary moment: Thanks to the work of such these thinkers, prison and police abolition as well as the grassroots practice of addressing harm within communities have been framed as not only alternatives to criminal justice, but as ethical imperatives that we must pursue in order to end the ongoing assault on Black, Indigenous, migrant, disabled, and otherwise marginalized lives. We owe these wisdom and practices to such thinkers as Mariame Kaba, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Shira Hassan, Mia Mingus, Ejeris Dixon, adrienne maree brown, autumn brown, Loretta Ross, and others.
Yet there are many questions in the fields Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice, too, not least because it seems to me that there is a lack of working knowledge in many (perhaps most) communities about what these terms actually mean or what they entail. And even among those who are leaders in the field, there are complex dilemmas that can result in disaster when we try to apply Transformative Justice and/or Restorative Justice protocols in our real lives. These dilemmas are not easily solved through critical analysis alone, and to my knowledge, critical analysis has rarely done so: only on-the-ground, embodied practice holds answers to the practical questions of justice, and even then, there is such terrible room for error – error when the stakes are so very high.
For example, Transformative Justice as a queer community strategy for addressing harm has most often relied upon the notion of “believing survivors” as a foundational element not only of theory, but also of praxis. In theory, we know that believing survivors is about affirming the spoken truth of people who have experienced assault and abuse, as well as overturning a paradigm in which survivors have historically not been believed, with devastating legal, social, and psychological consequences. Yet in practice, believing survivors often takes the form of a need to take sides, and the imperative to believe all survivors without further guidance about how to act can become intensely confusing and overwhelming when two or more people accuse one another of abuse – which is frequently the case these days.
Other conundrums within Transformative Justice and other extralegal forms of justice include an increasingly polarized debate about disposability versus accountability – to what extent is it “okay” to weaponize social media and other forms of public conversation in order to address a harm or perceived harm, and to what extent is it necessary to prioritize relationship building and room for change instead? As this debate has gone on in recent years, there has also been an growing, bitter dialogue about bad faith in accountability; that is, the cynical misuse of any and all justice-related concepts in order to bully one’s rivals, control others, and deflect attention away from one’s own bad behaviors.
For example, we might accuse someone of manipulating Transformative Justice concepts as a way to get out of being accountable for their abusive actions. Yet that same person might turn around and accuse us of misusing community accountability in order to cross their boundaries and control their behaviors. These debates, at their highest intensity, often seem to take the form of talking over one another – an attempt to destroy the other’s point of view rather than find a way forward.
And where is justice, that elusive treasure, in all of this? How do we actually embody justice, bring it into our bodies and enact it on a physical and spiritual level? Clearly we are in need of some greater knowledge, an embodied knowing that runs deeper than even the most skillful political rhetoric. We need a knowledge that is skill-based, that is chemical, that happens inside of us on a cellular level – that is, in the words of adrienne maree brown, emergent in the sense that the patterned shape of a flock of birds in flight or school of fish in motion is emergent. We need a shared internal compass, movements towards a justice that holds compassion, forgiveness, anger, healing and accountability all at the same time – each of us taking up our specific roles, the way bees in a hive take up roles to produce sweetness and safety for all.
We need embodied practices and strategies that strengthen and soften us on every level of our being-ness – not just our ability to critically analyze ideas with our intellect, but also to nurture our emotional health and also our spiritual connection to the ancestors and the natural world. We need to be able to track the furious pulsing of nervous systems in response to the stresses and violence of the colonial, capitalist world order, and we need to know how to soothe ourselves and each other in order to come back into compassionate – and boundaried – relationship. We trauma stewardship skills and conflict de-escalation skills. We need the actual neuroscientific knowledge that will allow us to understand our embodied reactions to conflict and abuse, and we need resonant ritual practices that can contain and channel our pain, rage, and grief as a collective. We need a flexible yet grounded spine of values and ethics to help us move with ethical integrity.
Over the past few years, as the world has descended ever further into abject chaos and my own life continues to be marked by profound tragedy and horrible conflict – including those ongoing instances of my own mistakes and failures – I have begun to pursue the creation of a body of work that attempts to uncover some of these much-needed practices and skills, primarily as a desperate yet hopeful attempt to shift the patterns in my social world. Drawing on trauma-informed thinking, conflict resolution theory, sex work knowledge, meditation and somatics, I am building a spiritual and embodied lens of Transformative Justice – a personal answer to the how and what of Transformative Justice on a highly practical level.
Loving-kindness meditation, conversational skills, ethical evaluation of accountability processes, boundary-settings skills to know how to engage (or NOT engage) with the conflict of others around me, somatic ritual to safely release and transform emotions and conflict-related traumas – this is what I am hungry for, what I need. And I need this all to be hold in a container of core values that are rooted in the sacredness of all living beings, and the desire to bring us all into closer contact with that core sacredness. Perhaps this is also what others want and need.
I call it Loving Justice.