Have Faith: What is justice?

Does justice bring satisfaction, or is that a fleeting feeling?


When you write a column, sometimes ideas have to sit and stew with you awhile before you begin to write. That’s definitely what happened this week. The word “justice” kept creeping into my thoughts, for reasons that will be obvious as you read further. 

My inbox had an email from an organizer for an event that took place over the weekend: “Rethinking Racial Justice in the Wake of Obama and the Era of Trump — A two-day dialogue for social change on Martha’s Vineyard.” There was the word “justice” again. The group Scholars for Social Justice sponsored the event, which was filled with impressive speakers including Thenjiwe McHarris, co-founder of Blackbird and Movement for Black Lives; Cathy J. Cohen, professor, activist, and founder-director of Gen Forward Survey Project; Yeshi Milner, executive director and founder of Data for Black Lives Project; Moe Mitchell, national director, Working Families Party; Jessica Byrd, director and founder of Three Points Strategy; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, professor, author, and director of Spelman Women’s Center; and Barbara Ransby, professor, author, and past president, National Women’s Studies Association. A group that makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your spare time. They gathered to talk about what has grown to be an even larger racial divide brought on by the political climate and the steady stream of attacks on innocent people in our own country. You can watch the discussions on Twitter at @CjCohen.

The idea of innocent lives being taken for absolutely no reason and through no fault of their own has been front and center in my heart and mind for another, deeply personal, reason. I come from Missouri, and most of my father’s family still lives outside St. Louis near a town called Belleville, Ill. Even though I left some 40 years ago, my heart is still with them. Especially today as I write this.

I have a cousin, Joellan, who became a grandmother about five years ago. I monitored her Facebook posts, looking at photos of her grandson Kane and watching him grow through the magic of the Internet. He looked just like his daddy, TJ, and was clearly the apple of Joellan’s eye, and her Harley-riding husband Teague looked like he melted to mush when he looked at Kane in those photos. I was happy for them. Then on April 13, 2017, the unthinkable happened.

TJ and Kane’s mother had split up long before I saw those Facebook photos, and on that night Kane was left in the care of his mother’s boyfriend while she went out to dinner with a friend. Of course only God, baby Kane, and the accused know what really happened during that time. In short, later that night little Kane, only 2½ years old, was pronounced dead at Cardinal Glennon Hospital in St. Louis, suffering from a fractured skull. What has ensued over the past two years has left his family grieving at a level beyond imagination.

The man held responsible managed to “get out of town,” and avoided arrest for months. Finally he was captured, only to have his bail reduced so that he only needed to post a measly $15,000 cash bond. The judge who set the reduced bail has a history spotted with similar actions. Thankfully, she recused herself, and wasn’t the judge assigned to the murder trial, which has been taking place in Belleville since last week.

My cousin, our family, and her friends spent the past two years fighting for justice for Kane. They set up a campaign, aptly called Justice for Kane, and were visible all over the city. They were on the local news channels, in the newspapers, and they stood outside the courthouse with Justice for Kane signs in hand for months leading up to this trial. The accused waived his right to a jury trial, and for the past week my family has sat in a courtroom reliving the horror again as the judge decides the fate of the accused. Every expert in the trial has stated that Kane died from blunt-force trauma. Today we’ll know the verdict, and I have a feeling no matter what that is, it won’t feel like justice.

All along, Joellan has posted a daily verse from the Our Lady of the Snows website, a shrine in Belleville. The trial began on August 5, feast day of Our Lady of the Snows, and in the Catholic world that’s a big deal. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate run the shrine. I thanked Joellan for posting the daily messages because I find them comforting every morning when I read them. This morning as I write on the day that the verdict will be announced in Kane’s case, this is what I read: “Lord, in too many ways this world is far from the world You intended. I can know of injustices throughout the world, but often I choose not to know. In my heart I want to change what is wrong, but the task before me is monumental. Inspire us to fill the earth with Your love. Let us build a just world. Open our eyes to see that we must care for all as we would for ourselves.”

I’m not sure there’s a verdict that will give Joellan peace, and I know if I were her, my heart would be broken. Somehow you keep going, and you keep loving your family — probably even more if that’s possible. So I’m thinking of justice as I write. 

When I watched some of the panel discussions from the Scholars for Social Justice event, I heard Moe Mitchell talk about one good thing that’s come from the current political climate — people are talking about racism, white supremacy, and reparations for slavery. They weren’t topics that came up regularly in conversation previously. Now the Democratic candidates are taking them on. Reparations for slavery seems like something that should’ve happened a very long time ago. This leaves me thinking that justice takes a long time to come to fruition, and when it does, what comfort does it bring with it? The feeling that “justice was served” should bring relief and satisfaction, but I think that feeling might be fleeting, because you can never really get back what was lost. You can hope that somehow there will be payment of some kind for what you lost. On this morning, on this day, it just doesn’t seem like enough.

Prayers are hard sometimes. You know you’re supposed to say them, they’re supposed to bring peace to hearts full of pain and loneliness. So you just keep saying them, even when it seems like nothing can help. That’s what I’m going to do this morning, pray for Kane and for all those impacted by the 400th anniversary of the first documented Africans arriving in the U.S. Like I said, sometimes prayer feels like all you can do, for now anyway.