Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Law and Order
distributed 9/12/03 - ©2003

Many years ago, my brother pointed out a very important distinction to me.

It was back around 1970. My brother was a long-haired campus radical, deeply involved in protests against the Viet Nam war. Richard Nixon was president, J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI with an iron hand, and the flag decals that proliferated on cars divided the society into patriots and protesters. In addition to war protests, the society was in turmoil over questions of racial justice and women's rights.

In a conversation that is still vivid for me, my brother talked to me about the distinction between "law and order" and "law and justice."

Law and order was the demand that was coming from the Nixon White House and the Hoover FBI. Maintaining law and order was the clearly espoused goal of state and local police -- those "pigs" who stood on the other side of protest lines. Using the law to stifle protest and enforce order, my brother said, is oppressive. It uses the power of government to put down the inherently disorderly processes of dissent and change.

Law and justice, on the other hand, directs the power of law into the service of justice. It is at least potentially liberating, instead of oppressive. Law in the service of justice respects the rights of minorities (racial, political, or whatever). It empowers those on the margins in their conflicts with those who wield social control.

My brother's distinction is echoed in the now-common church phrasing about "peace with justice." Peace is a wonderful goal. But the easiest way to create a superficially peaceful society is through a repressive regime. (Just look at Iraq a few years ago.) Peace and order are easy to achieve if the disorderly "disappear" into jails and unmarked graves.

In contrast, as the saying goes, "If you want peace, work for justice." A just society will embody a genuine peacefulness -- even if there's lots of turmoil on the surface.

30 some years ago, my brother opened my eyes to a reality that I have seen confirmed ever since. There is a vast difference between law and order, and law and justice.

My brother now? He's a lawyer. He's still seeking justice. And often, he's using the law to challenge those who want to maintain some unjust part of the current order.

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Now it is 2003. There's conflict about a war, flag decals are all over the place, and the rhetoric of law and order is on the rise. That message is coming, once again, from the White House. This time, the Attorney General is the other strong proponent for control.

These are dangerous times, they tell us. To protect ourselves from the forces of disorder, we need to strengthen the Patriot Act. On top of the government powers granted two years ago, they want "administrative subpoenas" that don't require court action. Recent polls show substantial public support for adding these stronger measures.

Which direction are we headed? Law and order? Or law and justice? The outcome of the pending legislative fight over adding to the Patriot Act is very much up in the air. It is encouraging, though, to see leaders of both parties speaking up for the side of justice.

Law and order is a mindset, a philosophical perspective that manifests itself in more than one piece of legislation. The congressional redistricting battles being fought in Texas and Colorado -- encouraged by Republican leaders in Washington -- embody a blatantly oppressive use of law to impose political control. And I see a "law and order" trend in much of what the Bush administration has been doing in the environmental realm.

This week's news, for example, brings reports on a new set of National Forest management rules. Those rules give forest managers more discretion to approve logging, drilling or mining operations without environmental impact studies. Under the new rules, the Forest Service can cut its costs by as much as 30 percent. Some decisions will be processed in a matter of months, instead of taking as long as seven years. The new rules create a process that is very orderly, very efficient. And it achieves that efficiency by cutting out awkward questions, dissenting voices, and species who might get in the way.

In policies on forest fires, roadless areas, drilling for natural gas, etc., legal procedures that enable public comment and challenges are seen as detrimental to orderly government. New policies routinely diminish the opportunities for input and appeal.

There is a core question at play. What is the law for, and who does it serve? Is it primarily to keep things moving smoothly, and to support those who are in power? Or is primarily a safeguard for the rights of those who have much to lose -- even if protecting those rights is time consuming, expensive and messy?

Of course, it is not a simple either/or choice. There are valid reasons to seek both justice and order. And pursuing either without bounds causes trouble. Some position of moderation between the extremes is realistic and valid.

I'm deeply concerned by the attitudes about the role of law that are prevalent in the US today. From the Patriot Act to forest management, I see a strong "law and order" trend that shifts power into the hands of the government, and makes justice harder to achieve.

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"Throughout the biblical story the writers testify to God's concern to execute justice and to extend compassion at the points of greatest agony and need. But now nature itself has become co-victim with the poor; the vulnerable earth and the vulnerable people are oppressed together."
      -- Presbyterian Church (USA) 1990 statement on Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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