With Justice for All
November 23, 2022
by Amy Givler, MD
Let me introduce you to Aidah. She worked in our home (our “inside worker”) during the eight months our family lived in Kenya in 2003/2004. Don and I worked at Tenwek Mission Hospital as family physicians, and our three children attended elementary and middle school at nearby Rift Valley Academy. She helped me buy food and cook it, and she kept our house clean. Aidah was our backbone. She was a rock.
But Aidah lived with great sorrow. Her husband had abandoned her, years earlier, leaving her to raise two children, the older of which, then age 20, was mentally disabled. Just before I met Aidah, her mother died, leaving her a plot of land to grow subsistence crops. Getting the land transferred to her name was proving to be a challenge. She had to appear in court before a judge to complete the transaction, but when the judge saw her in the courtroom at the appointed time, he kept cancelling the proceedings. He would reschedule, usually giving her only a day or two warning. Aidah knew if she didn’t arrive at the appointed date at the appointed time, he would promptly void her claim on the property and award it to a friend or possibly himself.
Each laborious trip to the courthouse took Aidah the entire day, and she made six of them—maybe more—before finally, through sheer persistence, the land was in her name. Watching this process, I became increasingly saddened by the lack of justice in a system that devalued my friend just because she was poor and a woman. Actually, even had she been rich, her quest for justice would have been tough. Unless, that is, she had enlisted a man to help her. The “system” in Kenya favors men.
Last month I was able to join a group of CMDA members on a Perkins Justice Pilgrimage, visiting Jackson, Mississippi; Mendenhall, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; Selma, Alabama; and Birmingham, Alabama. We met with John Perkins, who has been fighting for biblical justice and reconciliation for more than 60 years. His daughter Elizabeth led us in thoughtful discussions and brought us to many historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement.
In Montgomery we visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors the 6,500 black people who were lynched in the U.S. between 1865 and 1950. A large space with a roof, but no walls, holds 800 six-foot suspended steel columns. Each column represents a county, and each one lists the names of the black men and women known to have been killed there by lynching with no trial, no due process.
Walking slowly past those massive columns, I found myself thinking of Aidah. And inequality. And justice. Lynching is so unjust. Just as Aidah couldn’t count on a judge to give her what was rightfully hers, the ever-present threat of lynching convinced black people they couldn’t trust in the U.S. justice system. The justice system has been present since America’s founding, with laws, lawyers, judges, juries and prisons. However, lynching bypasses all that. With lynching, evil people become prosecutor, jury and judge—often provoked by the mildest of offenses and with the flimsiest of evidence—and administer the death sentence, usually accompanying it with torture.
How could lynching have been tolerated for so long? How could so many have died so violently? America had a functioning court system. Those who had broken the law could have been punished according to the law. But in that era, there was a pervasive perception problem that kept black people out of the halls of justice. As historian Leon Litwack put it in Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, lynching underscored the “cheapness of Black life [and] reflected in turn the degree to which so many whites by the early twentieth century had come to think of Black men and women as inherently and permanently inferior, as less than human, as little more than animals.”
The problem, in other words, was the de-valuing of human life. Human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore inherently have dignity and infinite worth. Every single human being, regardless of race, gender, size, strength, gestational age, economic status, intelligence—born or unborn—is a person worthy of defending and protecting. Isaiah’s charge is a charge to each one of us:
“Learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV).
May we take this to heart, and may it be said of us, “How blessed are those who maintain justice…” (Psalm 106:3, NASB).