Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

2. From Hierarchy to Equality


Hierarchy: a classification or organization in which people, groups or things are ranked one above the other according to status or perceived importance.

Equality: inclusiveness without exception; the condition of being accorded the same value, respect, dignity, connection and humanity as all others. 

Punitive Justice and Hierarchy 

Hierarchy is another punitive system structure that is so pervasive and has been with us for so long that we rarely question it. Let’s go a little deeper, look at some of the problems that come with hierarchy, and ask if there is an alternative that might work better.

Being a rules-based system, punitive justice requires hierarchy as a structural element. Those at the pinnacle of the hierarchy write the rules and are responsible for the system of enforcement. This is true whether the punitive structure is housed in a government system composed of the legislative, judicial and executive branches or in a family system composed of parents and children.

We may not recognize that the presence of hierarchy means that inequality must also be an attribute of the punitive system, and this produces systemic inequality. Those at the top who are in control are necessarily separate from those at the bottom whom they are controlling. Likewise, the necessary inequality means that privilege, entitlement and superiority are accorded to some, but not to all. Privilege shows up in many ways.

The punitive justice system is so complex that we take for granted the extensive legal training needed to navigate within it. Access depends on knowledge of how the complex system works and being granted permission to enter. One privilege accorded to those at the top of the hierarchy is that they control access to this system. Our system of licensed lawyers and judges is one example of how such control is exercised.

Those at the top also decide who gets the benefit of exceptions to otherwise strict enforcement of the rules and the punishment meted out for violations. In ancient times, permitting a goat to be killed instead of the person sentenced to death is an example of those in control avoiding the imposition of harsh punishment when they found it unjust. The goat became known as the “scapegoat.”

Today’s complex punitive system has many exceptions that those in control are able to apply, when they choose to do so. Who the police arrest and who they let go is one example. The specific charge the prosecutor levies against the accused is another choice that is controlled by the hierarchy. Who a school principal suspends for several days or instead sends to in-school suspension for the afternoon is yet another.

In our representative democracy, we are taught to think of those at the top as working on our behalf, but that ideal is not always realized. The system is constructed in such a way that, despite democratic elections, it may be subject to abuse. Its hierarchical, punitive structure permits those in whom we have entrusted control to sometimes serve the interests of a few, not the many, contrary to what a functional democracy requires. 

Nonetheless, even when the imbalance that hierarchy causes is obvious, until we have something better to offer, we may conclude that this is the best we can do. Comparing the structure of the punitive model of justice to the structure of unitive justice is one way to highlight what works and what doesn’t, and how we can begin to make positive, systemic change.

Unitive Justice and Equality

In unitive justice, equality means inclusiveness without exception. Everyone is valued, respected and accorded dignity. Where do we find examples of this type of equality? In the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” there are no exceptions. It is found in the Muslim teaching of wishing for others what you wish for yourself. It is reflected in the admonition to “love one another as I have loved you,”[1] and in the commandment to love your enemies.[2] We also find it expressed in the Hindu greeting, Namaste, meaning “the soul in me greets the soul in you.”[3]

Equality is woven into the unitive justice structure. For example, structural power is shared horizontally, regardless of the role each community member plays. Different roles permit the process to function, but no role comes with a mantle of superiority, entitlement or privilege. It is not a space in which some are given preferential treatment because they are valued more than others.

In Western culture, this may be difficult to imagine, but we are experiencing it in the circle process based on unitive principles. A circle process is initiated by a person who has a conflict that they want resolved. The process has three parts, the pre-circles, the circle and the post-circle. A trained facilitator conducts pre-circles with everyone who will be in the circle. The pre-circles are followed by the circle at which time the participants go through a process designed to lead to mutually beneficial action. The circle is followed by the post-circle at a later time to determine if everything is resolved or if more needs to be done.

Equality is signified in the circle process in several ways. To begin with, it is a voluntary process. Another is by empowering everyone in the community to initiate circles when a conflict or issue arises, without requiring the permission of any gatekeepers. This enables community members to address their conflicts early on, before conflicts escalate to the point of harmful acts that require suspensions or expulsions, police involvement or court action. It returns the conflict to the community for resolution and eliminates the need to distinguish between civil and criminal claims. Everyone in the circle, facilitator and participants, have different roles but equal power.

While a system based on unitive principles might include cases that are referred by judges, administrators, community leaders or law enforcement personnel, these professionals are not needed to serve as gate-keepers who control access to participation as is often the case in the punitive system.

Equality is also reflected in the type of outcome being sought. As described in Arc to Unity No. 4, From Punishment to Mutually Beneficial Action, unitive justice is designed to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes in which no one has to lose. Accountability is achieved by discovering the underlying brokenness out of which the conflict arose and addressing accountability at that level. It is not a structure in which some are given preferential treatment based on their position, their connections or because they are valued more than others. There are no “scape goat doctrines” that give some a pass while others in similar circumstances are subjected to severe punishment. The inherent equal value of all community members is reflected throughout the unitive system.

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The video below demonstrates what happens when those in control are unrestrained. It is a 29 minute BBC documentary on the Stanford Prison Experiment. The video provides examples of all 12 punitive structural elements outlined in the Arcs to Unity: rules, hierarchy, judgment, punishment, control, proportional revenge, separation, distrust, distortion, it is adversarial, it singles out episodes while ignoring the epicenter and reflects the worldview of duality.

[1] Bible, John 13:34 (KJV).

[2] Bible, Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27 (KJV).

[3] Rita Geno, The Meaning of Namaste, (Yoga Journal, Oct. 3, 2014), at http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot/ cited Feb. 21, 2015.