Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

7. From Separation to Connection


Separation: the belief that alienated, detached, disassociated and competing levels divide all that exists; life is a win/lose, binary experience.

Connection: the belief that joining is without limit because all minds are joined; the whole is undivided and humans share one humanity.

“Separation” and “connection,” reflect two competing beliefs—either we are all separate or we are all connected. But if we consider these beliefs more closely, one holds up and the other does not.

While U.S. culture is known for its celebration of the individual, a belief that implicitly minimizes our interconnectedness, the functional value of this belief requires that it be a shared belief, grounded in our connection. Indeed, thinking separation is real supports the dualistic system only so long as it is one of our most widely shared beliefs—an internal contradiction that demonstrates that our fundamental nature is connection. Separation is nonexistent.

Yet, our belief in separation appears to be reinforced by our everyday experience. Our sense of touch seems to confirm that we are separate. With our eyes, we see others as different—how can we be connected to them, or to their evil? Our sense of smell and taste, they also tell us we are a separate physical entity.

Even Newtonian physics, the prevalent scientific theory throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, confirmed that the separation we experience is real. It taught that the atom, believed to be the fundamental building block, appeared to be bits of matter separated by empty space, further convincing us that separation must be real.

On the material level we are separate material beings but this does not negate our interconnectedness on a deeper level of reality. We are at a moment in time when the belief in connection is growing, in part because of the new science. Just as Newtonian physics confirmed separation in past centuries, the new science of quantum physics indicates that, while the laws of matter apply at the gross physical level, a more fundamental reality exists beyond matter—an all-encompassing whole in which separation does not exist. Quantum physics is teaching us that connection is our true reality.

Punitive Justice Depends on Separation

For centuries, our widespread belief in separation has shaped our culture and had a significant impact on our justice system. Rules, hierarchy, judgment, punishment, control, proportional revenge, all of the structures of punitive justice depend on a belief in separation.

The legal process, especially in the criminal courts, is embedded with the belief in separation. The belief in separation permits the punitive model of justice to cast the offender as the object of the process, reinforced by labeling the offender in ways that indicate object status: the assailant, the murderer, the robber. The victim, the person harmed, fares no better by being reduced to a mere witness for the state. By excluding consideration of the context, the offender is dehumanized and the victim’s need for healing is ignored. The community where the harm occurred and where the wisdom about root causes exists is excluded altogether.

Those standing in judgment see themselves as separate from the accused, pointing at the accused “over there.” They are separate from the victim who is dehumanized by being seen as utilitarian, needed only to prove the state’s law was broken, but otherwise irrelevant. Those in control assume that how they exercise control on an ongoing basis plays no part in setting up the context for the harmful act of the accused, even when it does. This statement by President Ronald Reagan reflects this point of view:

“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

This attention to separation makes it easier to see the offender as the “other,” a bad person who must be punished, not as a person to be restored to the community. This fosters the practice of branding convicted offenders with a criminal record that bars them from many pursuits, even after their debt to society has been legally paid.

Our belief in separation can lead us to believe that we can harm another without harming ourselves when, in fact, life is relationship. Actions that defy our interconnectedness result in harm and in conflict. On the material level our undivided connection may be invisible to the eye, but it continues to exist.

Unitive Justice Embraces Connection

We are accustomed to looking at problems at close range and seeing only a few actors, but if we expand the lens we may eventually see patterns that involve all of us. While the punitive system sees the problem as “out there,” unitive justice is built on our interconnectedness. This enables us to see how we are each part of a larger whole, and how our individual choices impact the whole. What we do to another is like a sword with a 360-degree angle—when we harm another we harm ourselves in some way, even when it is not readily apparent.

While a belief in separation is widespread, a co-existing belief that connection is our fundamental nature has always existed. This description of accountability by psychoanalyst Alice Miller reflects an understanding of our interconnectedness:

“Those children who are beaten will in turn give beatings, those who are intimidated will be intimidating, those who are humiliated will impose humiliation, and those whose souls are murdered will murder. . . . [E]very persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person.”

The example Miller uses is the impact that parents have on the future conduct of their children, but this approach can be taken with every act, be it good or bad. This approach holds the doer of an act accountable, but also considers the whole, including the responsibility of those who contributed to the context in which the doer of the act chose to act. No man is an island.

What might the legal system be like if, instead of separation, it embraced connection? One lawyer in the Integrative Law movement describes her approach as follows:


“I see my role as serving a human life within the context of a community of inter-dependent beings. It is my experience that there is no such thing as a discrete, finite response to conflict. Every word and deed generates some response because all of us are in relationship with one another -- and our lives together are ongoing conversations. Integrative practice, for me, is acting with conscious awareness about what sort of conversations, what types of “cycles of response” I'd like to see grow in this world we share.”

                                                                                                                 Linda Alvarez [3]

Our brokenness cannot be dealt with as individuals because we do not control our own fate independent of the fate of others. We may build walls to separate us but communication between what cannot be divided is always available. The gift of connection awaits where separation ends. Only truth is true.

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In the video below, Oprah Winfrey talks with Thich Nhat Hanh about peace, suffering and nonviolence. He demonstrates how we may move toward connection. 

[1] Object, in this context, means the focus of attention and inquiry about what will be done to it.

[2] The Christian doctrine of satisfaction developed around the 12th century served to legitimize vengeance in the criminal law system. The doctrine held that the moral wrongdoer must “pay” for his crime, like a debt. Thus, it followed that the punishment imposed by the state was “deserved,” violence was made redemptive, and suffering for a moral wrong made just. See Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance, (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 22.

[3] Author of “Discovering Agreement: Contracts That Turn Conflict Into Creativity,” American Bar Association (2016). More information at www.discoveringagreement.com.