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Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

7. From Event to Context 



Event: an incident, occurrence, a crime, a wrongdoing. 

Other terms for event: the conflict, the harm done, the episode.

Context: the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which the event can be understood and assessed;[1] the systemic conditions that give rise to individual, similar or repeated incidents and their particular consequences.

The Event in the Punitive System

Every event has a context out of which the event arises. For every action taken, there is a chain of people and events that have a part in setting up the conditions in which the act happens as it does, and results in its particular consequences. It is within the context that we discover the underlying separation that fuels harmful episodes. It is by addressing the underlying separation that we restore connection.

The context holds the energetic residue accumulated over time from many conflicts among many people. It includes choices made long ago, but their impact continues, like slavery or segregation, negative beliefs held about women, people who are not heterosexual, or about a particular religion. Each context manifests on the material level in a way unique to it—a certain conflict community, a particular distribution of control or resources, structural injustices unique to a given place and time.

No two contexts are exactly the same and different contexts give rise to different expressions of harm. Stealing on Wall Street, for example, might involve inserting small hidden charges on a voluminous number of trades, while stealing in a public housing project might involve brandishing a gun in a corner grocery store. In neither case is the thief responsible for the context environment in which they executed their particular form of harm. If these thieves are caught and punished but the context remains the same, we must the expect harmful events of a similar nature to continue.

A particular event, if deemed a crime, is used in the punitive justice system as a reason to arrest, charge, convict and punish the wrongdoer, while the context is ignored. In a unitive system, the same event is used as the portal to discovering the context, the key to revealing the underlying pattern of separation out of which that event arose, so connection can be restored and future events curtailed. As this difference is fundamental, using the event in these two distinctly different ways requires different organizational designs.

The Punitive System Limits Consideration to the Event

Punitive justice is designed to hold offenders accountable, but it does not consider the context of the crime. Maintaining this narrow focus requires considering problems at close range, seeing only a few actors, while excluding consideration of the context in which the offender chose to act. In the punitive justice system, the rules of evidence are a primary means used to limit the scope of consideration. These rules exclude evidence related to the context in which the crime occurred by defining it as “collateral” and irrelevant to the issue of offender accountability.

Other punitive systems also limit the focus to the event and exclude the context from consideration. In a punitive education system it is done by limiting the focus of the research used to legitimize the system—by considering only student conduct and performance, not the social conditions that may be influencing the behavior, the decisions of those who control the system,[2] or even considering how the system itself may impact student conduct.

Similarly, in a punitive economic system the focus is limited by the theory that everyone controls their circumstances and lack of material resources is due to lack of aspiration. Individual choice is seen as determinative and the social context is irrelevant.

Another consequence of consistently ignoring the context is that this has become a cultural norm, as most of us are accustomed to doing the same. This narrow focus helps maintain our system blindness. We unconsciously dismiss consideration of the context, and do not see the part that we play in it. One consequence of this narrow focus is that the wisdom within the community about how and why the offense occurred, and the circumstances that contributed to it, is lost. Also lost is the possibility of addressing the underlying brokenness.

Many of the choices that people make depend on the neighborhood in which they live, the educational opportunities they have, their work experience, the state of their health and the daily difficulties that they have to face. A boy who grows up surrounded by drug dealers is more likely to see that as a career option than a boy who has no drug dealers in his neighborhood. The social context within which the offender’s actions occur is not a choice the offender gets to make.

We learn from our culture how to be kind. We also learn from our culture how to be violent and are given direction by our culture where to direct our violence. Nazi Germany illustrates this point. When Jews in Germany were the object of Hitler’s scurrilous remarks, they were attacked by neighbors who felt that Hitler's vitriol gave them license to do so. In the context of today’s Germany, such attacks do not occur. When we change the context, the patterns of violence change, as well.

Culture provides us with the options from which we make our choices, and not everyone has the same choices. Structural injustices often play a role in the commission of crime. Bias and prejudice in many forms may be a factor. These contextual factors usually go unrecognized in the punitive system because responsibility for the harm is individualized and consideration of the context is intentionally excluded. But responsibility for our actions depends, at least in part, on the control we have over the choices we get to make.

Unitive Justice Uses the Event to Discover the Context

No decision is separate or isolated in its effects. Every decision is made for the whole, often having influence far beyond what the decision-maker expects or intends, both inward and outward. The same applies to conflict. We generally think about conflict as existing “out there,” something someone else did. But each conflict also has an “in here” aspect to it.

How any given individual reacts to an event depends on how they experience the pain it causes, and how they experience the pain depends on their personal history, their life in the context, and the ways they have adapted to it. Addressing the “out there” is necessary, but to change the context, we must also consider the “in here.” 

We discover the “in here” aspect in how we show up when we are impacted by the event, or if we are the one who said or did the harmful act, in why we chose to act. These insights permit us to impose control in the places we feel wounded and to choose how we might step into our power in order to change the context of our shared experience. To address the “in here” aspect of the event draws upon our shared power and connection.

It is easy to believe that the underlying brokenness found in the context is beyond our control, so we have no responsibility for it. When we discover the “in here” aspect of the conflict, we see that we do have power to impact the broad scope of our lives. We can then ask what we do that sustains the possibility that a particular harm might be done, perhaps not to our self but to another, and what might we do differently? That is when we see new possibilities that were not imaginable when we saw retribution and revenge as the answer. It is in discovering these new possibilities that we discover a way to go forward together, to create mutually beneficial action in which no one has to lose.

The complexity of the human experience that surrounds each conflict could leave us believing it is impossible to solve. The punitive justice system deals with this complexity by excluding it from consideration. Unitive justice approaches it by recognizing that beneath the apparent complexity there is one underlying problem: separation. When we recognize there is one problem, we see there is one answer: strengthening connection.  Each connection we build strengthens community. Strong communities experience order and safety.

“I am because you are” is an ancient greeting in Ubuntu. It is in embracing our shared power and connection that we discover we are not among enemies.


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The TEDx video below called Context is Everything is a discussion of the impact of context in the field of medicine.

[1] Dictionary, https://www.google.com/search?rls=aso&client=gmail&q=definition%20of%20context%20&authuser=0, last visited Dec. 26, 2017. 

[2] Kathleen Nolan, Critical Social Theory and the Study of Urban School Discipline, a chapter in the book Theory and Educational Research: Toward Critical Social Explanation.