If you haven’t heard, the ex-NYPD cop Peter Liang was recently found guilty of manslaughter and misconduct charges, and he faces up to 15 years in prison. Since then, tens of thousands of people, mostly Chinese American, have held protest demonstrations across the country. As of Saturday, 124,000 people have signed an online White House petition demanding that Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson withdraw his indictment. This is notable because Liang is one of many cops who have either intentionally or unintentionally killed unarmed black men; however, while many of these cops have not been indicted, he has.
I spent some time reading articles and statements by people who have been protesting his case, and it seems like what is fueling this frustration is not necessarily the fact that Liang was indicted, but it is the fact that Liang was indicted while so many others were not. While so many policemen have seemed to have “gotten off the hook,” Liang hasn’t. Thus, it seems to many that Liang is the scapegoat, the fall guy, for so many other incidents of injustice. It also does not help that much of the conversation in regard to police brutality has revolved around white privilege and racism, and Liang, one of the few policemen who has been indicted, is not white.
I believe that the outrage of Chinese Americans provides insight to something—that there is a big difference between justice and fairness. Justice is the idea of getting what you deserve. Fairness is the idea that all people should receive the same level of justice. And the fascinating thing about justice and fairness is that they don’t always line up with each other. For example, if I am driving 10 miles over the speed limit on the highway, and if I get pulled over, I am getting pulled over justly. However, if it was the case that everybody was going 10 miles over the speed limit, and if nobody else got pulled over, I am getting pulled over unfairly. If I get pulled over, shouldn’t everybody else get pulled over? In this case, I am given justice but not fairness. On the other hand, if everybody on the highway is going over 10 miles over the speed limit, and nobody gets pulled over, then there is fairness but no justice.
Of course, driving over the speed limit is not nearly as serious as killing somebody. In this case, it seems like many people are saying that Peter Liang did receive justice–he committed involuntary manslaughter and therefore deserves a sentence–but he was not extended fairness–so many other people who should have deserved a sentence have gotten away with it.
This concept reminds me of a parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16, in which he compared the kingdom of God to the owner of a vineyard and his laborers. In this parable, a man hires a bunch of people to work in a vineyard, agreeing to pay them all a denarius a day. And as the day goes on, he finds more people and hires them to work in his vineyard, continuing to do so until the day is almost over. At the end of the day, he gives everybody one denarius each. However, when those who were hired first saw this, they grumbled, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And in response, the owner of the vineyard said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
In this parable, Jesus highlights something about the way his kingdom works: it is just, but it is not fair. The owner’s payment to the original laborers matched what he had promised them, and therefore it was a just payment. However, those who worked less than those original laborers also received the same payment, and therefore it was not a fair payment. And the reason why this happened was because the owner chose to be generous with those who started working late. I find that fascinating! Generosity is usually seen as a positive thing, and fairness is also seen as a positive thing. But generosity actually makes things unfair. In the song Be My Escape, Relient K sings, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”
Was the sentencing of Peter Liang sentencing just? I think so. But was his sentencing fair? I don’t think so. Should he be sent to prison then? I cannot say. That is a complex issue that involves ethics, politics, and racism. I do not want to comment on what should happen with Liang, and I realize that I am disappointing you if you are expecting me to take a position on his case. However, I believe that Liang’s situation powerfully points to the story of Christianity. Yes, it might have been unfair for Liang to be sentenced to prison while so many others have gotten away, but there is a more fundamental system of unfairness that undercuts all of reality. And that is that Jesus was sentenced to death on a cross while so many have been given life.
According to Christianity, all human beings were given the responsibility of taking care of God’s creation, of mirroring God’s character on earth. In a sense, we were to be the police force of the world, advocating for God’s justice and righteousness as we governed creation. But all of us have sinned against God. We have all committed crimes against each other and against Him. And therefore, we all deserve justice. And justice for us entails death–eternal separation from God.
But then comes Jesus. Jesus was the figurative Commissioner Jim Gordon from Batman, the one good cop in a department full of bad ones. And Jesus brought about the Great Exchange: humanity, though guilty, was declared innocent; Jesus, though innocent, was declared guilty. And thus Jesus, the true scapegoat, was sentenced to death on a cross. Nothing in history has been as unfair as what happened to Jesus. But paradoxically, in this unfair exchange at the cross, the justice of God was achieved. And because of what Jesus did, justice for us now entails life–eternal communion with God.
So is the Christian faith just? Yes. But is it fair? No. But the beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair.