In the wake of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction a couple of weeks ago, my social media lit up with a new progressive talking point: The verdict was “accountability, not justice.” The refrain, which quickly became a meme, crystallized into a new orthodoxy by the time the sun went down. Within days, I had heard it from countless pundits, from members of Congress, from the American Civil Liberties Union.
So far as I’ve been able to understand, there are two main things people mean when they make this distinction. For some, the difference between accountability and justice is the difference between the individual and the system; while Chauvin's conviction means an individual person will be held accountable for his actions, the system that produced him remains unchanged. For others, it’s the difference between a part and the whole: The conviction is, at best, too little, too late. According to this reasoning, true justice would mean the end of racism or if George Floyd could go home to his family and friends. Convicting Chauvin doesn’t do any of that.
That’s all true. Police remain nigh untouchable. George Floyd remains pointlessly, horribly dead. If justice is about setting right what has gone wrong, about rebuilding and restoring what has been torn down, it’s hard to see how this conviction accomplishes much. Yet it’s a mistake to reserve the word “justice” for a utopian future or an idle wish that things were otherwise. Justice is a daily labor. Every act of repair is an act of justice.
The kernel of truth in saying that Chauvin’s conviction was “accountability, not justice” is that justice is about restoration. The meme marks a sea change in U.S. thinking about justice (I hope). Our public discourse has operated for a long time with a reductive and destructive understanding of justice as punishment: Someone commits a crime; they pay a penalty. That’s “justice.” “Justice” is served when the cell clicks closed. The mess that the crime left behind is more or less irrelevant. The needs of any victims are more or less irrelevant. The needs of the offender are irrelevant almost as a matter of principle.
Restorative justice advocates have spent decades trying to convince us to embrace a more holistic vision. Howard Zehr, in his classic book Changing Lenses, frames the distinction straightforwardly. A retributive justice paradigm understands crime as a violation of the rules of the state, and justice as the punishment of the guilty. A restorative justice paradigm sees crime as a violation of people and relationships, and justice as a communal process of repair and transformation.
As Zehr argues, the restorative justice paradigm is better aligned with the biblical tradition. In the Bible, justice is defined in relation to shalom. Zehr defines shalom as a comprehensive peace that includes the material, social, and spiritual flourishing of everyone, measured particularly by the condition of the poor. When the peace has been broken (as it always already has), justice sometimes involves punishment, but it nearly always involves mercy. What matters is what creates the conditions for genuine healing, both for the individuals immediately involved and for the wider community.
Perhaps the insistence that Chauvin’s conviction was about accountability rather than justice signals a turn in the public imagination toward this more restorative notion of justice. It seems at least to point toward a recognition that punishing Chauvin falls far short of what needs to be done to set things right. But I worry that we have only pushed the problem deeper down.
I think the meme has it exactly the wrong way around: Chauvin’s conviction was an act of justice, but it is a far cry from accountability.
When people affirm that Chauvin’s conviction was an example of accountability, they seem to simply mean that he will be punished. There is a lot of talk about accountability these days, and it seems to focus exclusively on making sure guilty people face consequences for their actions. It rarely has to do with setting things right. Our retributive understanding of justice has not actually gone away; it has just migrated. Now we’re defining accountability in the same reductive terms we once used to describe justice.
We need a restorative understanding of accountability, too. Accountability is a practice — a virtue — of calling for and offering honest accounts of our lives in response to others. It is an ethical rather than forensic idea. It is not merely a matter of declaring someone guilty and deserving of punishment, it involves confession and repentance and a new way of life. A legal conviction requires none of those things.
So what does a legal conviction do? A conviction is a considered determination that a wrong has been done. It gives the wrong a name and attests to it. It is fundamentally an act of truth-telling. And truth-telling is an integral part of justice. As Bryan Massingale has written, Chauvin’s conviction is no reason for celebration — again, little has changed — but it does bring a sense of vindication. For once, a court has affirmed that Black people were telling the truth. But as we approach the trials of the other three officers who have been charged in Floyd's death, it's unclear whether this ruling will create a new precedent.
In its classical philosophical definition, justice means rendering others their due. What we owe one another, what counts as a person’s due, is of course a central debate of what constitutes a moral life. But we can at least agree, I hope, that we owe one another the truth. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said that justice and truth both aim to establish a certain equality between people: To tell the truth is to submit ourselves to a common measure, to step into a shared reality. Without that, there is no possibility of recognizing a wrong to begin with, and certainly no way to pursue shalom.
We live in a society that lies again and again about Black suffering. The deepest and most common lie is that Black people have brought their suffering upon themselves. This is the lie that was told about Floyd, too. But Floyd deserves the truth. He did not bring his death upon himself. The police murdered him.
George Floyd was wronged in many, many ways, and he is due more than any human being can pay. No one but a God who resurrects the dead can work the full measure of justice now. But if we aim at any sort of restoration, we have to begin by naming the wrong that was done to him. That’s the only part of justice a legal conviction can accomplish, but it is a crucial part. To tell the truth is itself an act of repair.