Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Transformative Justice in Ferguson

Mikael Pelz


By Mikael Pelz

November 24, 2014


As our nation waits for the grand jury's decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, we will find no shortage of views on what justice demands in this and similar situations of racial divisions. In one obvious respect, justice in Ferguson could mean the conviction of the white officer who shot this black teenager. This is a determination based on the facts of this case, which may be emblematic but separate from the larger question of racial justice for all. A charge or no charge in this case, as symbolic as both might be and as much relief as it would provide those aggrieved by this tragedy, will not likely lead to a systematic change in how Ferguson or any other city addresses racial relations.

In any case, justice should not stop here. This moment requires larger societal transformation. 

The greatest danger at this juncture is that we adopt a narrow version of justice based on our own ideological predilections and moorings and miss the transformative nature of justice altogether. For example, the realities underlying African-American communities like Ferguson tend to elicit two distinctive narratives on the nature of the problem plaguing these communities. Progressives rightly point to inequalities in social structures that lead to economic segregation and unequal treatment under the law. These conditions necessitate government intervention such as public assistance and support as well as additional legal protections.

Conservatives, on the other hand, cast the plight of the inner city as primarily cultural, as Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly remarked, "If you really want poor black children to have a better shot in life, why not send a three-word text to Jay-Z: 'Knock it off!'" This perspective confronts destructive cultural messages in these communities and the hopelessness they generate and focuses on issues of law and order and elevating the moral character found in these communities. 

But why must we choose one of these accounts?  While our political discourse prods us to pick one side over the other, doing so improperly places ideology above justice, or as political theorist David Koyzis argues, renders ideologies and the identities they create into a subtle form of idolatry. As he explains in his book, Political Visions & Illusions, “Ideologies are ‘goal-oriented’ and subordinate principles and means to the achievement of these goals.” (186) Thus, by adopting one ideology exclusively, we are serving the goals of that ideology rather than the broader pursuit of justice. Moreover, these ideologies only serve to divide us rather than uniting us in the name of the greater good and, in the process, deliver a rather incomplete understanding of justice. Finally, using an ideological filter does not often usher the self-exploration or social relationships that construct more meaningful and communal notions of justice.

The truth is that justice in Ferguson and elsewhere requires the good embedded in all ideologies, as each outlook reveals a unique and propitious facet of God’s created order. When this good can be seen in each ideological persuasion, we enable an unbounded view of justice to speak forcefully to all of the underlying detrimental human and social conditions in divided communities like Ferguson. Progressivism prompts us to evaluate the economic and legal structures in these communities and the opportunities therein and to empower policy makers to address the apparent racial inequities in these systems. Modern conservatism encourages us to question the cultural and moral climate and to look to faith communities, educational institutions, and families to cultivate more edifying and beneficent values within society.

The principles of democracy should also force us to reexamine the representative nature of government and government agencies and to lean on elected officials, reformers, and community leaders to correct the deficit of minority voices in these public organizations and, in turn, reclaim their political legitimacy. Our classical liberal foundations compel us to protect everyone’s individual liberties and, as a result, allow citizens both individually and corporately to freely express their political views and grievances. Finally, our Republican roots inspire us to carefully listen to the pain, anguish, and pleas of our fellow citizens and thoughtfully ask what the common good demands. 


- Mikael Pelz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”