In a conversation with a Malawian friend I discovered that he had been off work for two days. He was attending the funeral of his niece. There is nothing extraordinary about this. In a country of 16 million people in an area roughly the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, there are a lot of funerals.
Being friendly I expressed my condolences. He went on to talk about the circumstances of his niece’s death. She was beaten, all night, by her husband. She had the temerity to ask him for the phone number of his “girlfriend.” As shocking as this was to me, sadly there is nothing extraordinary about it.
Violence against women worldwide is horrible and in some cultures, such as Malawi, it is more prevalent. There is no other way of putting it: my friend’s niece was murdered by her husband and deserves justice.
It is in this demand for justice that things become more complicated. I pressed my friend, “Surely the police came and arrested him? He’s in jail, right?” The look I received was a mixture of confusion and shock. “No. We talked about it as a family. God will bring justice, for only God knows.”
To my Canadian way of thinking this idea that the family would choose not to pursue any kind of criminal justice is, to put it mildly, insane. Perhaps even callous. Certainly wrong. She deserves justice.
Upon further reflection, there are a number of plausible explanations about why my friend would be so sanguine about the issue of justice. An explanation in this case does not justify the murder nor diminish the horror of her death nor lessen the demand for justice. Instead, an explanation provides a coherent reason why the Canadian way might not make sense in this context.
One plausible reason is that the family does not trust the Malawian justice system. Even in relatively functioning justice systems a case like this is a nightmare for the family. In a justice system that barely functions, that is rife with inefficiencies and corruption, justice might never come. Why pursue the state form of justice if there is no reasonable expectation of a positive outcome?
Another explanation may be more pragmatic. Say he was arrested, tried, and convicted. Now he goes to jail. He does not cease to be part of the family system and that membership carries both responsibilities and obligations. The extended family would be required to provide some basic sustenance to him while he is in prison, in addition to looking after the small motherless child. If he was a breadwinner for the larger family this is a double tax—they must provide food for him and he is not bringing any money into the family. This hardly seems like justice since it is the victims who continue to pay.
Perhaps there is an explanation that makes little to no sense to Canadian ears but is something that many Malawians would consider. That is, perhaps parts of the family have paid for a curse to be placed upon the murderer. The exchange of money for either blessings or curses is a relatively common practice in Malawi. Anecdotally, this idea that a “witch doctor” can curse someone is not relegated to some ignorant lower class. All walks of life participate to varying degrees in this kind of thinking. It is possible that someone in the family has looked after justice by paying for it.
Which leads to a final, perhaps more challenging, explanation. Perhaps my friend is right. Maybe God will provide justice. The idea that curses and blessings are an everyday part of reality is predicated on the assumption that the spiritual is as, maybe more, real than the physical. Canadians would by and large sneer at the idea that God could provide justice but in doing so may betray an underlying assumption that Malawians don’t make: that the physical is more real than the spiritual. The Western mindset believes that justice that happens in God’s time is not justice because it does not happen in this time and space. For my friend, God’s justice is as real, maybe more, than any justice flawed human institutions such as the state could provide. Is this not a faithful and theologically defensible position?
I continue to believe that we must, in the name of Christ, continue efforts to protect and empower women worldwide. Murder is wrong. This situation though raises a tricky question of what does justice really mean in this situation. Murder is wrong in all cases but responding to it can be futile or hurt even more. Murder is wrong but perhaps because it is a case of life and death, we need to consider that human justice is insufficient. Necessary but insufficient in the face of a spiritual reality that is greater than our material world.
In the coming days there will be follow up posts to this one offering deeper theological analysis and some ways that the Presbyterian Church in Canada is responding to the issue of gender based violence. I chose not to use a picture for this post due to its nature.