Parsing justice in The People v. O.J. Simpson

Josh Pease

I was 14 when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. Our English teacher set up a television in the classroom so we could watch it, saying this would be an important cultural moment to remember. The truth is my memory of the entire Simpson saga is fuzzy and inconsistent, but as I’ve been watching FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, I’ve remembered something I felt during that trial.

As a kid, I had the distinct impression that I had to choose between two realities: that racism was a valid part of the O.J. discussion or that bringing it up was a cynical tactic by a dream team of lawyers who’d do anything to win. It was either/or. And in my very white, Republican, Midwestern Christian world, there was definitely a “correct” choice. The idea there could be validity to both sides — that justice could be found in more than one point of view — was never taught to me.

One of the many things I appreciate about The People v. O.J. Simpson, a dramatic recreation of the drama surrounding the trial, is how it avoids this either/or approach. The show pretty clearly believes two things are true: O.J. Simpson was almost certainly guilty of murdering two people, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s abysmal track record toward African-American men meant that the question of race could not be ignored. The first scene of the first episode reminds us that the Rodney King beating and consequent riots took place just two years before the Simpson trial. And throughout the show we see the inability of white people — specifically the prosecutors and some of Simpson’s own lawyers — to truly understand the extent of the hostility toward and fear of the LAPD in the black community. The People v. O.J. Simpson suggest two things might be true at the same time: that defense attorney Johnnie Cochran may have been wrong about O.J.’s innocence, but right about the plight of black men caught in L.A.’s law enforcement and judicial systems.

This rejection of the “either/or,” false choice speaks deeply to my own wrestling with what it means to talk about racism as a follower of Jesus. In 2014, African-American teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. Brown’s killing catapulted to the front pages the racial tensions always lurking beneath the surface in America. Quickly the national conversation became either/or. Either Brown’s death further legitimized the Black Lives Matter movement as a heroic, much-needed response to the racism that permeates American society, or Brown was an unruly youth who provoked the officer, forcing him to act in self-defense. Either/or. Which side are you on? (The officer, Darren Wilson, was eventually legally vindicated in the case.)

Jesus’ side is for justice, everywhere it can be found.

For a long time I felt torn between this choice. On the one hand how could I ignore the stories — the hundreds of stories — I was hearing from African-Americans explaining that to be a black man in the United States is to live in fear of the police and under discrimination. How could I ignore the indisputable research showing that if you are black you are less likely to be hired, less likely to make an equal wage and more likely to be incarcerated?

And yet, on the other hand, what if I disagree with some elements of Black Lives Matter’s agenda or methods? Does standing with my black brothers and sisters in Christ mean condoning some significantly different beliefs we have about politics, theology and other issues?

And then I remembered…

I remembered a time when religious leaders brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus. Where was the man? Why take her to Jesus? The answer is these leaders were creating an either/or moment. Either you condemn this woman’s act as sin — in which case she can be stoned — or you say adultery is acceptable and ignore God’s law. Either/or. Which side will Jesus pick?

The mistake the leaders made was assuming Jesus was confined to the world’s side. Jesus, as it turns out, is always and only on His side. And Jesus’ side is for justice, everywhere it can be found. And so Jesus tells the leaders that whoever is without sin can throw the first stone. So they all walk away. And once everyone had left — when the either/or dynamic was dismantled — he told the woman to go and sin no more. Jesus was not going to let this woman be used as a pawn in someone else’s game, but he also loved her enough to tell her to pursue a better life than the one she’d chosen. Justice is never either/or for Jesus. 

I don’t mention this story to draw a direct parallel to the one recounted in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Yet watching the show, I found myself remembering that I don’t have to participate in the either/or dynamics that have defined much of the conversation regard racial justice in the United States. As a follower of Jesus, I'm called to be about justice, and justice for all.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, News & Politics, Justice, North America