Justice for Grenfell?

by Mike Long.

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

Justice for Grenfell?

For years following the Grenfell Tower disaster until coronavirus intervened, a silent march set out from the Methodist Church on the 14th of every month at 7pm. The ending is always the same: a brief speech or speeches, then the final rallying cry as the crowd join in repeating the leader’s call many times: ‘Justice! Justice! Justice! Justice……’

What does ‘Justice for Grenfell’ mean? For many of those joining in the cry, there is a clear idea of what justice means: accountability for those who constructed and managed the tower, and those responsible for ensuring safety both before and during the fire. There is also the expectation that justice cannot be delivered without individuals being convicted in a public trial. There seem to be two elements in this particular expression of justice: transparency and judgement.

An important feature of Justice for Grenfell is the public airing of what has happened: for the bereaved, survivors and local community there is a strong emotional need for their story to be told, and for their experiences to be heard, validated. This is not so much an attempt to correct misinformation in the public realm, for example as with the families of the Hillsborough tragedy, but the product of being disregarded and marginalised over a long period of time; a prominent Grenfell campaigner has referred to ‘institutional neglect’. At Grenfell this translated into unheeded warnings about fire safety made by a residents’ group, and complaints dismissed in ways that made them feel like ‘second-class citizens’. But the Grenfell Tower fire also plays into a wider local narrative that they are often dismissed and disregarded by authorities. Perhaps because they are black, or immigrant, or social housing tenants, or simply living in North Kensington.

So ‘justice’ for Grenfell is more than a deep, sometimes visceral, longing for culpable persons and organisations to receive due sanction: it is, at heart, about truth. Truth that exposes wrongdoing in its entirety, and is broadcast in the public realm; truth that validates the accounts of those who felt marginalised, and affirmed as persons of integrity and worth. Such a justice might then be able to deliver the oft-quoted mantra of learning lessons from the tragedy, that such tragic events must never be able to occur.

In the case of Grenfell, the difficult question is how truth and (especially) sanction can be obtained when, most likely, responsibility for the tragedy lies with many people and across a plethora of companies and agencies. There is a real fear that culpability will be so widely spread as to prevent individuals being held to account. Many in the local community sense a clear idea of who is responsible, and there can be a disjunct of understanding as to how people behave within systems. That is not to excuse criminally careless, neglectful or false behaviour, but to recognise the fog that can hinder clear identification of individual responsibility.

Sometimes truth takes priority, even at the expense of retributive justice. This was a key feature of the Truth and Reconciliation Programme in South Africa following the end of apartheid, recognising that figures with significant information might never reveal information if faced with the prospect of prosecution. In that context, the need for transparency was paramount, and the agenda was fostering healing in an utterly broken, divided society. In other realms (child abuse, for instance) no amount of disclosure would forestall prosecution. At Grenfell the prospect of the Public Inquiry granting immunity from prosecution has been greeted with alarm.

Where does Christian justice lie in all this? It is more than putting right in a retrospective, retributive sense. But it does involve putting right in the sense of adherence to God’s kingdom, which is shown in the life and teaching of Jesus to indicate a priority for the excluded and the outsider, the downtrodden and marginalized: think of the parables where Jesus speaks about the kingdom as being like a feast, or judgement (eg Matt 25: 31 – 46), or where he describes those who are truly blessed. This focus on the kingdom of God opens up a future in which people will not live in fear of flat fires. It is not based upon some notion of fairness – because that is an insufficient valuing of human worth – but on love for all that attends to the most broken and vulnerable and ushers in the possibility of a wider justice.

Some measure of punishment without truth may satisfy some campaigners, but I doubt for long. Ultimately truth is a prerequisite to justice, because it opens to door to awareness not only about what happened but the causal processes, and to empowerment for change. And the truth can be hard to bear – particularly in a polarised environment, but can also set free.

For those at Grenfell marches calling out for justice, nothing less will do.

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