Noel Benno speaks to Justice Kurian Joseph, former judge of the Supreme Court of India about the Christian conscience and sense of justice.

Do you mind giving us a glimpse of your journey with Christ and how it has influenced your life and worldview?

I’ve been so fortunate to have been born in a Catholic family. We were a very traditional family, from a rural background. My father was a clerk in the High Court where I later became a judge, when he retired. He had to travel two hours every day to work, and always had a rosary with him on his belt. Throughout the journey, he would pray the Rosary. This was something that influenced me, from early on. 

Two of my sisters are now Carmelite nuns. When we were kids, they would take us to church daily. From a very young age, I wanted to be an altar boy. By the time I was seven, I was already serving at the altar for the Syrian rite Holy Mass. Later on, I became part of the Catholic children’s association, Holy Childhood (Thirubalasakhyam in Kerala), CLC, and much later Mission League, in addition to my catechism classes. It was a life close to the Church and spiritual exercises. Daily Holy Mass and evening family prayer with the Rosary had a huge impact on my childhood. 

Slowly I began to experience the beauty of being a Catholic and started to be aware of the nourishment I received from Holy Mass. All this made me dwell on how Christ would have responded, or how a Christian should respond. Soon after I had cleared my secondary school education, I joined the seminary hoping to be a priest. But the Lord had other plans for me, and after two-and-a-half years, I came back. However, that period helped me a lot to learn about the Scripture, deeply experience fruits of retreats, recollection of conscience, etc. I began to realise what a conscience was, and the need to form a Christian conscience. 

Christian conscience is something that can be formed. Since conscience shows us when we go wrong, we can distinguish between what is right and not. But how is it formed? It is just like a computer – the output is based on what is fed into it. Ultimately, I came to realise that unless one is holy, one cannot be a spiritual person; unless one is humble, one cannot be holy, unless you are simple, holiness can’t be achieved. Holiness in itself takes in many qualities – humility, simplicity, honesty, truthfulness and commitment to core values of spiritual learning. The greatest advantage was that I could form within myself a Christian conscience. Any action or reaction from myself is always prompted by that conscience, formed as a Christian.

Regular attendance of Holy Mass has been central to your prayer life. How influential have the sacraments been in your professional life?

We are people of the flesh and people of the spirit. The flesh always takes us to the wrong, camouflaging itself as right. Human nature is such that it is bound to fall. While we are inherently called to holiness, we have to battle our desires of the flesh. There is this likelihood of our committing wrong. And if we have, how do we come out of it? Of course, we are not condemned forever.  It is here that Jesus tells me, ‘Kurian, when you fall, you still are in my hands. You don’t fall out of my hands.’

Jesus gives me the chance to come back, the sacraments have always helped me realise, acknowledge and then come back to him. That has been the advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation. And when after it, you receive Holy Communion, and continue to receive the Holy Eucharist, it strengthens your inner self. Unless your inner self is strong, you cannot strengthen your outer self. So, my greatest advantage is that by making my inner self strong, I’ve been able to make my outer self stronger. This strength I have received from the Holy Eucharist. 

Mother Mary is called an advocate, she pleads for protection of the dignity of the person. That’s what she did at the wedding in Cana, advocating for the host who otherwise would have lost his self-respect. So after the Eucharist, it is Mother Mary who has also helped me to champion the cause of justice.

How does one develop a Christian mind or a Christ-centred approach to their daily life, in the context of aspiring for a world of justice?

Justice is a very abstract concept. Understanding what justice is in a given context, for a given person at the given time is very important. That’s why Jesus interpreted justice by saying it is the spirit of law, not the letter of law. Courts of law, in which I myself was a lawyer and judge, interpret justice from man-made law. So application of law is actually justice. Suppose a wrongdoer gets an appropriate punishment, it is said that justice has been done. And a person whose rights were denied him, on approaching the courts, get this restored, he will say justice has been done. If I lose, I will say, justice has failed. That’s a travesty of justice. It is a law court and not a justice court. So in the court of law, they will only look into what this law is and apply that. Whereas the justice that Jesus Christ preached, and what every Christian is called to follow, goes beyond law. 

This is why St Joseph is called a just man. When he came to know that Our Lady was with child, before their marriage, he was entitled to withdraw from their engagement according to the law at that time. But instead of giving Mary up to the cruelty of the law, he chose to respect her dignity without publicly putting her to shame. He saved her dignity, and at the same time, responded to the situation appropriately. He saw justice beyond law and that is why he is called a just man. And in a given context, this justice ultimately protects respect, protects and promotes the dignity of the person, because the person is the image and likeness of God. As a Christian, each one of us has a duty to respect the other, who is the image and likeness of God. We are called to respect their individuality, dignity, and uphold that. This is where Christian consciousness of justice comes in. 

So it’s not just a passive life where you don’t do any harm. Beyond that, this consciousness of justice requires you to uphold the dignity of another person. You are called to recognise, respect and promote the seen presence of God in your brethren. If these brethren have not been able to realise that dignity, that worth of their life being children of God, then it is your duty to help them realise that. This is the justice that Jesus wants us to uphold. 

So justice is not only avoiding wrong done but that you do everything possible according to your conscience to help others be as dignified as you are. This is to bring about the kingdom of heaven – which is exactly the value of justice in a Christian context.

What was your inspiration to take up a profession in law?

I’m a first generation lawyer. Nobody in my family had taken up law. Except for the fact that I’d been to the High Court a few times in my early childhood, to visit my father who used to work in the administrative section, I’ve never had any acquaintance with lawyers or judges. Somehow, I had a flair for public speaking and debating right from my childhood, and that allowed me get involved in certain activities. I was a student leader in my school and college days. And I always had this notion that I had to be a person who’d take a stand, if needed argue for it and win for it. An inner call to be a spokesman to speak up for others. This actually is the role of a lawyer.

With public speaking and debating, there are certain activities where one is always involved in public affairs. My involvement with AICUF (an organisation of Catholic university students) brought an inner call to do justice, a commitment to the betterment of society, to the concept of social justice and social responsibility. I suppose all these factors contributed to my choosing a profession in law. My father and my family had expected me to get a job immediately after graduating, as my father had retired by then and was not in a position to support my pursuing law. Also law courses then were only offered in a private law college, in Trivandrum, very far away from home. But God took care of me. My brother got employed in a bank by then and was able to help my law studies. 

Being a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, I assume you’ve had to tackle many dilemmas in your professional life. How does one discern the right thing when faced with some of life’s toughest dilemmas?

If you want to have proper discernment, particularly in the profession of administration of justice, you need to have complete objectivity – where you approach an issue with a completely open mind. That’s why when I take oath, as a judge, my oath is that I will discharge my duties to the best of my knowledge, ability and will do it, without fear, without favour, without affection and without ill will. So all these things are to be astute, then your mind becomes clean and you are in a position to think straight, uninfluenced by your learnings, personal biases, personal philosophy – because you only see before you a man crying for justice. 

This is where my Christian conscience helped me, because when you are sitting there as a judge, you forget about the whole world, and think about all aspects of the matter. When you do this, uninfluenced by your personal philosophies, or biases, then you will be in a position to make a proper decision, and discern wisely. At that moment, the Holy Spirit will guide you. But if you want the Holy Spirit to work in you, you will have to keep away from the other spirits and seek guidance from that Supreme Spirit. For the Holy Spirit to work, your mind should be a clean slate. A clean conscience will always bring the right discernment – this applies everywhere, not just to law. Sometimes we are unable to make right decisions because we don’t keep a clean conscience. A clear mind and a clean conscience are the two biggest challenges in this profession. 

Decision-making under pressure could be at the same time very challenging and an art. What is your strategy when navigating such occasions?

Even as a judge, I’m involved in activities where I can, within the limits of my profession, go to the people for public service, or for matters pertaining to public affairs, and speak at events. But pressures of those kind have no effect on my professional duty as a judge, because the moment I touch a case, I pray for the case. And my prayer is this, ‘Lord, let the cause of justice not suffer because of my lack of knowledge, or lack of thorough preparation. If justice suffers, the shame is on you!’ In this way, I negotiate and put the burden on him. And that is what he has told us – ‘Why carry the burden when I am there? Why should you carry something on your head when you are travelling on a boat? Just put it down.’ 

I tell the Lord that I cannot possibly understand, discern or make the right decision without his help. Besides, I don’t belong to the ‘intellectual category’, though some of my friends and fellow judges are known intellectuals. I always humbly acknowledge before the Lord that I’m not as sharp or as intelligent as others. And so my prayer is that any inadequacy of mine should not be to the cost of justice. This absolute surrender to God – this complete trust in his ability and not mine – is what enabled me to handle all cases without distress, and take up a larger volume of work. 

I happen to be one of the ten judges in the history of the Supreme Court of India, who have written over a thousand judgments and dispensed around ten-thousand cases. The reason is that I don’t carry the burden. I have experienced that now; when somebody takes five minutes to get to a point, I was able to get to it in five seconds. That was the work of the Holy Spirit in me and I definitely acknowledge and humbly say that without the help of God, I wouldn’t have been able to function.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6). Who in your perspective are the ones who hunger and thirst for justice? 

This verse from the Sermon on the Mount is about helping those who hunger and thirst for justice. If you take up their cause, speak out for them, help them realise that they too are children of God, entitled to equal dignity and share the same fraternity with you – you will be blessed. 

So it’s not your hunger but the realisation of the hunger and thirst for justice for people who are voiceless, the marginalised, the least, the last, and the lost. It is those people who are really hungry and thirsty for justice. So if you do something to quench their thirst, and if you do something to satisfy their appetite, by helping them get real justice in society, experience dignity as a person, and restoration of their rights; or helping them break free of the oppressions of injustice, you will be blessed, because you have realised the hunger, and you understood the thirst of those people who have been denied justice on account of oppressive circumstances or oppressive structures.

You needn’t be a lawyer to do this. For example, if you are travelling in a bus and you see someone harassing a fellow passenger, the normal tendency is to keep quiet and close your eyes, like the first two people in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ll conveniently behave as if we have not seen it, and as if they have not seen that we have seen it, like an escapism. But when you take up the cause of the weak person who is oppressed or exploited and speak out for them, then you become someone who hungers and thirsts to see justice done to the person who was denied it.  

There are times when we fail to be just in our personal lives and it becomes a matter of pain for us. How do we go about remediating the injustice caused by us? 

Definitely it should be a matter of pain. Only then do you realise that you have some Christian conscience left in you. If it is a repairable situation then go back and repair it. If it is a remediable situation, go back and remedy it. But if not, then take your best efforts to make sure such situations do not recur in your life, and muster the strength so that in situations henceforth you will never be a timid person or a coward, and do whatever is possible to protect the rights of others. You won’t be able to change the whole world but you will be able to make a difference in the world of that one person who has been denied justice. It is not as if we have never ever been unjust. Yes, there have been situations where one feels I could have done it better. This realisation helps you become stronger, bolder and more committed to the cause of justice.

The ongoing war has sent out waves of uneasiness across the globe. With rising levels of atrocities at both national and international levels, how do we the common folk convince ourselves that there is hope for justice to prevail?

My feeling is that God is not blind to this. God has also created enough people with their outer and inner eyes open. Someday God will help them realise that it is on account of their lapses that this sort of injustice happens. This is where the role of intercessory prayer comes relevant. This will help those people who have become complacent with injustices, to stop being complacent and start fighting for those who have been denied justice. War is always an oppression of the weak and not really two forces fighting. If you look at Ukraine and Russia, it is an invasion of the strong over the weak. Nations and societies should universally raise their voice. We can pray, ‘God, let there be a realisation in the minds of people of the wrong they are doing. Help them do their part to resist this evil and stand up for justice.’ Ultimately justice should prevail and justice will prevail. We could also pray, ‘Lord, let your time to intervene in this injustice come to pass, and send your men as you have done in the past.’ God has fixed times and he has sent persons in the past. 

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