LAST WEEK, I participated in a panel discussion at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley concerning the Oscar Grant/Johannes Mehserle shooting incident and the intersection of faith and justice.

There is a tendency to view faith and justice as correlatives. They can be, but it's not a given.

Justice is a problematic word in our discourse. Though used frequently, it carries multiple definitions.

Those who protested in Oakland used it on behalf of Grant. Those who protested in Walnut Creek used it on behalf of Mehserle.

What is justice? Is it fairness or revenge? Does justice possess the same definition politically, legally and theologically? Does justice only occur when it is our preferred outcome?

A district attorney seeking the death penalty who declares: "We want justice for the victim's family" cannot be compared with the Old Testament prophet Amos, who wrote: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Whenever one attempts to don the garments of justice, that person risks being blinded to other possibilities. Does justice for Grant blind us to the truth that two families are grieving from this absurd tragedy? Can justice allow us the luxury of being selective as to whose humanity is affirmed?

There also can be a self-righteous component associated with justice.

At the event in which I participated, someone said that you don't see black cops engaging in behavior similar to that which lead to Mehserle's conviction.

I quickly pointed out four New Orleans police officers, two black and two white, were recently charged with shooting and killing two unarmed African-Americans on a bridge in the days following Hurricane Katrina, and that they participated in a systematic attempt to cover up the crime.

To which someone countered, "But that's only two." I wonder if that is to suggest the absurd death of Grant at the hands of a white cop trumps the death of two innocent African-Americans at the hands of black cops.

At the foundation of the Grant absurdity was America's original sin of race. A white cop shot an unarmed black man; to many in the court of public opinion, case closed. And that's not to say there are no precedents for what I would define as justifiable rage, but race fuels emotion and emotions can rob us of judicious application, which makes us reactionary.

Race can falsely allow an individual to feel that his or her perspective is impervious to shortcomings.

Roughly 170 individuals have been murdered in Oakland since Grant tragically lost his life at the Fruitvale BART station 18 months ago. But the preponderance of our moral indignation was reserved for Mehserle.

As I wrote previously, not even shootings during Sunday worship service or at a funeral could rival the moral outrage of the Mehserle verdict.

During the Walnut Creek rally, a woman in support of Mehserle asked a Grant supporter, "would you want justice if a black cop shot a white person?"

Conversely, would she be out there in support of a black cop who shot a white person in the manner Mehserle shot Grant?

There is an absurdity within the human condition, like the death of Oscar Grant, which makes justice unachieveable in any classical sense.

However defined, justice is to live with an overt humility that at best we have knowledge of "a" truth and none of us are endowed with "the" truth.

Justice is not right versus wrong, good versus evil, or black versus white. The right will carry some wrong, the good will be influenced by the evil, and the black will be infiltrated by the white giving us a nuanced shade of gray.

As Martin Luther King wrote in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," we're all "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny." It seems impossible for justice of any variety to exist outside of that sphere.

If we cannot see the humanity in others, but offer extenuating circumstances for some who engage in similar behavior that we condemn in others, or simply view our preferred outcome as the only possibility, chances are it's not justice that we seek no matter how loudly we claim it.

Reach Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or e-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com.