What Is Justice? What Is Peace?

What is justice? What is peace? And how are they related?  Students consider these questions and the meaning of the chant "no justice, no peace," used by people protesting the police killing of Michael Brown - and by many past protesters.

To the Teacher

This lesson has been created in response to the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. It assumes that you and your students have already discussed Michael Brown's murder by police officer Darren Wilson. You might have them complete What Happened in Ferguson--and Why? to help them gather their thoughts and deal with their feelings about the killing. However, this lesson can also be used to explore the broader issue of peace and justice at any time.


  • define peace and justice
  • analyze the relationship between peace and justice
  • determine what actions follow from different understandings of the relationship between peace and justice 

Defining the Terms

1.  Have students write their definitions

Write the words peace and justice on chart paper or the board. Explain to students that in this lesson they will be looking at what these two words mean and how the concepts of peace and justice are related to each other. Ask students to write their own definitions of the words on a sheet of paper. Explain that the definitions should based on their own understanding of these words, not on what the dictionary says. Give them two minutes for the task. 

2. Discussion: What is "peace"?

Have students give you their sheets of paper. Without identifying who wrote which definition, read aloud their definitions of peace. Have one student serve as scribe, writing the definitions on the board under the word peace. (There's no need to write the same definition more than once.) Give students an opportunity to comment on the definitions if they wish. Then ask one student to have a go at putting the definitions together and stating a definition of peace that the whole class can use. Give other students the chance to modify that definition until the class has agreed on one definition.

3.  Discussion: What is "justice"?

Go through the same steps to define the word justice. Keep in mind that there may be more disagreement about what this word means than there was about peace.  Some people use it to refer to what is just or fair, while others use it as a synonym for punishment or revenge (as in the idiom brought to justice). Ask one student to look up and read aloud definitions of justice online or in a dictionary. Ask students why they think justice has come to be used to mean revenge or punishment. Have the class agree on one or more definitions of justice.


Peace, Justice, and the Murder of Michael Brown

1. Read the following aloud to students:

Angry residents of Ferguson, Missouri protested after Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014. Residents gathered day after day in the weeks following the killing. For the most part, they protested peacefully, holding signs and chanting things like "No gun, don't shoot." Occasionally, a few protestors looted stores in town. Police responded to the protests in riot gear, creating a military-like presence in the town. Despite calls from public officials for an end to the protests, sad and angry residents continued to congregate in town. Some wore T-shirts with Michael Brown's picture and the slogan "No justice no peace." Michael Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, told a reporter, "Justice will bring peace I believe." 


      Write these two quotations on the board so that students can see them: 
  • "No justice no peace."
  • "Justice will bring peace I believe." 

2. Divide the class into small working groups. Give students the following questions to help them discuss the two quotations. 

  • What do you think "No justice no peace" means?
  • Which definition of justice are you using to answer the question?
  • How does the meaning of the phrase change if you use a different definition of justice?
  • What do you think "Justice will bring peace I believe" means?
  • Which definition of justice are you using to answer the question?
  • How does the meaning of the phrase change if you use a different definition of justice?

Point out to students that using different definitions of justice might well lead to taking different actions.
3. Give students the following two prompts. Ask each student to complete the prompts in writing.

  • To prevent outbreaks of violence that are fueled by injustice, I would...
  • To respond to outbreaks of violence that are fueled by injustice, I would...

4.  Ask students to share what they have written with others in their group.  Ask them to identify what definition(s) of justice they have used in their writing.

Have a representative from each group share a summary of the group's discussion.


In a go-round, ask students to share one thought or feeling they take away from the discussion today.