Sunday, March 08, 2009

A UU Trilogy: Justice, Equity and Compassion

Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 8, 2009

Wanna sing a subversive song with me? "This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me."

Woody Guthrie, who wrote this familiar song, was a man of the people. He was no ivory-tower celebrity who spent millions on good causes by writing checks to large foundations. He was just a poor man who traveled far and wide to find work so that he could support his family during the Depression.

And though he was not a Unitarian like his pal Pete Seeger, he really had a handle on our Second Principle: that we affirm and promote Justice, Equity, and Compassion in Human Relations. He supported unions at a time when there was terrible violence against those who would organize working people. He refused to sing for soldiers unless all were permitted to attend the performance in a time when the Armed Forces were segregated.

In 1938, Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America" and Kate Smith made it famous, but Woody thought the song had it all wrong. There was no soul searching there, just blind patriotism expressed by the song, however beautiful and melodic it was, and he detected a refusal to look at what needed correcting in this country. So he sat down to write a song about what being an American meant to him and "This Land is Your Land" came into being.

Because this song was written by a man who was beaten and had his guitar busted over his head for sticking up for labor rights, it has special meaning and is not just a catchy tune, a fun song to sing.

When Woody wrote my favorite verse: "As I was walkin I saw a sign there and that sign said private property, but on the other side, it didn't say nothin', that side was made for you and me." he was expressing his sense that America was divided into the haves and the have nots and that this was not his idea of justice, equity, and compassion.

He also wrote this verse, which was not allowed on the airwaves for a time: "In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, near the relief office I see my people, and some are grumblin' and some are wonderin' if this land's still made for you and me."

Being wealthy didn't make America a good nation, in Woody's view. Being prosperous didn't mean much if you didn't share what you had, if you didn't try to help the little guy better his or her life. This song didn't make a lot of people happy, but Woody didn't do it for them. He did it for the ones who were beaten down by a system that refused them entrance; he wanted America to be their land too.

John Steinbeck once said "Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people don't know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and he is, in a way, that people. Harsh-voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight oppression. I think we call this the American spirit."

In these days, we are all worried about our bottom line, we are all wondering what will happen next in the fluctuations of the housing market, the financial institutions, prices at the grocery store, we are more and more on a playing field that has been leveled by common financial disaster. We are more and more challenged to make do with what we've got.

In the headlines and on the front pages, we see the downfall of institutions which did not offer true justice, did not treat people equitably, did not consider compassion something valuable. In the eight years of our former administration, we saw public leaders debased, shamed, and ejected for their ethical lapses. We saw wealthy CEOs scrambling to "get theirs" as financial institutions collapsed around them, as ordinary people lost their savings, as hard workers lost their jobs.

We have seen firsthand in these days what it means when justice, equity and compassion are lacking in a nation. And I hope we will see what it means when justice, equity, and compassion are the bedrock on which our nation operates.

I sometimes jump to conclusions about what words really mean---and I'm sometimes wrong---so I consulted a good dictionary for definitions of each of these words and was struck by what I learned.

Justice is, in a word or two, the existence of a proper balance in making judgments, hence the blindfolded figure with her scales held forth, illustrating that justice cares only for balance, that two (or more) qualities or items or outcomes or groups are equal to each other.

But I also wondered how better minds than mine have seen the quality of justice. Let's hear some quotes from some well-known people, regarding the concept of justice. (quotes followed--see later post)

As we flesh out what justice means for real human beings, particularly those who look at the world through a larger lens that we can, we see that it can have connections to the collective conscience, as seen by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to class differences in the eyes of Albert Einstein, to liberty according to Clarence Darrow, to identity with a community as seen by Elie Wiesel, to personal integrity in the eyes of Eugene Debs, and to the establishment of true peace according to the Dalai Lama.

We ourselves sort through the events of our own daily lives and weigh them on the scale of justice. Is it just to have a reservation system for the ferry? Is it fair to close certain schools and not others, as Seattle is debating? Do our news media report the news in a fair and balanced way? Did the referee make a fair call when she declared a runner out on first base in a close play?

Sometimes the justice of a decision can't be seen immediately. Sometimes we never see the justice of a decision or have to rely on others' reports to be assured that an outcome was fairly derived.

We get frustrated with both injustice and delayed justice and the Buddhist/Hindu idea of "karma", or that a person's good or evil deeds will have consequences later, often doesn't satisfy a Westerner's sense of right and wrong nor dampen the desire for vengeance.

Injustice inevitably has the outcome of resentment, anger, rebellion, and even violence. We see this happening every day; terrorists, for example, choose a violent and murderous path in response to perceived injustices by others. A pattern of violence tends to become endemic if injustice is not reversed so that justice prevails.

And what of equity? Equity is often used interchangeably with the term equality and yet equity actually refers to evenhanded treatment under the law. Equity was at stake when women asked for equal pay for equal work. Equity was at stake when a man of color was picked up for speeding when a white man was not.

And equity is at stake in this little rhyme, which you may remember:
"The rain, it raineth all about, upon the just and unjust fella,
But more upon the just because the unjust has the just's umbrella."

Let's hear what some great minds have had to say about equity. (quotes)

In these observations we hear a number of cogent applications of the concept of equity. There is the acknowledgment by DH Lawrence of equity's timelessness, that the day and age don't matter to the principles of ethics and justice, that equity does not change with the calendar.
Confucius skewered the small-minded person for going after profits rather than equitable treatment. Edmund Burke thought of equity as being part of the law of nature, steadfast and unchanging and equal in its application to all. Roger L'estrange condemned those laws which legalize and institutionalize inequity, even though he was not a particularly equitable person himself according to history. And Ambedkar pointed out the ties between equity and equality, as a fundamental reason for equal treatment.

So it would seem that justice and equity can be defined in fairly concrete terms, that there is little wiggle room in the application of justice and equity under the law, that no matter what, the law must be equally applied to all regardless of circumstance or handicap or age.

A developmentally delayed man is convicted of first degree murder and is sentenced to death. A woman who shoots and injures her abusive spouse is sentenced to 20 years in prison. A child who bullies other children after having been beaten up himself by an abusive father is expelled from school.

Wait a minute----something twitches in me when I learn about these kinds of scenarios and I'll bet it twitches in you too.

Yes, wrongdoing must be punished. Killing or injuring or abusing another person is wrong and deserves equal treatment under the law. But the man is developmentally delayed, perhaps even mentally ill. The woman lashed out in self-defense or retaliation after years of violence against her and her children. The child bully has been bullied all his life by his father.

What twitches in us at that moment, when we wonder if justice and equity are really unchanging, is our conscience, our inborn empathy and compassion for another's pain and the understanding that comes from knowing another's life story.

Oh boy, that muddies the picture, doesn't it?

Let's hear some observations about compassion from some well known people: (hear quotes)

Powerful thoughts from powerful thinkers and challenging to the rationality of the ideas of pure justice and pure equity.

My colleague the Rev. Martha Nussbaum, formerly a professor of philosophy, a prominent lecturer at the University of Chicago's Law School and connected with the World Institute for Development Economics Research, once wrote a small book entitled "Poetic Justice", in which she calls attention to the lack of adequate attention to the real life circumstances of human beings, as taught in law school.

In fact, I asked lawyer friends how much they'd learned about compassion in law school and the answer was "NOTHING". In fact, an old friend, Tom Gray, who went as far as to pass the bar but never practiced law, wrote: "One of the major memorable things I took away from law school is that the law is not about figuring out what is the RIGHT thing to do, but about knowing how close you can get to the edge of what is wrong without being illegal."

The study of law tends to disregard and discount human emotion and the complex social structures that are part of human life. Economics, particularly, is devoid of real life models, yet utilitarian economics tends to dominate public policy and legal decision making.

Nussbaum's suggestion in "Poetic Justice" is that those training to make critical legal decisions about others' lives need to read more novels!

I like that idea! And she goes on to flesh out her theory by highlighting the themes of classic literary novels in which real human living with all of its challenges is laid out in both its bleak and joyous moments. Dickens, Steinbeck, O'Connor, Austen, Conroy, the list of names is endless of those authors who have chronicled the human condition and from whom judges might learn.

One of the most powerful literary conversations in my memory hit me between the eyes when I was reading the Tolkien trilogy of novels entitled "The Lord of The Rings". Granted, this is not exactly real human living, but hobbits seem to have many human characteristics!

You may recall the story line, that the hobbit Frodo has come into possession of the Ring of Power and is on his way to cast it into the Crack of Doom and save MiddleEarth from destruction. But the creature Gollum, horribly deformed by his love of the Ring and determined to get it back from Frodo, pursues him and his companions, threatening them and making their trip even more hazardous.

Gandalf the Wizard is with Frodo when Frodo is most angry and fearful about this impossible journey. Here is that conversation.

'But this is terrible!' cried Frodo. 'Far worse than the worst that I
imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that
Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!'

'Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike
without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that(Bilbo) took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his
ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.'

I am sorry,' said Frodo. 'But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity
for Gollum.'

'You have not seen him,' Gandalf broke in.

'No, and I don't want to,' said Frodo. 'I can't understand you. Do you
mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those
horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy.
He deserves death.'

'Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some
that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager
to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all
ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but
there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My
heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before
the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many
- yours not least.'

Pity……. Mercy……. Compassion, a profound emotion prompted by the pain of others and a desire not to cause further pain, but to alleviate that pain, if possible. Compassion is at the root of human efforts to reach out to those in pain. Compassion tempers the stringencies of justice and equity. Compassion is the source of the Golden Rule, which is the foundation of all the world's major religious traditions.

Compassion is why we strive for marriage equality for all couples, because we can't help but see the pain caused when a loving family is denied recognition and justice. Compassion is why we reach out to the homeless, because we can't bear the thought that children are living in tents in the woods here on Whidbey. Compassion is why we work to find ways of reaching our returning veterans, many of whom are in terrible pain because of what their country has asked them to do.

Compassion is why we bring our food stuffs and paper goods to the food bank Good Cheer. Compassion is why we take stands against torture and religious persecution. Compassion is why we donate our money to support charities like Habitat and Hearts and Hammers and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and flood relief and the list goes on: Darfur, Sudan, Tibet, Iraqi civilians.

We cannot be immune to human suffering. In these hard times, when we may be struggling ourselves, financially and worried about the world's economy, we may find that reaching out to others who are in worse need gives us the strength to be optimistic even in the face of hard times. We are all part of the interdependent web; we can lean on each other and by doing so, provide support for others.

Let me close with these words, written when I was a member of the Caring Committee of Jefferson Unitarian Church, in Golden, Colorado. I think they apply to us here today as well:
"We (are) a church where each member is a minister and with each smile, each kindness, each word of encouragement, every offer of help, every hug and touch, every moment spent listening to another, we knit up the rips and tears in the interdependent web and bring each other closer to spiritual wholeness."

Let's pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that while we work for justice and equity in our land, we must also offer compassion for those who are in pain, no matter which side of the law they are on. May we do what we can to ease each other's pain in this human life and may we find the many rewards of living with justice, equity and compassion. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.

Albert Einstein:

I regard class differences as contrary to justice and, in the last resort, based on force.

Clarence Darrow:

You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom. You can only be free if I am free.

Elie Wiesel:

This is the duty of our generation as we enter the twenty-first century -- solidarity with the weak, the persecuted, the lonely, the sick, and those in despair. It is expressed by the desire to give a noble and humanizing meaning to a community in which all members will define themselves not by their own identity but by that of others.

Eugene V. Debs:

Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.

the Dalai Lama:

Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.

“Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar.”
D.H. Lawrence

"Of all injustice, that is the greatest which goes under the name of law; and of all sorts of tyranny the forcing of the letter of the law against the equity, is the most insupportable”
Roger L'Estrange

“There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity - the law of nature, and of nations.”
Edmund Burke

“The proper man understands equity, the small man profits.”

“Justice has always evoked ideas of equality, of proportion of compensation. Equity signifies equality. Rules and regulations, right and righteousness are concerned with equality in value. If all men are equal, then all men are of the same essence, and the common essence entitles them of the same fundamental rights and equal liberty... In short justice is another name of liberty, equality and fraternity.”
B. R. Ambedkar (Indian Politician and founder Of the Indian Constitution.)

Barack Obama:
You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit -- the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us -- the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this -- when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers -- it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Arnold Schopenhauer:
Compassion is the basis of morality.

George Washington Carver:
How far you go in life depends on you being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.

the Dalai Lama:
Compassion is the radicalism of our time. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.


ms. kitty said...

Sorry, Robin, interesting but not really on-topic.

Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, with your permission I'd like to use your sermon in my Comp II classes. We read a great deal of works that have to deal with justice, and this might really open their eyes/hearts. So many of them are in school only to get that piece of paper on the wall--higher education is only a means to an end, not a way to develop their minds or make the world a better place--and they're concerned with that "bottom line" only.

Thank you for such a beautiful sermon.

Bill Baar said...

As the biotech industrialists prepare to barter off people for the common good...

Michael West of Alameda, California-based biotech BioTime says his company stands to profit from Obama's decision almost immediately. It just bought dozens of stem cell batches, or lines, from a Chicago fertility clinic and wants to sell them to newly empowered researchers.

No empathy here... only human beings (and Chicagoan's at that) commodified for a profit.

ms. kitty said...

Wow, Miss Kitty, I am honored that you want to use the sermon in your class. You have my permission to correct any grammar or spelling or punctuation mistakes before you give it to them!

ms. kitty said...

Bill---no empathy, nor equity, if you take Confucius seriously: “The proper man understands equity, the small man profits.”