Sustaining Justice: A Sermon By George M. Thompson

Dec 20, 2010 | Blog

On Sunday, November 7, our Faith in Community Coordinator George Thompson delivered this beautiful sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham. You can hear the sermon here (mp3).

The following is a revised and much reduced version of that sermon.

While justice may begin with enforceable legislation, it requires public participation from all within the society, culture, country or community to be sustainable, in my opinion.  Justice is not something we can hire or elect others to do for us.  It, like all relationships, cannot be done by proxy.  It requires our own participation, our own commitment, our own energy.  At the same time, it can be done at anytime and by anyone.  It can be seen in the simplest of acts and can be seen in the most powerful of movements.  It is something that can be tied to all our decisions – tied to our very fabric as members of any group. But the rub comes with what defines “group”.  Is it my family, not yours?  Is it my religion, not yours?  So with justice, in order for it to be sustainable, it needs to be universal.  This is so eloquently stated in a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. – “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So what about the recent elections? While I am not going to pander to the conversations already in proliferation on both sides of the argument, I do want to look at something far deeper and far more evasive.  This is not about an election, this is not about a competition between left and right, or between Democrats and Republicans, or between the quasi-religious and the truly religious – and remember those terms define both sides depending on which side is doing the defining.  This is about democracy, about justice, about the fabric of society.

When indeed did we allow democracy to be a competitive sport?  I don’t mean elections; I mean democracy.  When did we allow human rights to be determined by “majority rule”?  When did we start believing that being blessed by wealth is a sign of being blessed by God?  When did religion stop being a tool for living and become the battle cry to align with power?  When did it become common to equate balanced coverage on an issue to equal marketing of both viewpoints?  Yes, “the long arm of the moral universe might bend toward justice,” but there is a shadow to that arm that is also long.  But in my opinion it is not about arguing which is longer, the arm or the shadow, the issue is how can we, today, now, refocus on the issue of justice to make it sustainable and substantial enough so that even the shadow can become a tool for strengthening the arm.

Today, more and more people argue that “majority rule” is a characteristic feature of democracy, if not the very foundation of it.  But history has taught us that without the protection of individual liberties, it is possible for any minority to be oppressed by the “tyranny of the majority”.   From our own religious stories we learn of the fate of majority rule.  Remember the golden calf?  Remember what happened when the majority determined the right way to worship and the right God to worship?

More importantly, what about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?  The sin of Sodom is stated in Ezekiel 16:48-49 “This was the guilt of Sodom:  Its citizens had pride, abundant food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The sin that brought the curse to the city was not as touted by those fanning fear these days, claiming the “curse of sexual perversion.” No it had nothing to do with sex, it had everything to do with the sin of refusing to help those in need, those who are strangers.  When power uses fear to justify the abuse of others, that power unravels the very fabric of society. Fear does not lead to cooperation between groups, it leads to factionalism and division and separatism.  Walls are built, gates are shut, lynching takes place in full view, wars are waged and lives are lost.

Why the stranger?  There is extreme importance placed on caring for the stranger throughout the holy texts – listening to the voice of the stranger, the minority, and the outcast.  That is the only way to uncover the shadow.  This is not a shadow that can be cut from the fabric of the culture; it is part of it.  Listening to the oppressed, the overlooked, and the stranger is the only means by which we can see that change is needed, otherwise we retreat to fatty feasts blind to the beggar under the table.   It becomes critical to listen to the voices of those oppressed, abandoned, overlooked and ignored – those criticized for not fitting in, for not choosing or believing what the majority does.  If we try to do good without listening, we have only the clanging brass of “charity” without the clarion call for “Justice”.

Here at GBM, we run up against the wall of fear in many congregations where being good means giving to the poor.  It means nothing about caring for them, or listening to them, or building a relationship with them.  Charity alone, no matter how good, is about keeping the status quo.  It is simply a transaction between those who have and those who have not.  Power and control always stays in the hands of those who have.

Justice on the other hand creates great potential for change and is a great threat to the status quo.  It requires listening to the “other” to hear why the person is in need.  This often requires hearing how systems are failing – and I don’t mean only systems of government or culture.  The systems of businesses, of agencies, of non-profit organizations, of congregations, of neighborhoods, and of families can all be broken and dysfunctional.  It requires those in control to listen to the critical opinions of others to deeply hear the need for change and to be patient enough to work with those critical of the systems to mend and repair and create new forms of systems.

Though I am not an expert at helping people open up to such types of critical exchanges, I have learned from my experiences a few tips.

I believe that in order to truly hear and understand what the stranger, the other, the critical client or friend might have to say, I have to have a certain comfort with self doubt.  If I go into any relationship or conversation with the idea that I know it all and my way of seeing things is the accurate way, then I will never really hear what another says and offers.  This requires one to be well grounded in a personal belief system – knowing what cannot be compromised and what may be personal preference or interpretation.   To truly cultivate listening, there also has to be trust in the relationship.  In order for true listening to take place, it requires both parties to listen, to open up and share their pain and confusion and struggle…both sides.  This may be easy when the system being criticized is a third-party issue.  It becomes a whole different story when it is the criticism of the actions or intentions of one of the two parties conversing.  Listening to both sides can be very difficult.

A good leader has to listen to and understand both sides but, in a sense, not agree with either.  This is not about doing battle to replace one group for another in the seat of power, it is about changing the system so that justice is created and sustained.  It is about unmasking the shadows and giving voice to those affected by the shadow so that power can look at itself clearly.  This requires a leader to be willing to face the injustices and point out the deeper reasons for the need to change on both sides. Yes, both sides.  As stated earlier, seeing and listening to both sides of an argument is not the same thing as giving commercial time to both products.  This is not about competition, nor is it about commodity sales and profits.  It is about justice, community and humanity.

So we have a lot to do.  Some equate this with doing battle against the evils of the world.  I do not particularly like the metaphor of battle, for it, too, brings everything down to a competition.  I also believe that the destruction of the fabric of our society and community is due in part to competition.  Think about the ethics of consumerism.  The greater number of consumers the better the profit margin.  If people think they need something for themselves instead of sharing it, then sales increase.  If people are afraid of sharing, then there are further increases in profits.

So do we gather forces to battle a competitive foe that is armed with fear and money and power.  Or do we choose another way, telling those bent on competition, “You may want us to battle until one side wins, but the community I want to live in is not about competition and fear and profit and power.  It is not about winning or losing; It is about community, and sharing and listening, and nurturing and being in relationships with all kinds of interesting and diverse people, particularly the “stranger.”   We have the choice to move onto a battleground determined by the competitive side of fear and separatism, or we can simply choose to create more just relationships in all aspects of our immediate lives – relationship by relationship building a more just and sustainable democracy for all people.

Here we are in the great month of November.  The month of Thanksgiving, harvest time, and the transition to the seasonally introspective months of winter.   The season brings back memories for me of watching both sets of grandparents grow their own vegetables, tilling the ground, planting seeds saved from previous years, weeding the rows, harvesting the fresh produce, shelling and cooking and canning the fresh veggies for storage to eat later.  One thing that is not seen much in industrial sized agribusiness is the use of cooperative planting.  I remember planting pole beans in with the corn so that they would grow up the natural stalks of the corn.  We would also plant squash around the base of the plants to help keep the moisture in the soil and help prevent the proliferation of weeds.  Great concept – nurturing cooperation rather than competition.

Similarly, by nurturing the relationship between serving people, pursuing justice, and building community, not only can the needs of the people be met, and not only is the sense of community extended to include everyone, but a sustainable sense of justice is produced that ties us all together in an “inescapable network of mutuality,” sown together in a single garden of destiny.