Peace vs. Justice
November 9, 2003
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Eight years ago I co-lead a course on ethics at a little UU fellowship in Ohio. Ethics: An Exploration in Personal Morality, was the title of the course, and of the workbook we used. The workbook is a part of the Building Your Own Theology series by the Rev. Richard Gilbert, who was here participating in the installation service we had last week. As with the other Building Your Own Theology courses, we don’t “build” a personal ethic from scratch, rather the course is designed to help participants explore and articulate the ethics that guide their lives. The course covered various elements which would go into the refining of a personal moral compass such as: motivation, intention, values and character. I was in charge of the session on values. “Values Ranking” was our first exercise. We were given a list of 30 values such as Freedom, Honesty, Justice, Peace, Equality, Love, Prosperity, Happiness, Quality of Life, Law, Honor, Individuality and Community. We had to select our top ten from these 30 and them rank them in order of personal importance. Choosing only ten was hard enough for most of us, ranking them was excruciating. Some rebelled and had two or more values “tied” for first. I remember I was the only person who put Law on my list of ten. This caused some earnest discussion in the group. Not only did I have Law in my top ten, I had ranked it just above Freedom! Everyone had Freedom on their list, a few had ranked it number one, or tied for first. I had ranked Law as more important than Freedom and argued that without laws there could be no freedoms. And had therefore decided that Law was more important than Freedom.
This was a wonderful exercise worth repeating occasionally. I think today I would choose to rank Law below Freedom rather than as I had ranked them before. I have come to the conclusion that Law is in the service of Freedom, not the other way around. I agree with Martin Luther King that a law that does not serve freedom holds the danger of becoming an unjust law. Generally, there should be no conflict between Law and Freedom, but when there is, my gut reaction is to side with freedom. I still believe that without Law there can be no Freedom, yet Freedom is the higher good, and Law is established to provide Freedom.
Values Conflict was the second exercise in that evening’s class. After we had ranked our values, discussed them and had an opportunity to adjust them, we addressed the possibility of a conflict of values. Hypothetical situations were presented from the workbook in which we wrestled with choosing between honesty and freedom or honesty and prosperity. The situations in the workbook were intentionally hypothetical. They were realistic, but not real.
In the second reading this morning, Chief Joseph was forced into just such a real life values conflict. What is in the best interest of the tribe? What they and likely every native tribe wanted was to live in peace and maintain the prosperous lives they had had before the Europeans came among them in great number and in great force. Seeing that the Europeans were not leaving, and seeing as they still wanted to live in peace, some tribes chose to fight, and others, such as the Nez Perces, tried to leave. Seeing that the Europeans were not going to let them leave without a fight, they decided to fight as they left to Canada that they might find peace. And seeing the toll it was taking on the tribe to fight, Chief Joseph found himself faced with this choice: To fight because it is was a just fight and the right thing to do, or to give up all hope of freedom and peace, because the fight for that freedom is one they might not survive. That is a severe conflict of values.
Few if any of us will find ourselves faced with this extreme and severe a situation. We need not look only at extremes for examples that are just as painful. In an essay from the Ethics workbook, Richard Gilbert writes this:
An example that effects everyone is the issue of allocating scarce health-care resources. On the one hand we value the inherent worth and dignity of every human life, without regard to age. On the other hand, we value the concept of fairness and defend the proposition that all people ought to be given a more or less equal chance in life. The freedom of a person to get affordable health care bumps up against one’s concept of common good.
Most people would say, (Gilbert continues,) that someone with a damaged kidney should be helped by an artificial kidney machine or a kidney transplant, but either procedure is terribly expensive. With the same investment of health dollars, we could provide a simple sugar solution to the world’s children that would save tens of thousands of them from death by dehydration. Both are worthy goals, expressive of the value of reverence for human life. How do we choose between them? Must we choose between them?
All right, that sugar solution example is a bit extreme because it is computed in health dollars only rather than accounting for infrastructure and administrative costs. All the same, our health care system does seem to attract a disproportionate amount of the value conflicts bounding around in our culture. Recently in Florida Governor Jeb Bush used legislation with questionable constitutionality to restore a feeding tube in a young woman who has been in a vegetative state for over 13 years. It would be quite simple for us to all to look at the situation and for us to each decide to write up or review what we already have written up for an advanced directive before the end of this year. What is really needed is not legislation but for each individual to articulate their choice. Perhaps Governor Bush’s politicizing of the situation will help to further the public dialogue, which would be good.
What all this brings out: Chief Joseph’s surrender, Reverend Gilbert’s kidney question, and Jeb Bush’s high-handed fussing over feeding tubes, is that our values conflict regularly. As members of a liberal religious community we are in a particularly good position to recognize how this happens and how to respond. We find ourselves conflicting over important stuff like beliefs and the priorities of values a lot because we encourage it here. We don’t hand people a top ten list of values when they come through our doors. We are well practiced in the art of navigating shared values even when we all don’t agree.
Peace and Justice are two values that usually make it in the personal top ten list of most Unitarian Universalists, indeed, most Americans I would wager. Peace and Justice are two values that religion has often coalesced around. Peace and Justice are two values that are imminently pertinent in today’s global political milieu. In some ways, our political climate is demanding of us to choose between Peace and Justice.
With the same “either you’re for us or you’re against us” attitude cast out to our friends and allies around the globe, here at home we have been asked time and again to side with Justice and support the war or side with Peace and stay out of the way. As one who tried to reconcile our nation’s chosen course and hold both Peace and Justice dear, I have found it troubling to say the least. Peace and Justice usually go hand in hand.
In the history of this congregation there lies the echo of this conflict. Reverend Harry Thor spoke a powerful message of anti-war during the Vietnam Conflict. It was a hard and divisive time in many Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Binghamton did not prove the exception. That division has since healed and we as a congregation are well equipped now to hold a diversity of opinion as a group. But, neither is it any accident or random chance that members of this congregation are predominantly pacifists. I expect we will not again experience a similar division as we explore issues of war, power, peace and justice again. We do well, all the same, to remember that Peace and Justice issues have been and can become again “live-wire” issues among us.
Peace and Justice usually go hand in hand. I see the same relationship between Peace and Justice as I described earlier between Law and Freedom. In the same way that there can be no Freedom without Law, I believe there can be no Peace without Justice. In the same way that Freedom is a higher good than Law and Law is established to provide Freedom, I believe Peace is a higher good than Justice and Justice is established to provide Peace. There should not be a conflict between Peace and Justice.
Of course, my opinion is not the only sensible one out there. While I contend that Justice is an important step on the path to Peace, I have heard others say, “there is no path to peace, peace is the path.” And I have also heard others put forward the alternative perspective that Justice is an end unto itself rather than a means to Peace as have described it. It is these perspectives that polarize Peace and Justice.
Talk of Justice often carries the implication and imagery of violence. Back around 1970, Jane Fonda said, “Revolution is an act of love; we are the children of revolution, born to be rebels. It runs in our blood.” She had a strong point there. The United States was born of a revolution. We have glorified the violent element of our path to independence in our national anthem that speaks of “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air.” We are children of revolution. This perspective of liberation from oppression takes a religious tone from within Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology does not shy away from the use of violence as a means toward justice. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” While the author of this quote, Martin Luther King, did not mean that this demand would be accompanied by violence on the part of the oppressed, many other people do.
In the 1980s, Vusi Mahlasela was a voice of the revolution in South Africa. His music gave expression to the political ideals of the anti-apartheid movement. Now he’s beginning to tell South Africa’s story on a global stage. The song playing the background as I learned about this man on NPR was a song he wrote which says, “Need I remind anyone that armed struggle is an act of love.”
This is a perspective that rejects the idea that Peace and Justice go hand in hand. This perspective ranks Justice as more important than Peace. I do not subscribe to this perspective. But neither do I subscribe to its popular alternative, because the popular alternative also rejects the idea that Peace and Justice belong to each other. This alternative is exemplified when someone cries out “Can’t we all just get along?” My complaint here is not against that statement in its original use. That quote came originally a little over ten years ago when Rodney King went on TV right after the L.A. race riots and said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Do you remember it? There was a videotape of four white police officers beating a young black motorist they had pulled over. The case was all over the news and when the fur cops were acquitted it touched off a nasty race riot. That young motorist, Rodney King, in an appeal against the mob violence, was calling for peace. Then it made sense. The situation and Mr. King’s appeal are not the basis of my complaint. My complaint is when today people pick up the quote and use it to say, “Can’t we all forget the bad stuff that happened yesterday and play nice?” My complaint is when people want to brush away injustices and just talk of peace.
In our first reading, King makes a distinction between a positive peace and a negative peace. A peace without tension he calls a negative peace. A peace without justice is still peace, but it is a negative peace. If peace simply means no tension, no struggle, than I’ll have none of it. If peace means no disagreements, no turmoil, than that is not a peace I wish to have.
Justice need not be seen as a simple excuse for violence. Likewise, Peace need not be a coating of silence over a troubling situation. Peace and Justice need not be at odds. When I sit down with all my values before me and begin to select my ten; I find room for both Justice and Peace on my list, as I am confident most of you would as well. I believe Peace is a higher good than Justice and Justice is established to provide Peace. However, I am not sure that I would put Peace above Justice when it comes time to rank them. Perhaps I will say Justice is more important, not sufficient, just more important. Perhaps I will rebel and place them as “tied” thereby avoiding the choice, but I doubt it.
How about yourself? Where are they on you list?
In a world without end,
May it be so.