In a series of five sermons, of which this is the final part, I have examined many different aspects of the issue of immigration. In the first sermon, entitled The Stranger, I discussed what it is like to be “the other” in a society that may not feel comfortable with us as an outsider. The second sermon, The Immigrant, dealt with the history of immigration policies in the United States, and how many of them have been racially motivated. The third sermon, The Promised Land, described how the ideal of a Promised Land for immigrants is both a state of mind and a real, physical, place that needs to accommodate the needs of the immigrant. The fourth sermon, The Refugee, examines the personal needs of immigrants fleeing from persecution or danger.
This final sermon takes a more “spiritual” look at the underlying principle of all the previous sermons... that of justice. One of the definitions of the word justice is “the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action”. This is the context in which I wish discuss justice as it relates to immigration.
States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries. The modern body of laws dealing with refugees is largely the product of the second half of the twentieth century. Like international human rights law, modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the refugee crises of the interwar years that preceded it. That era saw the greatest movement of human beings because warfare was no longer confined to battlefields. In a world that lately seems to want to punish refugees, individuals and organizations advocating for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with justice and compassion, are being hindered. In light of these stressors, let’s take a look at what justice is...
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a person who did something wrong would immediately suffer the consequences of their actions?
What if a person who started forest fires gets his house burned down?
What if a person who hits someone with a car and then drives away also gets run
What if you get sick if you cause someone else to get sick?
I’m certain you can, like me, think of a million other things to add to a list of “What ifs”.
The concept of Justice is so important to Unitarian Universalists that, unlike any other, such as peace or liberty, it appears twice in our principles. In the second principle it is included as: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In the sixth principle, it is included as: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. This is not just a semantic fluke. It demonstrates the subtle, yet awesome power of the word. Justice is required for “human” (or personal relations), as well as on the level of the “world” community.
According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” Justice can be thought of as distinct from and more fundamental than benevolence, charity, mercy, generosity, or compassion.
Studies at UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are “wired” into the brain and that, “Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats... This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need”. Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, Georgia, involving Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that “inequity aversion may not be uniquely human”, indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.
Even without scientific proof that we possess an “instinctive” understanding of justice, we all know this. We human beings understand that fairness, codified as the “Golden Rule”, lies at the heart of justice. The formula is a simple one of reciprocity: I will give another the benefit of the doubt as I would expect the same, I will not gossip as I would not like to be the subject of gossip, I will tell the truth as I would like to be told it, I will treat others with respect as I would like to be treated with respect, and I will not judge others because I do not like to be judged.
As I said earlier, a fascinating aspect of the concept of justice is that it applies in equal importance on both the personal and global levels. Indeed, it is, as Rawls says, “the first virtue of social institutions”, and it is essential to any relationship. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Luther was able to capture both the powerful personal and transcendent quality of justice in three brilliant sentences. In essence, he said, justice is always threatened by injustice, every person is responsible for ensuring that justice is done on every level because we are all affected by injustice.
Have you ever thought about how injustice weighs down even the most hardy individual, organization, or even civilizations? Even a perceived injustice can cause resentment, hurt feelings, anger, withdrawal, and pain. Disputes arise because of perceived, or real slights. The fairness genes we are wired with kick in and we stop thinking. Instead, we emote, we react, and we rush to judgment. We use terms like “justice cries out” or that someone “cries out for justice”.
I actually have friends who are bitter about the Armenian Holocaust that occurred before and after World War I at the hands of the Turks. I have other friends who are angry about how Palestinians were pushed out of their homeland by Jews. I’ve known people whose parents are Jewish holocaust survivors and the children carry the scars of injustice with them as if they were directly involved. I have family members who are still wounded by segregation and the discrimination they experienced during the Jim Crow era of injustices here in the United States, and I sometimes hear others wonder if they will ever see the forty acres and a mule they say African Americans were promised.
Justice is such a powerful force in our lives that its personification has been encoded into our psyches since ancient times. Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice, is an allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems. She is known to us as Lady Justice. Justitia is most often depicted with a set of scales typically suspended from her right hand, upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. She is also often seen carrying a double-edged sword in her left hand, symbolizing the power of Reason and Justice, which may be wielded either for or against any party.
Did you know that it wasn’t until the 15th century that Lady Justice has been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favor, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness; blind justice and impartiality. The earliest Roman coins depicted Justitia with the sword in one hand and the scale in the other, but with her eyes uncovered.
Because we emote, and react, and rush to judgment we have created an edifice upon which to hang the balances of justice. We need something that allows us to be more rational, and look more objectively on both sides of an issue. We need a buffer to the passions that may consume us. We need some time to reconsider our feelings. That buffer is called the law. Laws are the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. Because we are talking about the spiritual aspects of justice, we need to dig a little deeper than just what the law is and come to an understanding of how it relates to our deeply ingrained need for justice.
How do we stop injustice and promote justice at the level of the world community? We UUs are deeply committed to the cause of justice. I invite you to do a search on the internet and visit the many UU-sponsored organizations that do work in the cause of justice. Probably the most visible such organization is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). It is a nonsectarian organization that advances human rights and social justice in the United States and around the world. According to their website, through a combination of advocacy, education, and partnerships with grassroots organizations, they promote economic rights, advance environmental justice, defend civil liberties, and preserve the rights of people in times of humanitarian crisis.
Working for justice on the world level can literally be exhausting. When I am so overwhelmed at injustice at that level, I draw inspiration from people like Marla Rukiza, a local girl from Lakeport, California. Marla was an activist-turned-aid worker. She believed that combatant governments had a legal and moral responsibility to compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in military conflicts. According to the Rolling Stone magazine,
“Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life — she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience — her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”
If you doubt your voice cannot have an effect on the world, think of our Marla.
How do we promote justice in our personal lives? On a personal level, I like to say that I will not do or say anything unless it is kind, fair, or just. What I say or do must meet at least two of these criteria before I act. That is simple advice I gleaned from a Sikh master many years ago has been an invaluable guide for me over the years.
The answer to the question of personal justice is rather simple... we listen to each other, we respect each other, we should be mindful that there are always two sides to a story, we follow the rules designed to help us live in harmony and mutual respect, we apologize, and we forgive. Justice resides in the hearts and minds of individuals. Every human being has a different idea of justice because we are all different people with our own, unique view of the world. Yet, our “fairness gene”, if you will, gives us remarkable access to a vast reservoir of the stored wisdom of our species. If we would only pause for a few moments to seek that wisdom when confronted by injustice, perceived or real, the world would be a much better place. And justice will prevail.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
His name was Mawlânâ Jalâluddîn Muhammad Balkhî-ye Rûmî. He was born September 30, 1207 in present day Afghanistan. His name has been shortened to Rumi, and he is one of the greatest and most popular poets in the world. The poems of this Persian poet born more than eight centuries ago are beloved by millions of readers in around the world. His writings been compared to Shakespeare for his creativity breadth and Saint Francis in its spiritual wisdom.
Rumi descended from a long line of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics, including his father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, who was known as “Sultan of the Scholars.” When Rumi was still a young man, his father led their family more than 2,000 miles west to avoid the invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. As a young Persian refugee, Rumi had gone through the traumatic and painful process of adaptation and assimilation - a process which is also so familiar to any refugee and immigrant of our days. He had to adapt to his new hometown, Konya in South central Turkey where he lived the rest of his life, and is currently buried.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. More than half of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.” Borders cannot, and should not, be completely sealed: Many asylum-seekers are fleeing death, and the obligation to save them is legal as well as moral.
Would the man who would arguably become one of the greatest poets to grace our planet be admitted to the United States as a 12 year old refugee under our policy of admitting only the "best and brightest"? Would his father, an Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystic been able to bring his family here? Well, let’s see how they might fare in our present political climate.
Radical declines in the admission of refugees have been instituted, even after a Trump administration study by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. Another report from the New American Economy entitled, From Struggle to Resilience: The Economic Impact of Refugees in America, shows that Refugees have an entrepreneurship rate that outshines even that of other immigrants. The United States was home to more than 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs in 2015. That meant that 13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to just 11.5 percent of non-refugee immigrants and 9.0 percent of the U.S.-born population. The businesses of refugees also generated $4.6 billion in business income that year. Other significant facts are found: 1) while refugees receive initial assistance upon arriving in the United States, they see particularly sharp income increases in subsequent years, 2) refugees make particularly meaningful contributions to the economies of several key states, and 3) in an era when the country faces unprecedented demographic challenges, refugees are uniquely positioned to help because most are of working age.
According to the CATO institute, in an April 23, 2018 article, “During the campaign, Trump referred to Muslim refugees as a ‘Trojan horse’ that could bring down the United States from the inside. Not surprisingly then, Muslim refugees have seen their numbers slashed most dramatically. From October 2015 through December 2016, monthly arrivals of Muslim refugees averaged 3,076. During the first six months of FY 2018, they have fallen to just 275 per month - 91 percent below their rate in FY 2016.”
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded arguments regarding the Trump administration’s third attempt at a travel ban against visitors from Muslim countries on April 25, 2018. At this point, it is not certain how the court will decide, but key justices seem skeptical of challenges to the ban, a result of the post-election shift in the makeup of the court towards the right. A ruling is expected in June, 2018, but to members of one of the United States’ least popular religious minorities, this will be more than a ruling on the president’s authority. It will be a culturally pivotal moment; a statement of the nation’s values.
The effect of the Trump campaign against Muslims has been that many Americans view Muslims far less positively than they view members of most other major religious groups. In a recent topic question on Debate.org the question, “Should the U.S. ban Muslims from entering the country?”, was posed. A not atypical answer was the following: “They do not belong in this great beautiful country of God. They will only steal our jobs, rape our women, and kidnap our children. They belong in the dirt, no, they are dirt. They are good for nothing brown pieces of shit and should not be tolerated if they are caught in the country they should be shot on site.”
There are profound spiritual dimensions to the way refugees should be treated. For those who are Christian among us, I offer these words from the Bible to reflect upon:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:25-36)
These admonitions from the Bible are more than mere suggestions. They lie at the heart of Abrahamic religions; they are essential definitions of humanity. To treat a foreigner, especially a refugee, as “your native-born” is often a challenge. There are sometimes barriers of language and customs to overcome. Cultural differences may seem insurmountable. The “Golden Rule” loses its luster.
I have had direct, personal experience with such a challenge. In the mid-1990s I worked as an instructor teaching the Lingo programming language night class at a large private technical school in Silicon Valley. I once had a student whose last name was Tran in my class. He was a middle-aged Vietnamese man who could not speak English very well. Tran slowed the class down, so I had my TA work more directly with him than anyone else. The TA told me that she simply could not seem to communicate well with Tran or answer his more probing questions about Lingo. I must admit to being annoyed with Tran myself. I had a difficult time understanding him. Instructors in other classes complained about Tran as well.
I then remembered what it was like to live in Germany, not knowing the language well and having to work in a highly technical field with people who were not very patient with me. I had my TA work with other students and I began to spend much more time with Tran. I was determined to help him succeed. My extra attention was rewarded. Once he understood the principles and syntax of Lingo, he began to write truly elegant code. His mathematical constructs were flawless and creative. He became my best student. I came to find out that Tran was formerly a Major General in the South Vietnamese Army in command of a tank brigade. He was one of the lucky few high ranking ARNV to escape from Vietnam and come to the United States as a refugee. On the last evening of class he came with his wife and several of his younger children. He introduced his family and thanked me for helping him through the course.
I certainly hope Tran and his family were able to stay in the United States. We are all enriched by his presence. I am pained by the present attitude of our nation towards non-European refugees. The pain comes not only from a spiritual perspective, but from a basic human level.
How can we know the potential of any refugee to enrich our own culture? What metrics can be used to determine the nationality of a soul? Rumi answers these questions in this poem attributed to him:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.
I am not from the east or the west, not out of the ocean or
From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, I am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any Origin story.
My place is the placeless, a trace of the traceless, neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and
That one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner only that breath breathing human being.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!