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.
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!