A World without Justice... Are You Crazy?

By Larry Sherber

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2008 July 13.

A world without justice. I sense a little hostility in the room this morning and I know that some of you are thinking: "This time Sheber you've really lost it. I've taken a lot of abuse from you over the years but this time you've gone too far. This may be a Unitarian church, but even we have our standards." Wait a minute. Some of those same people are probably also thinking: "The planet's in big trouble and I feel helpless to do anything about it." Well here's your chance. Open your mind up for a short time this morning, listen to a few new ideas, and you just might help save the world.

First, let's investigate the meaning of the word 'justice'. Webster's Dictionary has a myriad of definitions which we can debate endlessly and argue about ad nauseum. So, I took the liberty of paraphrasing what I think is close to a UU definition: The quality of being just, impartial, or fair – with just defined as "acting or being in conformity with what is moral, merited, and deserved." Look at this t-shirt from the UU Service Committee proclaiming that "JUSTICE IS UNIVERSAL." Well, I hate to burst our bubble, but the universe does not agree. The laws of the universe are not based on justice. If a meteor strikes the earth and kills millions of people, it's not the universe's idea of justice. The laws of science dictate the situation, or maybe it's just plain bad luck. Nature does not conform to our ideas of justice either. If an ugly, mean old coyote kills a lamb like Robin's and eats it, it's not nature's idea of justice; it's survival of the fittest. Justice is a concept created by humans, and maybe it's time to revisit its place in our societies, cultures, and religions. Maybe it's time to think of justice in a different way, to place it in a different perspective.

Justice implies right or wrong, punishment for those who do wrong, and usually some element of revenge. According to James O'dea, who I mentioned in my last sermon: "The simple duality of right and wrong thinking perpetuates the power of those who wish to maintain the status quo." Most politicians fall into this category. They love to pit us against each other by convincing us that they can lead us down the right path, versus the wrong one followed by their opponent. One side wins, then the other, and very little really changes. Instead, O'dea thinks we should concentrate on who has been hurt or wounded and how they can find healing. Yes, punishment is necessary to maintain law and order, but healing is the best way to deal with injustice. Our thinking can only be transformed by making healing a priority. I know that many people feel just the opposite, that healing can't take place without punishment or revenge occurring first. But consider this: how many times have you heard victims and their families say that revenge, through the punishment of the perpetrator of a crime, did not have the healing effect they expected? Ultimately, only forgiveness gave them relief from their emotional pain and anger and started the healing process. When someone who I feel has wronged me "gets what they deserve," my knee jerk reaction is a feeling of satisfaction; justice has been done. But that vengeful moment does not seem to untie that little knot deep inside me that never quite allows me to close the chapter and move on. If the incident comes up again sometime in the future, I can still feel the anger and I know that the issue has never really been resolved. I must admit that my inherited religion, Judaism, has done very little to shape my present belief system. But there is an ancient Jewish proverb that works well for me in this situation: "If you seek revenge, dig a grave for two." Is forgiving our enemies easy? Of course not, it's hard work and sometimes it's just not possible. Is it worth pursuing? If you want the freedom that healing can give you, it is.

I know that this is a whole new way of thinking for many of us and it may not seem right to reconsider our notion of justice. It has been socialized into all of us; liberals, moderates, and conservatives, though we may not share a common meaning. For as long as I can remember, justice formed the basis for my value system. The Pledge of Allegiance was drummed into my little brain continuously in school: "…with liberty and justice for all." I had the same experience through my religious education; Jews are real big on justice. The introduction to the old "Superman" TV series, which I watched regularly while growing up, proclaimed that Superman, disguised as Clark Kent, was fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Hey, if it was good enough for Superman, it was good enough for me. Today, I hate to think about the damage this country has done, and the number of innocent lives lost in our never-ending battles for what we, as a country, perceive as truth, justice, and the American way. Because of the socialization of justice into my psyche, up until recently, I have proudly described myself as a "justice freak." Well Larry, it's time for a growth spurt in mature thinking.

Seven years ago, how many of us wanted, no demanded, justice after 911. I did. I wanted revenge, punishment, justice. I wanted Osama Bin Laden's head on a stick! It's one thing when countless lives of innocent foreigners are lost, but to kill innocent Americans, in New York, in the financial district, not far from the Statue of Liberty hit too close to home. In this situation justice was called for. After all, wasn't justice what we stood for as Americans, as Unitarians, as human beings! The Pledge of Allegiance promised "justice for all," and I wanted it badly! As Unitarians, justice is so important that it's mentioned in our 7 Principles not only once, but twice. However, sometimes justice, punishment, and revenge get all mixed up, as they have in Iraq. It has become obvious that justice is a complex concept that must be thoughtfully and carefully dealt with. Let's review the words we've used this morning relating to the subject. On the positive side we have impartial, fair, moral, forgiveness, and healing. On the negative side we have deserved, revenge, 'right and wrong thinking,' and punishment. I think a reasonable argument can be made for the necessity of punishment as a basis for law and order and possibly as a deterrent. It is important, however, to have a constant awareness of the relativity of the words moral and deserved, and especially the concept of 'right and wrong.' Revenge, on the other hand, needs to be categorized with other useless and damaging notions such as greed, jealousy, and envy. We need to keep our old ideas of justice in perspective, taking into consideration our emotional feelings versus this new idea of forgiveness and healing. If the price of justice is too high, as it often is, get over your anger, give up your ideas of revenge, forgive and start to heal. Revenge may give you some instant satisfaction, but forgiveness can give you the ultimate high: peace.