42 - Justice in Contemplation - Part 7: Justice
Now we come to where the rubber meets the road. Now we come to the reality of justice, and injustice. What does it mean to have a just society? Is it about equal access to everything, for everyone? Is it about equal opportunity? What should be equalized, to create equality, and what remains distinct to our own specific path and purpose? I think it’s easy to see, and say that equality isn’t the fair distribution of resources among all people. That is communism. We can clearly see from history that resources can be equally shared under the rule of an oppressive government. People can all have the guarantee of equal access to basic needs, and still not have the basic freedoms inherent to all human beings. No matter how good any system may be in attempting to create material equality and social autonomy, there will always be disparities and differences. I don’t think uniformity equals a just society. I think a just society is about the freedom for each individual to pursue their own path, purpose, and prosperity as they choose. Governments and social systems are meant to guarantee an equal playing field, not the equal outcome of every game. In life and human experience, nothing is ever equal, and no two people are alike. We all have different abilities, desires, and circumstances which all contribute to different paths and different outcomes. For a just society to exist, it’s not the outcome that need be equal, but our ability to pursue our own path without hindrance. I lived in Australia for two years as a kid, where my parents were missionaries in the port town of Mackay, Queensland. While there we saw a movie based on the true-life story of an Australian race horse named Phar Lap. Phar Lap was one of the most winning horses of his time. When he died in 1932, he was ranked third in the world for his stake winnings. In the movie, as Phar Lap grew in fame and success, the other owners and competitors in horse racing began to get disgruntled and cry foul. They didn’t like how much Phar Lap was winning. Because he so dominated the racing scene of his time, the owners got together and conspired with the racing commission to try and level the outcome of the races in their favor. They began requiring that Phar Lap race with weights, to slow him down. But he kept winning. So, they added more weights. And he kept winning. This part in the movie really played into the spirit of Phar Lap to win, and the unfairness and jealously of the horse racing world towards him. In the end the movie portrays Phar Laps demise as a result of the stress created by his spirit to win despite the unfair restrains placed upon him. He just kept pushing himself, and winning, no matter how much they tried to slow him down. In real life, no one is sure why he died. But the story reveals clearly how equality is not meant to go. It’s not meant to oppress and constrain anyone from succeeding, but to provide equal opportunity for everyone to pursue their own path, and be as successful as they can within their own distinct and unique circumstances. Sometimes we get equality wrong, and miss the purpose and point of a just society. It’s not unjust for someone else to have more stuff than me, or more success in their desired field or path in life. It’s unjust for some to have greater freedom in pursuing their path than others. Equality is about personal freedom, not individual outcomes. In reality, no system could ever guarantee equal outcomes for everyone, no matter how fair and balanced it is. Even if we all could start from the same place, with the same opportunities and freedom, we would all go different ways and achieve different ends, because everyone has different abilities and desires. No society can guarantee that the end result in life be the same for everyone. To even try and create that would be unfair. To equal out the end result would actually be oppressive, just as it was in the story of Phar Lap. We should not desire that anyone be held back from their potential and desired pursuits. We should only desire that no one have an unfair advantage in pursuing whatever they want in their lives. A just society is about equal freedom, not equal outcomes. I don’t think that’s hard for us to understand, but sometimes it’s harder to pinpoint that difference in real life and individual circumstances. Sometimes things seem unfair to us, and unjust, when someone else has something we don’t, when in fact there is no true inequality going on. If we aren’t able to discern the different between equal freedom and equal outcomes, we will opt out of a truly just society and settle for an oppressive system which simply curtails the freedom for anyone to achieve their own measure of success.
Time and time again we see the negative result of governments too empowered toward creating equal outcomes. Any government powerful enough to curtail the freedom of the most successful eventually becomes the only winner in that game. Everyone else just gets equal access to less and less, while those in power take more and more for themselves. The lesson; never empower the ruling powers to put down those with more out of a jealous resentment for others having things we don’t. A just society is one where all power is shared equally, out of love, between individuals, groups, and those with the responsibility to govern society. It’s not about equal power, but equal sharing. There will never be a situation where power is equal, or can be. To try and achieve that is impossible, and only brings more oppression, not less. There is always an ableness gap. There will always be unequal distribution of power, opportunity, and circumstance. Each of us has been born into a situation unique to ourselves. That is how it should be. Because of that, the only thing that can guarantee equality isn’t equal power, but a heart focused towards others. It’s not the power we have, but how we use the power we have that matters. How we use our power can either help create equality, or fuel oppression. Each of us individually has the ability to feed one or the other. First, we must realize the power we have, then we must use it in the right way. Oppression and the misuse of power comes in two ways. The first is when we use our power for our own benefit, the second is when we take power that does not belong to us. We all have abilities and influence, in one way or another. We must recognize and work within what we have, and not pine or pursue power that is not intended for us. We must learn to speak to our own room, whatever that may be. You are living in a moment. You have come to a place in your life, and there are people in your life with which you interact. Your world is right before you, but you can miss it when you are always looking away to somewhere else, or someone else’s place and power. Learn to be faithful and fruitful where you are. Learn to use what you have, and do good with what you have for those around you. Good actions and a good heart will grow good things for you. Seek to work within the space you’ve been given, whatever that is. Don’t pine and pursue a life that is not yours, or you may miss the life you have right in front of you. Speak the message you’ve been given, be passionate about the things that excite you, and don’t worry about the end result or how many people are listening. Love does not seek its own good, but the good of others. You have been empowered to do good within a certain space and place. Lean in and live out of that space. If that space is meant to grow and expand, it will. Don’t worry about that. We lose even the power we do have when we care more about our power than the purpose of our power. Your power is not for you. It is for you to empower others. If you are truly other focused, it shouldn’t matter what benefit your power brings you. That’s not the point. To make it the point is to begin to abuse your power, to turn it back towards yourself. We will always abuse our power when we begin to use it for ourselves. When we are about our own power, we will abuse the power we have, and begin to want more, whether we are meant to have more or not. Then we will begin to take power from others we were not meant to have. Whenever we turn our power back towards ourselves, and begin to operate in our power for our own benefit, the result will always be abuse. Whether we intend it or not, using our power, abilities, influence, position, and circumstances only for our own good will end up doing harm. And we cannot do the giving dance either, where we try and split the benefit of our power between us and others. There is no push and pull here. You cannot balance selfishness and selflessness. Switching the flow of your power back and forth does not work. Your power is not meant for you. It is not meant for you to use for yourself. It is meant to be a giving flow. Love is always about the other. True justice comes when we understand the purpose for which we were created, and the reason we have been empowered to move and act in the world around us. We were made for community, to be about the other. All we have been given is meant to be given to others. Only as we learn to empower others do we begin to participate as individuals in a just society, doing our part to ensure that it remains just, fair, and free for all. Every time we abuse our own power, and use it selfishly, we feed injustice. It may be hard to see, but what is just or unjust always comes from how the individual interacts with the collective. Oppression and injustice all stem from our unwillingness to balance our power by giving it away. We need not wonder why society as a whole is lacking in justice, when all its parts are in the same place, including ourselves. If we as individuals are not doing the work to create the space of freedom for those around us, why would we expect the groups we are a part of to do the same. Large systems are made up of small parts. What’s going on at the macro level is merely a reflection of what’s happening at the micro level. You are that micro level. You are the work you need to do to create a more just society. How you choose to use your power will help feed or starve the quality of equality in the world around you. Until you get that right, you have nothing to say to the failings of the larger group within which you live. Systemic injustice at the largest levels of society all begin and end in each of us. The biggest protest we could ever make towards those systems comes through small acts of love, as we keep choosing to let our power flow out from ourselves to those around us. As we love those “below” and “above” us equally, we equal out any system which has created those distinctions to begin with. Justice and injustice all come down to how well we love others.
That’s not to ignore or downplay the power of the groups and systems in which we live. The power of the collective can feel very oppressive and dominating for the individuals within that group. There is always a balance between the power of the parts and the whole. We must acknowledge the power of the collective to influence the actions of individuals in society. We cannot ignore that, but we must not use that as an excuse for individual actions. No matter how powerful the powers that be, we must recognize our own power within the collective. We must not surrender our individual power to the group, nor think that we are here to merely feed the power of the group. We are always choosing to go along or not. The impulse to go along may be strong. We all want to belong and feel a part of a larger collective. That is a part of our desire to be loved, to be in community, to belong. But we must not surrender our individual ability to choose how we interact within those groups. We must not surrender our individual choice to group thinking. There is a tension and a balance. There will always be unhealthy tendencies in every group. The nature of group belonging often creates those unhealthy tendencies. We all often bite our lip and our tongue for the sake of not rocking the boat within the groups we want to belong to. For the sake of belonging, many have suffered the suppression of what they believe is right and good. Tolerance is a big word in our culture today. So is compromise. But what do we tolerate, and on what do we compromise, without giving up the power we have as individuals within the group? What are we willing to risk to stay true to what we believe is right, and how do we balance that with a true desire to maintain healthy group relationships? We were not made to be alone. We all desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are all a part of the societies in which we live. How we maintain the balance between our individual power and the power of the groups which we inhabit is important. We must understand that there can be many things we tolerate, and things which we can compromise without sacrificing the proper use of our power to do what is right and good. During my late twenties I found myself a part of a very loyal group of friends. We all saw a lot of the unhealth of the Christian religion we’d grown up in, and shared a strong desire to call out and correct it. We were a bunch of rebel theologians at war with an institution we loved, and wanted to change. At the time, we were all also going to the same Bible College, which seemed like a great place to exercise our protest against the evils of the Christian institution at large. We all forged a strong bond around our beliefs about the church, what it was, and what it should be. But we also formed around a strong desire for righteousness, which easily turned into self-righteousness at times. We saw the problems, and we thought we had the solutions. In many ways we wanted to tear the whole system down and start over. In our own little group, we did. We created what we thought was the right Christian understanding and approach. But that group became quickly unhealthy, as our desire for purity began to be focused on the impurity of everyone else around us. Eventually that focus boomeranged back towards the group. One person in the group in particular began deciding who could and couldn’t be in the group, based on that individual’s perception of others religious purity. I think almost everyone at one point or another got kicked out of the group. I actually got kicked out three times, which means I sucked it up and went back twice. I probably would have gone back a third, but that wasn’t an option. That was a good thing, though, because the group continued to get smaller and more unhealthy. I’m not sure what happened to the group in the end. By now we’ve all gone our separate ways. I’m not sure how everyone else sees it looking back. I can only share my own part. For my part, I can say that I never felt such a strong sense of belonging. For someone who’d been a loner, introvert, and outcast all my life, that was a powerful thing. It was powerful enough to cause me to silence a lot of things I saw happening that I didn’t agree with. I remember one particular conversation I had with the “leader” of the group, the guy who kept kicking everyone out. It was during a time when another member was on the outs, and had leveled a personal critique towards the leader. My friend “The Leader,” came to me and asked me what I thought. I knew the truth in that critique, but I also knew my leader friend didn’t want to hear it, and probably wouldn’t be able to hear it in a way that would incite positive change. So, I choose to play ignorant, and not speak up. It was the perfect opportunity. It was a true and clear critique of my friend’s abusive tendencies. And my friend was actually asking for my opinion on the matter. But it was more important for me to stay on the good side of my friend than to speak up, ruffle feathers, and say what needed to be said. I chose to keep the peace in the moment to preserve the friendship, but it was what ruined the friendship in the end. I understand the powerful tendency to go along to get along. We all at times choose to play up to power in order to gain more power for ourselves. You know what I was thinking in that conversation with my leader friend, concerning our other friend who was currently getting kicked out. I was thinking, “Man, I’m glad it’s not me.” I was abusing my power to speak up on behalf of another friend, and to the friend in front of me, because it was what benefited me the most in the moment. The truth is that what benefited me the most in that moment was the least beneficial for everyone else involved. I should have stuck up for my friend on the outs, and to my friend about his abusive behavior. Instead, I just stuck up for myself. The dynamics of group belonging can be alluring. But any community focused on self-centered power is destined to be unhealthy. The dynamics of power-over in any group is always unhealthy, and causes us to make unhealthy choices in order to stay good with the group. In that power paradigm, we often only see our choices as aligning with power, or against it. We can either be in the group, and under its power, or out of the group and out from under its power. But love shows a different way, a way to remain in the group without submitting to the unhealthy aspects of its abusive power. That way can be the most difficult. It can be the most difficult to see, and even more to execute. It requires the upmost dedication to a truly altruistic love. At the root of our catering to power is always a greater love for ourselves than others. Whenever we are doing what benefits us the most, it will likely benefit others the least. That is why I truly believe that all injustice can be traced back to how we love, and whether we are loving in selfish or selfless ways. To cater to or fight against the powers that be always belies what benefits us. To do what benefits others sometimes requires us to stay in unhealthy places in order to help change them. That rarely entails what benefits us. If all we can see in group dynamics is filtered through what benefits us, we are likely to be a part of the problem, a part of the injustice happening all around us. We won’t likely even see it, or be aware of it, because all we can see is about what is happening to and for us. If our sense of justice is formed only around what is just for us, then we may likely be feeding injustice for many others in ways we aren’t even aware of. The very definition of privilege is not just doing what benefits me, but the ability to only see things in terms of what benefits me. That’s why injustice can be rampant all around us, without us even seeing it, because we only see what is just or unjust in terms of our own situation. Love in its true form is never content with its own good. It is not about me being loved, but me being love for others. If our sense of justice is only about our justice, then we will likely be a part of the larger injustice in the groups which we inhabit. And, if our sense of good can only extend to our own group, then our group can also be doing the same. If we truly think that as long as things are good for us as individuals, or the smaller groups we are a part of, when it is not good for the whole, then we are part of the problem. We are actually a part of the larger injustice by only seeking justice for ourselves, and those we deem “our group.” Then we are actually founded in a group mentality of injustice, and that mentality will eventually produce unhealth even within our little groups, as much as in the whole. The biggest mistake I made, in my little Christian purity cult, was thinking that my good was only about my status in that little group. In that group, we saw ourselves as in opposition to the larger group which defined us. We separated ourselves from Christianity as whole, and thought that if we could only make our little Christian group right, then that would be alright for us. We thought that separating ourselves from the larger bad would make us good, but that mentality only ended up separating us as well. And in truth, we never were separate from the larger group anyway. Division for the sake of purity only leads to more division. If I only know how to be “right” by separating from the “wrong,” then I will never see or address the wrong in me. Tolerance and compromise are never about catering to abusive power, it’s about loving others despite their unhealthy relationship with unhealthy power. How else will anyone see a different way to maintain their own power in relationship with unhealthy power, if we do not stick around to set the positive example within such negative power systems. Tolerance is about continuing in relationship with others, even when they are only about their own power, for the sake of empowering them to see a different way. I should never compromise my stance towards unhealthy power-over relationships, but I should not think that my protest entails removing myself from such unhealthy systems. If I cannot stand and love others even at their worst, how will anyone get better? To choose to stay and love, in the face of such a lack of love, is the only way love will win the day. Love does not retreat. Love does not fight back. Love remains in the stance of a giving flow, even when no one else is in that giving flow, in order to ensure that it continues as a protest against a culture so steeped in self-centered taking. That is the sacrifice love demands, simply by being love.
I love kids’ cartoons. Since I have younger kids, I’m getting to catch a lot of current kids programming. From Disney to Nick Jr. to Cartoon Network, I enjoy a lot of what they like to watch. There are two shows they really like at this time, both of which have a lot of zany humor in them. One is “The Amazing World of Gumball,” and the other is “Teen Titans Go.” Of the two, my favorite is “The Amazing World of Gumball.” The story centers on the crazy mishaps of two pre-teen brothers named Gumball and Darwin. From the time they spent an entire day making their dad believe a magic wand really worked, to the time a winged eyeball classmate chased them around school, this show is full of amazingly funny and unexpected stories. But the most amazing thing to me is the heart of Gumball and Darwin. No matter their poor choices and half-brained ideas, they always come back to doing the right thing, because they genuinely care about other people. Likewise, “Teen Titans Go” is also full of outlandish stories and zany humor, but the characters themselves give the show a different feel. Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg are a group of teen superhero’s lead by the ego-centric, brooding Robin. Most of the humor and story lines are centered around the mishaps and misadventures which come as a result of Robins desire for affirmation and acceptance. He may wear a hero’s costume, and have a hero’s power, but he does not possess a heroic heart. He’s often making poor choices based on a perceived lack of being valued by others. And he is often trying to prove and garner his self-worth, even though the groups mistakes and misadventures usually bear out to a good ending despite their leaders self-focused motives. While I love watching the crazy adventures of Gumball and Darwin, I often cringe at the choices and actions of Robin and his hero crew. “Teen Titans Go” is not as funny to me, because of the underlying self-centeredness of their leader. Everywhere we look, there are messages about the world in which we live. In movies, music, magazines, and kids shows the world is being presented to us, and shaped for us. We also choose the shape of our world based on the influences we allow, and don’t allow. We must understand that the power structures of our society are everywhere, expressed everywhere, and at work everywhere. There is no neutral ground. It’s easy to understand why, because people caught up in those power structures are also expressing them through what they do. As my spiritual teacher Richard Rohr likes to say, how you do anything is how you do everything. We must develop a critical, discerning mind in our approach to everything. We must be aware of our influences and our heroes. Who we listen to, and who we look up to, has a lot to do with who we are becoming. The power-over system expresses itself everywhere. It is the dominant system in which we live, and have learned to operate in. The first step in stepping out of that power system is to start paying attention, to start seeing it for what it is, where it is. Contemplation can be stated simply as the art of paying attention, of looking at something thoughtfully for a long time. We need to start paying attention to the power systems at play in our world, and how we are interacting with them, in order to begin to pull ourselves out of them. We cannot hope to begin to pull others out, or pull those systems down, if we have not first pulled ourselves out of them. We must, in a sense, get to higher ground ourselves before we can pull others up. To attempt to address those unjust, oppressive systems in the same mode and power of those systems is to simply repeat and reinforce them. We must learn to operate from within them, but outside of their power base, in order to see them reversed and rendered useless. To do that we must first spend some time really looking at them, seeing how they work, in order to understand how to begin to work apart from their power. This is where it gets personal, and I believe the greatest work we all have to do in tearing down these power systems is always in the personal.
Contemplation always points us to ourselves, and the work we must do there, in order to get to the work we are meant to do in the world at large. Contemplation points to the problems at work in the world at large by pointing us to ourselves. The micro is always a reflection of the macro. We cannot possibly hope to address the inequality, injustice, and oppression in the world at large if we have not dealt with the ways we are compliant with it in ourselves. Contemplation seeks to first point us to our relationship with power itself, in order to unmask the underlying issues of injustice and oppression in the world. The world, after all, is made up of you and me. We are a part. The greatest work we will ever do is first in making our part more healthy. As we become healthy, and begin to learn how to step out of that power-over system, we will naturally begin to point others to the same path and process, and so become champions of justice and freedom just by naturally cultivating those things in our lives first. When you know who you are, and are grounded in yourself in good and healthy ways, then you know what you are meant to do and be in the world. There such an amazing confidence and grace that comes from begin grounded in yourself, from being free from those oppressive power systems in yourself in ways the open up the whole world before you. When you can see that you truly are free, just in being and becoming who you are, you will also become a message of freedom for others, just by being yourself in the world. That is the essence of Contemplation; that is, to help ground us in our true self in the proper way. Justice, freedom, and equality all stem from a collective made up of individuals who know how to truly be themselves. When you know who you are, and are truly free to be who you are, then you become a part of the larger freedom for others. When we all know how to do this, there will be no oppression and injustice in the world. Being yourself, and being empowered to be yourself, means you realize that all the power you have is already present within yourself. The only reason you do not have it, is because you have been giving it away to others under the illusion of a system that taught you that you had to in order to get power for yourself. That is the system which is oppressing us all. But we have to realize how we have chosen to be compliant with that system. This can be hard to realize. We naturally want to point to everything else outside ourselves for the reasons why our lives are such a mess. Contemplation is hard work. It can even seem counterintuitive. It is painful to realize just how much we have complied with our oppressors, and the evil systems that are oppressing us. Contemplation points us to our suffering, and asks questions of our suffering. It asks not only “Why are we suffering,” but “how have we been the cause of our own suffering.” This is a hard question to sit with, and we often are not willing. It does not deny the external experience of oppression from outside us, but it does cause us to sit with the reality that our experience of that oppression has everything to do with us, and how we are choosing to interaction, react, and comply with that external energy. The one thing we can always control is our response. Contemplation seeks to point us to that reality as the source of our suffering. No matter how hard we try, or how much power we may have in the power-over system, we are never in control of our outer circumstances. We may effectively create an illusion of outer control, but it is only an illusion. When things seem to go the way we want, the cause is coincidence and not our control. The only thing we can control is our response. When we can begin to see that it is our response to the external that is the cause of our suffering, then we can begin to realize that it is in our power to end our suffering by learning a different response. In this Buddhism has a lot to teach us.
I’m not a Buddhist practitioner or teacher, but I know enough to say that what Buddhism teaches us is the value of surrendering our will. It is our will that is actually the cause of our suffering, as we choose to push our will into a world that will not bend to it, and suffer the constant humiliation and frustration of those thwarted efforts. Buddhism always points us to our desires, and primarily our desire for control. What it teaches us is to turn that desire away from controlling the external world and towards controlling our internal world. I’m going to tell you a profound yet simple truth. You can always love. You can always choose to love. We go through life so bent around the idea that all these external forces are pushing us towards loving and hating, but that is not true. That is only true in the false system of power-over. It is an inherently reactionary system, because it has rooted our power in what we can take from others. So, our power is always in the flux of the fight with others for control. It is by nature a contentious system. But the resounding truth of this system is that it really only takes away our power, and our ability to control the only thing we could. It is a system founded in losing control. That is what it produces. Don’t take my word for it, just look at what this power-over system has produced. War, genocide, hate, fear, anger, frustration, division, segregation, in-fighting, and broken relationships are all the natural result of this system. It has truly made us inhuman, and caused us to treat each other less than human. That is the resounding effect of this system. It takes away our power. No matter how far you move up the ladder in this system, it truly never gives you power, it just puts you in contention with more and more people. All its power is built on illusion, and the reality of everyone giving up their power in a way that they themselves are always resisting, because it is not natural. We feel it, and fight with it even as we are doing it. But, when we take our power out of this system, and turn our attention to the true power we have to begin control ourselves, then we start down the path of healing and freedom. That power has everything to do with the Buddhist concept of reigning in our desires, and being at peace with the reality that much if not all of the external world is out of our control. Contemplation is a corollary teaching that seeks the same end. It seeks to point us to the work we need to do within ourselves, of first seeing that we are the cause of our suffering, and then of learning a new way to be in the world that is freeing for us and those around us. That freedom is only found in letting go, surrendering, and learning to move with the natural flow of our power to become powerless. Our power is actually a kind of weakness, but it is also the strongest power in the universe. That is the power of love.
How little we understand the true power and energy of love. How much we have twisted and tainted our understand of love in a power-over system. Through that oppressive system we have even distorted in the image of God. We have turned God into the ultimate power-over system, when the ultimate expression of God has always been one of ultimate love. Love is not an oppressive, abusive, controlling, or manipulating power. It is the power we hold within ourselves to be the kind of person who would never oppress or abuse another. It takes greater power to hold yourself back from reaction, retaliation, and reciprocity in a system that only knows that kind of power. Love is a restoring, healing energy. It never feels pushy, or controlling. This is why we truly miss the power of God in the world, and why the false God who is “in control” of the world is hard to see. God moves with us, not against us. God is not a punitive disciplinarian more concerned with right rules than a right relationship. God is not punishing us for getting it wrong, but drawing us into love so that we may be healed by that all-consuming love. But we will hardly see or notice the power of that love, in a power-over system, because it feels so entirely different. When we are looking for a God who rewards those who “get it right,” and punishes those who “get it wrong,” we will always be confronted by a world that simply does not make sense within those parameters. First, we can simply recognize that many who are “doing it wrong” are actually getting by with it, seemingly without consequence. Where is God’s justice and sense of fairness in this horribly broken world? This God who boldly breaks in and smashed all the “evil” people seems quite absent or ineffective. Second, we must also recognize that we can never agree on what it even means to “do it right” or “do it wrong.” We must humbly admit that most often our definition of the “wrong” person, group, or action is simply what is most unlike ourselves. Our definition of “right” is always relative to ourselves. Rarely do we even consider God’s view of “right,” and even when we do, rarely do we understand it. But I can tell you plainly that God’s definition of “right” has everything to do with right relationships and not right rules. When we understand this, so much about God and the world makes much more sense. Coming to understand that God desires a right relationship not only with all people but all things is an astounding paradigm shift from how we see or have been taught to think about God. For God, relationship trumps everything. That doesn’t mean that God hasn’t designed the world to work in a certain way, but it does mean that God’s ultimate focus is on everything existing in a right relationship to everything else. And the ultimate quality of that relationship is mutuality. In the space of mutuality so much is less ridge and defined when it comes to how the world works. In the world of mutuality there is a lot more space for each of us to be on a journey of growth which includes a lot of failure and brokenness without heavy handed, punitive measures. The fact that we don’t see God punishing “sinners” left and right is because God isn’t. The very idea of sin as a ridge adherence to strict moral rules is in itself wrong. If we simply replaced the word “sin” with “unhealthy relationship” we’d have a much better idea of what God calls sin. How we treat others, and the world itself has everything to do with God’s idea of justice, rightness, righteousness, and goodness. We can sum all this up in the basic attitude of love, but the word “love” hardly begins to capture all of these ideas well. So it is that religious people can speak about “loving” God while treating others very poorly. Conservatives can focus on capitalistic freedom while creating the natural oppression which comes from first world industries impoverishing third world nations for their own personal gain. And liberals can champion the cause of inclusion and tolerance while wanting to eradicate their political opponents and their ideologies from the face of the earth. When we don’t understand the true power and nature of love, we will end up pursing the opposite even in the name of love. The true power of love can only be understood as we step out of these power-over systems. Love within those systems will always be defined as making you just like me. Love in oppressive systems is always translated into pushing my “right” ways and truth into and onto the world. Everyone must believe as I do, in a power-over system, because what I believe is right. In order to make the world “right”, according to my rightness, I must create the world to be like me. And when we introduce religion and God into that power paradigm it ups the ante a million times more. Now we have God behind our “right” truth, and the power of heaven and hell behind our attempt to force the world to be what we think it should. In this system even God plays the power-over game. It’s how we can get to such dire and evil actions like the crusades, lynching, and oppressing the rights and freedoms of others while still believing we are in line with a perfectly good and loving God. True evil is any system, religious or not, that allows us to do what is hateful and oppressive in the name of goodness and love. It’s astounding the bad things people have done throughout history in the name of doing “good.” Even our most basic sense of goodness can get horribly twisted when we attempt to define love within the power-over system. We can think it loving, good, and right to do many wrong things because the current system sanctions it for the sake of power. The phrase “might makes right” exemplifies this mentality. But when we understand love in terms of right relationship, not right rules, then what is right and good becomes much more simple and clear. Then, how you treat another person is the simple rule in all things. It’s what we’ve come to call the golden rule, which exists in one form or another in most every major religion. In Christianity it’s, “do unto others what you would have them do to you. In Buddhism it’s, “hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” In Islam it’s, “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” In Hinduism it’s, “this is the sum of duty; do naught to others which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.” Love always demands a simple, clear adherence to what is right, good, and just. It never muddies the waters of morality with complex explanations and excuses for how bad actions towards others are somehow “good.” That is the very definition of evil; anything which allows us to justify doing harm to another as if it were good. In the Jewish religious texts, the prophet Isaiah put it this way; “woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” In another Jewish religious text the prophet Micah sums it up this way, “He has show you, O mortal, what is good. And what does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
No matter who you are, you have a “God.” It constitutes what you would call truth, or the “right” way to live and be in the world. You have an ideology which defines rightness. You may take your cues from religion, you may not, but you have a truth system which constitutes morality, ethics, and a correct understanding of human rights and freedom. Whatever that is for you, it is your God. It is what defines goodness for you. The first thing we must do is walk with that “God” humbly. Micah clearly call us, not to walk humbly with “The God,” but with “your God.” We all have our own private God. We all have our “truth.” We must hold our truth with grace, understanding that our “truth” is not the whole picture, and not the “right” way for everyone. It may be how we see and lean into what is right, but to hold it in humility allows for others to have a different truth system and still be right. And, regardless how we see things, we should love mercy more than our truth. To love mercy is to understand that our relationships with others are more important than our ideas and philosophies about what makes us right and good. What is truly good is showing mercy, not attempting to impugn, correct, chastise, and punish others for their lack of adherence to our “good” rules. When we find ourselves pouring out wrath and hate into the world, it’s because we are loving our “right” truth more than right relationships, we are loving our good morals more than people. And finally, and above all else, we are called to act justly. I believe the Jewish prophet Micah puts this phrase first because it is the most important. We must act justly. It’s interesting that Micah frames this in terms of action. How often we frame justice in terms of a right belief system, right ethics, or right morals. We often think that right thinking constitutes right justice. But Micah pushes justice into a different realm, and declares that how we act, not how we think, truly defines justice. Not that thinking has no effect on our actions, but in the end, justice is always about what we do, not what we say. How we live constitutes what creates or stifles justice in the world. As much as we might champion the cause of justice, and call attention to injustice in the world, it is our personal actions towards others that truly matters concerning how justice plays out in our culture and society. If we miss this, we miss everything. What this means, practically, is that personal justness is more important than social justice. Personal justness creates social justice, not the other way around. If we want to help produce, foster, and sustain a justice society, we must be and become just people. Personal justness is the foundation of a just society. In an age where governance, constitutions, rules, and laws seem to dominate the landscape of human society and culture, we will always miss the boat if we think that creating just laws equals the creation of a just society. We cannot produce or force any society down the path of becoming more just simply by enacting what we think are the right rules and laws. The rule of law does not create justice. When we all are acting justly, we won’t even need the governance of rules and laws, we’ll all simply do what is right, good, and just for ourselves and others naturally. Rules and laws can only attempt to curtail the unjust actions of those who don’t know how to act justly towards their neighbors. It cannot make us act justly. It cannot even teach us to act justly. It can only attempt to curtail unjust actions. Rules, laws, and governance is only a justice safety net in society. What truly founds and grounds justice in any culture are individuals who know how to act justly. Even in our attempt to push what we believe to be just and right, we can actually act unjustly towards others. We can oppress others in our attempt to rid the world of oppression. When we don’t understand the power of love, we can end up doing harm in the name of good, and evil in the name of justice. Personal justness is the whole of the matter. Social justice cannot happen until we learn how to live as just individuals within society. That means that we must decide, individually, to never oppress another person. No matter what. There is never any good reason to curtain the freedom of another. Even when we must limit the freedom of one to harm another, we still understand that this is a necessary evil, and still injurious to the individual. We never think it good to limit others freedom. We never celebrate oppression. The only true good in any society is when everyone knows how to do what is good, without the need for external threats or encouragements. And what is truly good? When we act towards others within the same freedom we desire to live ourselves. That is the golden rule. To love others well is the golden rule. Love is not what we believe, but how we act. To act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our truth. To be a just person creates a just society. As we champion our causes of social justice. As we point out injustice in the world. As we create and spur conversation around equality and fairness, we must understand that it all comes back to how we treat others. There will always be exceptions. There will always be complex and confusing situations where it may seem hard to see what is right. But if we always come back to treating others with equanimity and mutuality, we will always know what to do. The difficulty is rarely knowing what to do. The difficulty is usually the sacrifice and suffering entailed in loving others well who are not always loving us well. But that is the call of love to suffer well for the sake of love.
In the end, most injustice is rooted in our desire for personal comfort over doing what is right. Much of Jesus teachings were centered around the personal sacrifice required to live a righteous life. Why is doing right so painful? Because it requires that we give up our power in the wrong system of power-over in order to enter into and live out of the paradigm of power-with. That can feel painful. It can seem like weakness. It can even feel like dying. To the ego-centric self so bent around its own power and control, it is a kind of death. But as Jesus said, when we deny that ego-self, take up the task of putting it to death, and learn to follow his example of love, we will lose that false self only to find our true self within a totally different social system all together. That system is one of power with. It is a system where the most powerful are choosing to be the most powerless, by giving their power to the least powerful in order to maintain the proper balance of power. How ever power is defined - as money, influence, possessions, prominence, position, or control – the only way a just society can thrive is as we learn to take whatever power we have and continually give it away. Whatever advantage and privilege we have, we understand it in light of our ability to keep using it for the benefit of others. That is the essence of love. It is about our power to preserve and maintain right relationships with everyone and everything around us, not our power to use and abuse everything and everyone for our own benefit. Until we understand the grounding principle of justice in terms of how we love and treat others, we will miss the very engine of what creates and sustains a just society. In this Contemplation always seeks to point us first to the work we must do within ourselves in terms of love and the obstacles in ourselves towards loving well. As we learn to be a force of love in the world, we will naturally also become a force for justice. Love and justice are the same thing. All that justice requires of us is easily defined by the golden rule, which can easily be summed up by how we love others. We all know what love is like. We can feel it in our bones, even when the external world surrounding the truth of love can seem confusing. Love always treats others well. Kindness, mutuality, fairness, freedom, generosity, mercy, justice, equality all help define loving action towards others. But regardless how we define love, we always know how it feels. We know what it feels like to love well, and be loved well. We know what it feels like to be pushed around, controlled, manipulated, oppressed, and robbed of our freedom. We know what hate feels like. Even when we are acting “justly” within an evil system that excuses and confuses hate for love, we can still feel our way through to what is right and good. We can still choose to love, and be a presence of love in a space where everyone else is excusing hate through an unjust system. The very term “systemic oppression” means a system which excuses oppression for the sake of some perceived good. But it always frames good in terms of what is good for one group or individual in opposition to what is good for others. If we are harming even one, for the benefit of others, that is not good. Even if 99.9999 percent of a group is benefiting, and only one person is harmed, that is still not good. Good is what’s good for 100 percent of everyone, 100 percent of the time. We must define good in the largest sense, or we will end up with something less than good. Good is me doing what is good for others. When we’re all doing that, it will be good for everyone. When only I am doing that, it will not seem good at all for me. But that is the true sacrifice love requires, to step out of an evil system and do what I know is good, right, and loving, even if and when the system punishes me for it. That is true resistance. That is a true protest of what is evil, by practicing what is good, even when I know it will not be good for me. Doing what I know is good for others, regardless how it benefits me, is the way forward. It may be a hard way, but if we are not willing to walk it, how can we expect to get to anything better than what we currently have. Who will take the first step? Who will sacrifice and suffer first for the sake of love? Who will show the way? You cannot sit back and wait for someone else to do it. You cannot wait till it is easy and safe. Going along with an evil majority will not get us anything but more evil. Wherever you are, wherever you live, whoever you are whoever you’re around, there is a clear place for you to begin to set the example of love in your world. How you treat others at the office, in the grocery store, on the road, at the movie theater, and online is the place where love and justice can move forward, or not. It’s up to you. You can be that one who begins to set the example, take the first step, and start doing what is right regardless what everyone else around you is doing. You can choose to be a just person. You can choose the way of love.
I recently made a new friend. We actually live in the same town, and at one time even attended the same church. But that’s not how we met. We got to know each other online through a discussion thread of a mutual friend. I don’t remember the initial post, but this individual read my response and challenged what I said. He basically called me out and challenged me to defend a statement I’d made about God being ultimate truth and reality. I won’t give his real name, for his own privacy; I’ll just call him Mike. Mike is an Atheist, who’d once been a Christian, who’d even gone to Bible college, then Seminary, and even pastored a church. But through a lot of truth wrestling and life happening Mike got to a place where he no longer believed in God, hence the challenge to my comment about God being ultimate reality. I did not respond immediately to his challenge, but told him I needed some time to give a more thoughtful response. A few days later I sat down, put together a decent and kind response, and the conversation eventually led us to a private messaging conversation on our own. What we both discovered, despite our polarized beliefs about God, was that we had a lot in common. What we had most in common was a desire to search out truth. We were both voracious lovers of truth. I’ve met few others who have as well thought out beliefs as Mike. Even though his truth journey has led him to a different place, I love hearing and engaging with him in his truth. He’s a bright, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and loving person. By now we’ve had some pretty lengthy discussions on a whole range of topics. We both view the existence of God very differently, but we actually have a lot of similar views on religion and spirituality. Even though Mike is an atheist, I’d put him up there as one of the most spiritual people I know. I genuinely love who Mike is, and I wouldn’t change anything about him, or the journey he’s on. It’s his journey anyway, not mine. I’ve come on that journey for a time, for now, but I don’t see it as my place to do anything more than enjoy walking with him on that journey, however long that is. It’s not my job to convince or convert him to my beliefs. My beliefs and his beliefs are secondary to our friendship. We’ve both expressed that same desire to put our friendship above anything we believe. Our friendship comes first. It’s why we can have a friendship to begin with, despite some differences between our beliefs, because our most important beliefs entail, not some right thinking, but a right way of behaving towards each other. This has allowed us both to easily bridge the gap between our different ideas to a space of mutual respect and love. In truth, I know his views and beliefs about God have challenged me, caused me to doubt, and enabled me to wrestle with some of what I believe about God. I love that. It’s been good for me to question myself through his questions to me, to rethink some things, and to come out on the other side more firm in what I believe. But through it all our friendship has grown, not suffered, despite our differences. I’ve met few people like Mike, who place a higher value on people than truth. The world needs more magnanimous Mike’s, and less religious Randy’s who place a higher value on their right truth than right relationships. We can all approach our “truth” religiously, or we can approach it relationally, where we place a higher value on our relationship with others than their relationship with our truth. Love comes first. We can choose to love others well regardless our differences. Love is ultimate truth. How we love creates our reality. The world for us is shaped by how we love. Any “truth” we hold that allows for hateful treatment of others, even if it is good truth, is truth held in the wrong way. True truth is about how we love others, not some abstract moral ideas. There is no other place where morality is spoken more truly than in how we choose to treat others. Actions are not only louder than words, they are the only words that matter. We speak with our lives. How we live determines the kind of society we live in. We are a part, and must do our part to be love in the world. It all comes down to this; to act justly, to love well, to empower others with the power we have been given, and to choose to never oppress another no matter how it is justified or excused by the power systems in which we live. We always have a choice. Love always shows the way. And we always know what love feels like. Contemplation calls us into the work of ridding our lives of anything in conflict with our ability to love others well. The golden rule helps us keep it simple. Love makes everything clear. Even when we fail to love well, at least we can know that love is what is leading us on, and what we are trying to do and be in the world. Love and justice go hand in hand. When love rules the day, justice will win the day. Personal justness equals social justice. Loving others well is all that justice requires. I believe that. I’m trying my best to live that out. Will you join me? Will you join Mike, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Saint Francis, Mr. Rodgers, and all the others who have suffered well for the sake of love, to be that love in the world? The choice is yours. You may not always do it well. No one ever does. But you can determine to stay with it, to stay on the path of love, to keep trying, to commit yourself to it for the rest of your life. That’s what I’m going to do. I know it will prove out in the end to a good life, for myself and others. Even if no one else does it, I will. That is the best I can do. I can choose to love. I can choose to act justly. I will. Will you? It’s up to you. It’s up to each of us individually, how we will interact and react within the social systems of power in which we live. No matter where you are, or what kind of world into which you have been born, you can rise above. You can be free. And you can become freedom for others. Oppression has everything to do with how you choose to act within the power-systems around you, whether to act with them, or to step out, pull your power out, and become empowered in a different way. Justice is always within our hands to live out. Oppression is what we do to ourselves, and what we allow others to do to us. No matter how heavy, we can always stand up under external oppression when we have established our internal freedom. It is ours to make. Freedom and justice come from within. When we have learned how to love ourselves well, we’ll know how to love others well. Then what we do to others will be good, because we also know what is good for ourselves. The justice we make for ourselves will become the justice we act out towards others. It all begins and ends in each of us. That’s the crux of contemplation. That’s how justice in contemplation works. Now, it’s up to you to work it out for yourself. As you do, it will bear fruit for others too. Personal justness will lead to social justice. And that kind of justice will prevail. If you don’t believe that, then you have already given up. If you do believe that, then go and do the work you need in order to become a just person, and a person of justice. They are one and the same.