Sermon, November 8, 2015 Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations
My first ministry was in Atherton, a small town on the western periphery of the Greater Manchester conurbation in north west England. It was a very nondescript working class town, caught in the grip of Thatcherism so that its only two industries of cotton and coal had been ruthlessly closed down, a town of small red brick terrace houses, in the middle of which improbably was the Unitarian Chapel, a building of truly stunning beauty.
I want to tell you a story of something that happened during my ministry there. A year or two in, I conducted a wedding. She had been married before, had two young children, and was about four months pregnant. He was several years younger. Anyway, I got to know them some, as you do, and the wedding had been a happy day. I had not seen either of them again for several months until one sunny afternoon I was walking down the main street and I saw Jimmy standing on a street corner. So I sauntered up to him, full of the joys of Spring, and greeted him cheerily.
“Hey, Jimmy, how are you doing?”
“Not so great,” he replied. “The baby died an hour ago. I’m waiting to meet the kids from school to tell them before they get home.”
Oh no, I thought. I told him I would go straight to their house. On the way I was thinking to myself, why could I not have been walking on the other side of the street? Why did I have to bump into him? I wish I hadn’t greeted him, and then I wouldn’t have to face this horror. I had a knot in my stomach as I knocked on the front door. What could I say? What could I do? I had no idea. Remember, I had been a minister for all of a year or so. I had never faced a situation like this before.
The woman answered the door. She was ashen. She was surprised to see me – how did I know? – but her brain was processing the fact that the minister was standing on her door step just an hour or so after this terrible thing had happened, her baby had died of sudden infant death syndrome. She held up her hand at me and said “Don’t say anything!” I was kind of relieved. She had saved me from my embarrassment at having nothing to say.
I spent the next couple of hours standing mute and helpless in the corner. I watched as the two older children came home and burst into tears as they flung themselves into their mother’s arms. I had no idea what to say, what to do. I felt so utterly useless, like I was little better than a voyeur to this family’s grief. Finally I made my pathetic excuses and left, with the promise to return the next day for more hours of feeling completely impotent. A few days later I conducted the funeral, the coffin not much bigger than a shoe box. As difficult as that was, at least I knew what my role was.
Here is the point of the story. There is nothing I could immediately do or say which could fix this family’s grief. There was nothing for me to do except be with them in their pain, their rage, their confusion. And, more than that, to try to “fix” it would have been deeply offensive. To have tried to justify this terrible event, to tell them that all of this was part of God’s plan, that Jesus wanted their baby for a sunbeam, that everything happens for a reason, whatever platitudinous bromide I might have come up with that might in any way have been interpreted as telling them what they must do, or how they must understand their grief to make themselves feel better, would not only have been inappropriate, it would have been deeply offensive. The mother instinctively knew this. “Don’t say anything” she had said. She wanted no facile sermonising from the likes of me. As time passed, I was able to help them some to come to terms with their loss, but first I had to be with them in their pain. The work of compassion was first and foremost simply to be with them, and with my own discomfort because of my impotence.
This sermon is about the second Unitarian Universalist principle – Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations, and how we make that principle real in the world. And what I want to say is that those three words roll well off the tongue in that order – justice, equity and compassion – but the truth is they are should be the other way around. First must come compassion. First must come the experience of truly being with another in their pain and rage and grief and suffering without trying to fix it, to feel in your bones that this other person is not a statistic, not a number, not an item on a social justice or political agenda, but a person. Not to immediately start offering our solutions to their problems.
We, who have power, must sit awhile with powerlessness. We, who think we know so much, must wrestle with the discomfort of our not knowing. We must be present whatever our own discomfort and confusion. Without that compassion, a word which means feeling with, that willingness to be truly present with another’s pain, we are little better than technicians, administering technical solutions to what we perceive as technical problems.
Young Susie was late home from school.
“Where have you been?” asked her mother.
“I met Mary on my way home. Her bicycle had broken, so I stayed to help.”
“But you don’t know anything about fixing a bike” said her mother.
“I know,” replied Susie. “I stayed to help her cry.”
And what of equity? I have just finished reading a remarkable book, The Spirit Level, by two British academics, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and its sub-title is Why Equality is Better for Everyone. This book is not some Marxist rant, but a very well researched and reasoned argument that the greater the income inequality in a society, the greater are all sorts of undesirable consequences. The research focuses on the major developed nations in the world, but also contrasts income inequalities between the fifty states of the United States. And here are their findings. As you increase income inequality, you increase the rates of crime and incarceration, you increase the infant mortality rate, you increase the rates of teenage pregnancy, you increase the rates of homicide, suicide, mental and physical illness, you increase the lack of social cohesion. You decrease the willingness of neighbour to help neighbour, you decrease levels of community involvement, you decrease standards of literacy and further education, you decrease concern for the environment and the common weal.
The American dream is that upward mobility is available to anyone who works hard, that anyone who really wants it can become a millionaire. As if being a millionaire in itself is a laudable aim. But the stark reality is that social mobility is far greater in those societies with higher income equality. The American dream is a sham. It does not work. It is a lie sold to the poor to blame them for their state of chronic poverty. The United States, a country now with greater income inequality than any other developed country, has less social mobility than any other developed country. If you are born poor, with very few exceptions, you will remain poor, and you will suffer all the indignities of your poverty until you die, younger than you might have done.
Imagine you are playing Monopoly against one other person. The other player has been given all of the properties around the board, and $100,000. You have been given Baltic Avenue and $100. And of course you lose. And the reason you lose, obviously, is that you are a lousy Monopoly player.
In other words, as income inequality increases, all of the benefits and advantages of society decrease. And the reverse is true. And curiously, it does not matter how you attain income equality. In some countries with a high level of income equality, such as the Scandinavian countries, the equality is achieved through taxation after income. In other countries, such as Japan, it is achieved before income. The means are irrelevant.
But here is the really interesting thing. You might think that creating a more equal society could be achieved only to the detriment of those who would otherwise be at the top of an unequal society. That the gains of those coming up from the bottom could come about only through the losses of those being brought down from the top. But such is not the case. All of the measures show that those at the top live longer, are healthier in body and mind, are happier in more equal societies. The delusion is exploded that having lots of money for oneself does not lead to a happier or better life when you are part of a society in which others have so much less.
And justice? Is there anyone who is against justice? But what do we mean by justice. I had a fascinating experience thirty years ago. I was asked to be part of a four person delegation of the British Unitarian Peace Fellowship that went to Northern Ireland. This was in 1985, when The Troubles were at their height, when the Irish Republican Army was planting bombs in Ireland and mainland Britain (bombs largely bought with money from the United States, by the way. Do you want to talk about the evils of financing international terrorism?). Belfast was a city under siege. The mood of the city was oppressive with fear and mutual hostility. We spent a good deal of time with our denominational cousins – the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland – but we also visited some Catholic institutions, met with Catholics working for peace and understanding and reconciliation between the warring factions.
Both sides spoke of justice. Both sides wanted justice. But their definitions of justice were markedly different. When the Catholics spoke of justice, they meant they wanted an end to the centuries of political, social and economic discrimination to which they had been subjected by the Scottish Presbyterian immigrants who had settled their land, sponsored by the British Government as part of its deliberate policy of suppression. Whereas when the Protestants spoke of justice, they meant that they wanted punishment and retribution for those murderous terrorists.
What do you mean when you say justice? Do you mean, just us? That the law should be only for our benefit, protecting our property, safeguarding our rights and privileges, even if at the expense of others? In this country’s dark chapter of slavery, “justice” was meted out to slaves who were not sufficiently obedient, subservient. Justice came in the form of the lash, and worse. The injustice of anyone being subjected to the lash because of the colour of their skin, because of the inferiority of their social class, the gross injustice of being enslaved, recognition of such injustice did not register on the radar. What is your definition of justice in the case of someone who breaks the law by jaywalking, and is beaten to a pulp by police officers for doing so. Oh, did I mention that the person was black? What is your definition of justice when the law itself is an outrage?
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. There is the fourth element in this principle, the element of human relations. We all live in community. Unless we have chosen to live the life of a hermit we all are dependent upon each other. It always amuses me when some self-satisfied dolt informs the world that he is a self-made man. For starters, I am thankful that the rest of us are spared any blame for this conceited cockerel, but what delusional nonsense. None of us could survive if it were not for others. We are all dependent upon the labour and industry of others for our physical survival, we are equally dependent upon others for our emotional survival. We cannot choose not to be in relationship with others. What we can choose is the nature of that relationship. We can treat each other with respect, or with indifference. With kindness or with cruelty. We can seek to build each other up, or break them down. Which is it to be? Which do you want?
It is our collective Unitarian Universalist ambition that we might live up to our own second principle of justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and to invite and encourage others, whatever their religious beliefs or lack of, to do the same. I want there to be more Unitarian Universalists in the world not because I want to boast about our market share, or because I want fancier church buildings or other trappings of commercial success. I want there to be more Unitarian Universalists, and I want you to want there to be more Unitarian Universalists, because I have no doubt that this world would be a better place if more people genuinely embraced justice, equity and compassion in human relations. That is a part of our work. That is what we are here to do. And every day, we get a chance to do it.