Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Second Principle

This originally appeared in Outwords magazine in Jan. 2010.  

            The second principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association calls us to affirm and promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”  Like many moral and ethical maxims this principle seems self-evident.  Of course we wouldn't want to promote injustice, inequality and callousness.  However, if we examine more deeply our own lives and interactions, if we fearlessly question what is  meant by these words, “justice, equity and compassion,” we may find in this one principle enough spiritual and psychological work to fill an entire lifetime.
            First, let us begin with justice.  What do we mean by justice and by what standard may we determine a just act?  In our post-modern world it should go without saying that definitions of justice are both relative and socially defined; definitions of justice have varied greatly throughout time and across cultures.  The law of reciprocation, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, has been considered a just dictum by many societies, both past and present.  In modified form, this is the basis of our legal definition of justice and the basic rule of thumb that most of us unconsciously follow in our day-to-day lives.  If someone is rude to us, we tend to be rude right back, and do not consider ourselves to be acting unjustly. 
            The more spiritually advanced, however, in all times and places, have preached vociferously against the law of reciprocation.  Rabbi Yeshua taught that if a person steals your jacket you should give them also your shirt (Matt. 6:40).  The Gautama Buddha preached that hate cannot be overcome by hate, but only by love (Dhammapada, Ch. 1, verse 5).  Over and over again we are warned against reflexive reciprocity, informed that this sort of justice will be ultimately self-defeating.  “An eye for an eye,” as the bumper-sticker says, “makes the whole world blind.”
            As UUs, we are called to define our justice in terms of equity and compassion.  Where there is inequity there is no justice; where there is no compassion, justice hides her face.  Compassion, first of all, is necessary.  Compassion is not pity, nor does it seek to excuse or downplay the actions of others.  Compassion does not mean a lack of accountability but rather a recognition that my being and the being of another are not essentially different.  Compassion means to approach the other as another “I,” another myself.  Compassion accepts the other as a complete individual, as rife with contradiction and paradox, with light and darkness, with knowledge and ignorance as I myself am.  Compassion accepts,   but does not judge. 
            Feeling compassion for others, true compassion as opposed to maudlin sentimentality, leads automatically to a sense of equity.  I cannot view as equal one whom I pity, whether for their lack of wealth, intelligence or status.  I cannot view another as equal until I have granted them the same dignity of being that I feel myself to possess.  To do this requires that we step away from our normal, socially inculcated feelings of personal exceptionalism.  Before we can view others as truly equal to ourselves we must admit that there is, in fact, nothing special about ourselves. 
            As UUs then, we define just relations as those carried on in an atmosphere of compassion and equity.  This does not mean that we will not disagree with our equals or end up in heated discussions with people for whom we feel compassion.  It does mean that any relationship in which I fail to have compassion for the other, fail to treat them as an equal, is by definition unjust.  As always, the test of such a commitment and such a practice comes in interactions with those with whom we disagree.  It's easy, relatively, to maintain just relations with my fellow UUs—harder to do so with the fundamentalist Christian who wants to save my soul or the inebriated transient who's decided to take a nap on my stairway.  And yet I must, for it is not a true equity that does not include every person, not a true compassion that denies itself to any.
            And now, like a good UU, I will state my beef with this principle.  Why only human relations?  Why not justice, equity and compassion in our relations with the “natural world,” with our animal and plant kin-folk?  Should we not seek equity, compassion and justice in all relations, be they human or otherwise?   

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