October 14, 2012
“Justice, Equity, and Compassion
in Human Relations”
Rev. Dr. Gretchen Woods
Sometime between 750 and 687 BCE in the small
village of Moresheth in the Judean foothills southwest of
Jerusalem, there lived a common man named Micah who
was deeply distressed by the evil and injustice he saw in the
religious and political leaders of his time and place. In is
efforts to call his people back to true worship of what is
ultimate, he uttered these profound words, “. . . and what
does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love
kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?” Justice, equity,
and compassion in human relations – hardly a new concept.
Throughout our rich history as Unitarian Universalists,
this theme repeats. The Universalists began with the
understanding that a God of Love would not, could not,
damn human beings to Hell for all eternity; that justice would
be meted our, but with equity and compassion for the human
condition. This led Universalists to become strong social
activists, living their theology in powerful and significant
ways. They were in the forefront of many major reform
movements as a result of their belief in justice, tempered with
equity and compassion.
In the 19th century, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker
justified the abolition of slavery out of his understanding of
radical monotheism, a foreshadowing of process theology.
For him, “Numerous distinctions between men on the basis
of race, class, or nation are erased, at least theoretically, since the one God is equally the Father of all.” (Dirks, John
Edward, The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker. Westport,
CN. Greenwood Press, 1948. P. 108) In that same century,
numerous Universalists, including Mary Rice Livermore and
Olympia Brown, used the concept of God as love as the
basis for efforts, not only to abolish slavery, but to establish
child labor and welfare laws and to bring women the vote.
In the 20th century, as Unitarians and Universalist, and
then as Unitarian Universalists, we have been active in the
civil rights movements of African-Americans, women, and
gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans-gendered people. James
Reeb and Viola Liuzzo gave their lives trying to bring justice,
equity, and compassion to African-Americans in this country.
More recently, a Unitarian was shot to death while serving as
an escort for a physician at an abortion clinic in Pensacola,
Florida. Some of our best-known contemporary writers,
including May Sarton, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut,
made justice, equity, and compassion themes for short
stories and books.
Many of the members of this congregation work for
justice, equity and compassion, likely many more than I can
cite today. Let me just call attention to Randy Trowbridge and
Helen Dwyer who dedicate their time to helping youth at risk
learn to read. Gary Wilhite is active with Veterans for Peace.
Our middle-school youth lead us by raising money to
improve water availability and quality around the world. Our
high-school youth lead us by supporting the CROP walk next
week, not only with your pledges but with their presence on
the walk. Please consider joining them. All these are aspects
of justice, equity, and compassion.
As Unitarians Universalist, we are called, not only by
our Principles, but also by our history and heritage, to live
our agreement to affirm and promote justice, equity, and
compassion in human relations. We are called to recognize
that we are not all equal. This creates a richness in life not to
be overlooked or undervalued. Still, each of us has a rightful
claim to the resources of life that are here for all of us. We
are asked not make the Orwellian mistake that “some are
more equal than others,” though current politics seem to
assert this at every turn.
As I thought about justice, equity, and compassion, not
surpringly, the image of a balance scale came to mind:
justice as one plate on the scale, equity as the center of
balance, and compassion as the other plate on the scale. It
is a vivid reminder that they are each and all essential for the
We face a major question: How do we balance justice,
equity, and compassion in a world riven with the realities of
injustice, unfair distribution of resources, and where greed
and power hunger seem to overwhelm love repeatedly?
Living this second principle of Unitarian Universalism asks
great things of us on many levels. We are busy people with
many demands upon our time, energy, and money. How can
we respond without sinking into a morass of despair? Three
caveats occur to me: 1. Beware creating hierarchies of
oppression. 2. Attend to the conflict between “is” and “ought.”
3. Don’t swing at every pitch so you have energy to enjoy the
work. Let’s take a few minutes to examine these more
First – and foremost to my way of thinking – we need to
be careful about creating hierarchies of oppression. We need
to acknowledge oppression wherever we find it, to name the
demon(s) without discounting them by comparisons. John
Donne, among many, assures us that “Comparisons are
odious.” Beyond being odious, comparisons are often simply
inaccurate and reflect the investments of the person
presenting them. They emphasize inequalities, without
acknowledging the call to equity. How can anyone say that
injustices experienced by any group supercede those of any
other? Certainly, this twist is one of the justifications for the
continuing wars in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan – you name it.
Injustices of hundreds – even thousands – of years ago are
pitted against one another, rather than serving as a call to
learn to live in peace and harmony. Closer to home, how can
we determine whether African-Americans or Native
Americans deserve more response to their problems? There
is so much injustice in the world that no one need feel they
do not have some call to work on at least one of them.
This is vividly brought to our awareness when we see
the 99% wondering how the 1% can believe that continuing
to receive greater proportion of benefits from our laws and
our tax money. Trickling down is clearly not working for most
people on this continent, because those who claim the need
for laws to assist them, then send their money to tax shelters
overseas (See the latest issue of Rolling Stone.).
We should not choose one group and place their
concerns above those of other groups. Still – and here is the
paradox, given our human limitations – we need to choose
one issue for our own energies. Provide support for positive
change, whether it be Indy Youth Organization, Second
Helpings, improving public schools, – whatever becomes
your particular issue.
The second caveat is to become more conscious of the
conflict between “is” and “ought.” Part of this involves being
able to perceive the truth of what “is.” For example, this
congregation is not longer a flagship church of 900 members
with 350 children in Religious Education. What “is”?: a
congregation of less than 300 with about 35 children and
youth, and the rich benefactors who always filled out the
budget are all gone. As you already heard, all staff positions
are being reviewed, in addition to the program. How you will
handle this is up to you, but you can’t change what “is” if you
do not acknowledge it.
Yes, you ought to be a congregation of import in
Indianapolis, a voice for these principles in the larger
community. There is no longer a cadre of well-to-do
physicians to make this happen. It’s up to a much smaller
and less well-endowed group of people who may have
tapped yourselves out to help the most recent fully-called
minister after a tragic medical crisis, while those who claim to
care the most for that minister’s family left the congregation.
Why do UUs leave in times of crisis? I don’t know, but I
sometimes wonder if they feel powerless, ineffectual in the
face of difficult times – or just do not want to step up and put
more time, talent, and treasure into the struggle for justice,
equity and compassion.
Conversely, we need to make certain when we think we
are laboring for justice, equity, and compassion, that we are
not enabling continued bad behavior on the part of the
people we are helping. Most of us who lived in addictive
systems know that at some point, you have to stop
supporting self-destructive behavior and insist that people
reclaim their own lives and their own power. Finding balance
is painful and requires serious soul-searching. It is often best
done in community with the kind of conversation I heard at
the Board meeting this past Wednesday. You must accept
what is and take great care to work toward the best “ought”
for one and all. People who leave need to know that similar
realities will arise in every system and becoming part of a
community means staying through the hard stuff.
So, coming to terms with the “is” does not absolve us of
the “ought.” We have a strong religious call to affirm justice,
equity, and compassion. This means we cannot let things
slide. Sydney Harris once observed, “For anything to get
done in the world, the open mind must slam shut and action
must be taken.” At some point, we need to say “enough!” and
move to change the situation.
One of the best lessons I have learned is to do that with
and as allies rather than as adversaries. When we engage
“truth and reconciliation,” seek atonement, we need to find
common ground to actually move forward. When the first
Gulf War began, a reporter who interviewed me kept saying
that I was against the war. I pointed out that I was focused
upon working for peace in the Middle East, not against war.
He did not seem to understand my point until I said that
words are important tools for me, as they should be for him,
and that I choose them carefully. I find that pushing others
builds up energies against me. It may energize me at first,
but ultimately it exhausts me and builds up their strength –
especially if I work alone. So, I am interested in finding those
who work FOR the same things I do and focus on building
relationships and efforts with them. Aikido social action!
In like fashion, I do am not interested in Christian-
bashing as a way to share our faith. If you wish to grow as a
congregation, you may have to accept that many young
people seeking spiritual community are not particularly upset
by the word GOD. They do want to know what you DO with
your values. Can you be equally comfortable with
newcomers who do not share your religious prejudices?
There needs to be room for all, equity, under the big tent of
Unitarian Universalism. Everyone, from atheist to radical
mystic, who shares UU Principles should be more than
welcome at this “welcome table.”
The last caveat I offer with regard to the second
Principle of Unitarian Universalism is that we need to use our
energies wisely and with pleasure. Nothing is so sad as a
zealot who cannot laugh, who has lost the basic joy of living
that underpins efforts to improve life for all. One way this has
been voiced in the “valuing diversity movement” is to “pick
your pitches.” As in baseball, you know you can’t swing at
every pitch that comes along, not and enjoy the game, much
less be effective at it. We need to learn where we want to put
our energies. I suggest that each of you find one thing to do
within your church and one thing to do within your
community – and do those well, rather than running trying to
do everything. Picking what we do intentionally honors our
selves and others by allowing us to focus our energies and
abilities with compassion.
As human beings, we cannot pretend that things are as
they “ought” to be. Justice, equity, and compassion continue
to be demands upon our religious energies. We can,
however, recognize that each cause has its validity in the
scheme of things, that we need to be aware of the “is” and
“ought,” and that we can enjoy the process of working with
this principle if we are willing to choose our causes wisely
with an eye to our own best skills and talents. Thus we truly
engage compassion, as expressed by Mother Teresa:
Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning.
Love has to be put into action and that action is service.
Whatever form we are, able or disabled, rich or poor,
It is not how much we do, but how much love
we put into the doing;
A lifelong sharing of love with others.
Love, compassion, the core of our Universalist faith,
provides the basis for all our efforts. If we can move with
love, rather than fear and hatred, we may prevail in the
ongoing efforts for justice and equity in the world. We shall
have to sacrifice some of our own comforts. And we will
benefit greatly from the improved level of comfort and safety
for all of life.
So Be It! Blessed Be!