Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on Justice, Mercy, Beauty and Choice

I call him by his real name, despite the numerous nicknames that he's adopted and that people at work are always throwing around — I'm like that, I used to call my preschool friends Christopher, and Jeffery, and Angela. He calls me Mundo: from Alison, to Ali, to Alamundo! like a war cry or something someone yells before leaping out of a plane. And now, it's just Mundo, which means "world" in Spanish, though I'm pretty sure he doesn't know that.

courtesy of just.Luc (just.Censored), via flickrLife is Suffering

Yesterday he told me about the revelation he had while thinking about Schindler's List, about the old woman who was shot in the back of the head for stumbling, about the people who were murdered for no reason at all, the derangement of arbitrary killing. And he realized, he said, that "life is like that — you go through the world thinking there are rules and trying to do the right things, the things that will make a difference — you clean yourself up and quit the drugs and the drinking because everyone tells you it will make your life better and it's the right thing to do..." But the truth is, suffering is arbitrary, and pain so often unjust. You can do everything right, follow all the rules, and still walk through the world struggling and uncertain and alone.

And what's worse: sometimes those people you try to help, try to do right by, are ungrateful or selfish or flawed, sometimes they are puppy-kickers, sometimes they are the bastards holding the guns, sometimes — worst of all — they are innocent and happy and entirely unaware of how much you have given so that they can float through life on a pink fluffy cloud of security and self-assurance. And who are you, anyway? How pink and fluffy is that cloud that follows you around, dumping anxiety and inadequacy and prozac and corporate logos onto your bent head all day? We want to believe in causality and consequence, in the rational function of justice in the world — and yet, there is always something more you could be doing, and what you have done always seems ineffectual and misguided.

Where Is Peace?

I have been thinking about this, too, reading Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. The long history of the world, it seems, is people losing faith in their gods and heroes, discovering that carefully-prescribed sacrificial rituals cannot always spare them disaster, that reason can lead them as often into irrelevant sophistry as into kenotic paradoxes of silence, that while compassion and kindness and nonviolence are obvious they are also in general very badly done. And in the midst of these contemplations, are the thousands of dead in Haiti, the corpses piled in the streets, and another coworker of mine with a plane ticket in his hand for this Wednesday to go visit his family, a ticket now useless, and nothing but unanswering silence when he tries to call home.

I could say that I am angry at all the rich people in this country for believing so strongly in their ambassador of prosperity, the Almighty Dollar, running their telethons and sending their compassion truncated and stamped in green as impersonal donations, like the epitome of the saying: too little, too late — how I'm cynical that, despite the destruction and arbitrary suffering, despite the cruelty of our Mother who shrugs her shoulders and kills, our faith in finance isn't shaken a bit and we might even, deep down where we cannot admit it, feel a bit relieved that finally here is a way that our gods can step in and save the day on our behalf. (Or perhaps it's the relief that even the fickle, frightening gods of Consumerism and the Market are quelled in the face of tragedy and in that moment we are allowed to demand of them the self-giving of compassion.) I feel it too, there in the dark, urging that this is the right thing to do, that if this isn't justice, at least it's something like it, something close. At least it's better than sitting in my living room, praying, picturing imaginary peace and comfort that may never come. Yet in the small, cluttered office at work, a man sits at the company computer scanning through lists of the dead looking for names he might recognize. And am I supposed to offer him money? Am I supposed to offer him prayer?

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when most people in this country celebrate diversity and the continuing struggle against racism; but for me, it is also a day to celebrate pacifism and compassion, a commitment to nonviolence, a commitment to peace. This is about more than race, or money, or politics. This is about how we respond to suffering.

courtesy of seeks2dream, via flickrA Triad of Peace

We are so used to thinking about justice in terms of the blindly swaying scales of right and wrong, reward and punishment, revenge and reparation. We think of mercy as something else, something that turns away from justice for the sake of love and forgiveness. The pacifist, we think, cannot be just, because sometimes justice demands that bad people be punished and hurtful deeds be repaid in kind. We believe the pacifist must be a passive-ist, sitting back and acquiescing, doing nothing instead of responding with just retribution. The merciful person is the one who could act, who could punish or penalize and who would be justified in doing so, but doesn't. And so, we believe, we must choose: justice, or mercy; righteousness, or forgiveness; action, or passivity.

But this is a tension between two opposites, a duality that restricts us, limits our capacity to choose and to live freely and creatively. There are times when "mercy" alone seems weak and impotent, when "justice" unmitigated seems harsh and unfair. Druidic philosophy teaches us to seek the third, not merely a compromise between two opposites but another element entirely, one that can open up the tension of this-or-that, give it a spaciousness — give us room to move.

Three things that make peace: justice, mercy, and beauty.

What is "fair," after all? A thing of beauty, that which has a lightness of being, that which is gentle and warm, rather than hostile or violent. While "justice" comes to us from words meaning "upright" and "pure" — the unbending, the rigid boundaries between sacred and profane. And "mercy," the gift, the kindness bestowed, unearned, undeserved. One forever standing, on forever stooping, both concerned with restoring relationship to what is proper, appropriate, beautiful, fair. When we speak of justice: only the guilty, the violators can right the wrongs they have committed and restore that balance, through repayment or by suffering punishment equal to the suffering they have caused — justice will demand it of them. When we speak of mercy: those with the kindness and compassion restore relationship, through the gift of forgiveness, lifting up the flawed and the weak, guilty as they may be — mercy will overcome them. But how do we respond in times when there is no guilty party to be blamed, when natural forces cause suffering, and mercy appears too much like pity? Where is peace, where is the balance and harmony of right relationship, in such times, and how do we seek it, how do we help to create it? We create beauty.

And beauty is dynamic, it shifts, it moves — it is a balance that changes and responds. It is intimate; it is personal; it whispers. And sometimes, in the face of injustice, in the face of suffering and pain and tragedy which is simply and unremittingly unfair — sometimes the best response, the response that will restore relationship, is to be beautiful to one another. To mix this appeal in with the others: be just, be merciful, and be beautiful. The pacifist knows this, and because she knows this she is never passive, always active, always creative, always in the process of making peace. Even in times of terrible loss and grief and ugliness, when others look for scapegoats to blame or forgive — and finding none, flounder and stall and stumble to a stop — the pacifist knows that peace-making is not only about upholding justice and offering mercy, but about creating beauty, creating a moving balance out of failures and flaws, making harmonious relationship where before there was disconnection and silence.

Choose to be Beautiful

And there will be people who tell you this isn't enough. But then, nothing is. What could possibly be enough? When he comes to me and says, "Mundo, the world is shit" — am I going to tell him he is wrong, that it all works out in the end, that there is a plan, a the big picture, and God is watching us from a distance? I figure you have to start from where you are, you have to face the possibility that he's right, the world is shit, and this is what you have to work with. And then you have to make a choice. Sometimes all you can say is, "Yes, but..."

Yes... but if the world is shit, if it really is, and no number of rules will bring justice, and no amount of mercy will relieve pain, and nothing you do really matters in the end — then what excuse do you have left? Be beautiful, choose to be beautiful anyway. Choose to be the person you want to be, the best of yourself — choose it not because of the rewards or the consequences, not because of what your beauty will do, but for the beauty itself, for the sake of beauty. Choose to make peace, to create works of art, to laugh and tell stories. Choose to sit in the office and listen to the memories that come bubbling up in grief and worry, and in laughter and affection too, of impoverished life in Haiti, the woman waiting with the pregnant belly, the uncle who drinks, the mother who lectures. Choose to shake his hand before he leaves, and laugh together about the cliché of white clasping black, your small pale hand lost in his huge dark one. Choose to sing the songs you don't remember, and dance your beauty, and call each other nicknames.

I don't have any answers. It will never seem good enough, you will always feel like there is something more you should be doing. There will always be aspects of the world that leave you feeling angry and cynical and impotent and sad. There will always be people trying to shut up your beauty in a box and put that box on a scale and calibrate that scale with disaster and prejudice and hatred and all the wrongs of the world, to make sure you're doing your part to compensate, to outweigh them, to even the score. There will always be people for whom beauty is a paltry, small thing hardly worth noticing. Who insist that it is justice which shapes the world, and mercy which saves it, and that beauty is too intimate and inconsequential to make any difference at all.

And yet... and yet... E pur si muove!


  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful, powerful post. This is brilliant and exactly true. This is why we of the old ways might vow to live in beauty and serve beauty, and embody Divine Love to the very flawed and shaky best of our ability. Even (especially!) when the world Herself is falling down upon us.

    - Beth Owl's Daughter

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I needed this more than I can say.