Feb 13 2013
My friend Terry and I walk out of the darkened movie theater, still immersed in Les Miserables’ gritty world of 1800s Paris—the Paris of the 99 percent. Outside, the bright southern California sun and the garish colors of the mall seem less real than the world we have just left. The movie’s message—that sacrificing for justice is worthwhile, that love really can conquer fear, that forgiveness is possible—is so much easier to see and hear when the characters’ hearts and minds are laid bare in relentless close-ups and in soul-stirring song.
Outside, in the great mix of people distracted by merchandise, hungry for French fries, and jostling for each other’s attention, the arc of the moral universe seems much less distinct. When the challenges and rewards of daily life occupy every waking thought, how do we make time to look at systems of justice or injustice that affect us in less visible ways? When so much is wrong with our world, when so many people, creatures, and ecosystems are suffering, how do we choose the specific cause or causes to which we will give our limited time, energy, and resources? And when we do get involved, how do we sustain ourselves through both the heartbreak and the exhilaration—again and again and again?
As a survival strategy, each of us tries to pick one way or another to approach the work of justice. Sometimes we rage against the harm that human beings do to each other, to other creatures, to the planet. We use that rage to fuel our fight for change. Other times, we focus on all that’s good, beautiful, and hopeful about life itself, trying to store up enough joy to keep us going as we do the hard and partial work of justice making.
I think we need both/and. Both the rage and the joy, the pain and the hope, the clarity of a powerful story told on film and the messiness of the real world outside the movie theater. Both the big vision, and the tiny steps that inch us toward it.
For instance, some folks pooh-pooh the efforts of Unitarian Universalists who traveled to Phoenix last June for Justice General Assembly. What do we have to show for it now? some ask. While in Phoenix, we met with justice-seeking partners on the ground—immigrants, immigrants’ rights organizations, people of many faiths and of no religious affiliation. We studied strategies for social change that have succeeded, and learned important lessons (often by making mistakes) about how to communicate across differences in life circumstances. We stood outside Joe Arpaio’s Tent City, waving battery-operated candles in the air, chanting slogans, and singing songs—though “Kumbaya” was not in our repertoire, as some have joked. The goals of Justice GA were to increase the visibility of an unjust immigration policy (national media coverage: check), to demonstrate our solidarity (from partners’ testimony about the power of our presence: check), to gain skills and competencies to take home to our own communities (workshops, worship, practical training: check), and to go home equipped to do transformative work (those results: still to be determined).
Going to Phoenix was like going to an inspiring movie: we learn, we yearn, we have a peak experience—and then we step outside into the messy mixed-up world. Now we have to find each other, to gather together. We have to do the hard work of disagreeing, choosing, encouraging, getting discouraged, and doing it anyway. We have to do the small work of signing petitions, writing letters, making phone calls, going to meetings (and to parties), ensuring that our combined voices are heard.
That’s what this month on Justice is about at the First Unitarian Church of San José—what every month is about, really. Finding each other, gathering together, doing the hard work and the small work. Remembering: sacrificing for justice brings meaning to our lives. Discovering: love really can conquer fear. Experiencing: the joy of our combined spirits, the thrill of those moments when the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice.
I’ll see you there!
With love and hope,
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