Thomas Carlyle was once asked by a young man what he could do to make the world a better place. His answer was, Make of yourself an honest man; then you’ll know the world has one less rascal.
So there is a neat encapsulation of the concept of social justice. In order to become an agent of justice in the world, it all starts with you being honest. But is that enough? Our ancestors cautioned us, and in one of my favourite hymns, it says – But have not love. So there is another layer on the concept. If we do not move in the world with honesty and love, “the profit soon turns strangely thin”.
As the world mutates into an increasingly violent and difficult place, the solace of our church becomes increasingly important. However, a church is a house of prophecy, as well as a house of comfort. If you read the Bible, or any of the great holy works of the world’s religions, you know that prophets are a complete pain in the butt. Who is this loudmouth who comes among us and tells us to clean up our act? But without prophets to point the way, keep us honest and encourage the people actually doing the work, a church is just a social club with really cool architecture.
Social justice is living prophecy. We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken. We’ll build a land where the captives go free. The fulfillment of a world’s dream for peace, redemption, justice, freedom and true cooperation involves work.
Social justice is hard work. Many times it has been compared to working in a field, ploughing, planting, tilling, weeding, watering, and then harvesting. You get a little respite, and then it all starts again. Although nature is neutral – and I would say good, but I’m prejudiced – hunger is not. Ignorance is not neutral. Loneliness, boredom, fear, despair and social breakdown – none of these things are neutral. To counter these things requires a clear purpose, a steady mind, and some method, personal to each of us, to replenish ourselves in the face of both overwhelming human need and apparently limitless human greed.
Let us start with a clear purpose. Our job on earth is to find out why we are here and do it.
I really wish I’d got going on that sooner.
The beauty of making this discovery, though, is that once you figure that part out, it is like a perpetual source of light and energy. The light guides your feet, and the energy keeps you moving. When you have a clear calling, you look back on your life and go, Ah. Everything has led to this. Nothing was really wasted. Some people feel comfortable with the notion that this inner light is the interconnectedness of the universe revealing itself in daily life. Others have a more mechanistic view and figure that it is the way our brains work. Some like thinking that it is God. I have always maintained the view that it’s the works that count.
As a Unitarian Universalist, I am much more interested in how your principles reveal themselves in your daily life than I am in nitpicking about whether you believe the Right Things. The wisdom literature is full of what happens when saints of different religions meet. Do they immediately start whipping out the holy books and lecturing each other? Nope. Uh unh. They laugh, they smile, they give each other the kiss of peace, grin like the holy fools they are, because each saint meets someone inseparable from his or her calling. The saint and the calling are one.
By a show of hands, how many people in this room have a clear sense of what their purpose on earth is? Your honesty is a gift to this room.
Well, I’ll share something with you. I was put on earth to make other people laugh.
Humour allows us to reframe questions, poke holes in pomposity, view our own failings with compassion instead of disgust, share embarrassment, disillusionment and anger in a safe way, and completely and beneficially alter our brainwaves, breathing and blood chemistry. Not bad for something so trivial. I wonder why the halls of power have little room for humour, except the perverse enjoyment that flows from the discomfort of somebody who is Other or an enemy.
I only figured out my purpose this past year. Now I must figure out how to harness my life purpose to social justice. I am using myself as an individual and extreme example. What I would like to do right now is stop talking, and give all those of you who don’t know why you’re on earth three minutes to think about it. If you already know, or you find the assignment difficult, just be still for three minutes and lend spiritual aid to the room. I ask the question again, what is your purpose in life?
Three minutes go by.
Slowly return to this room, and to the concept of Social Justice as Spiritual Transformation. Those of you who participated in the meditation can be divided roughly into three groups, people who know why they are here, people who know but are fighting their calling, and people who don’t even know if they’d recognize their calling if they saw it.
As somebody who has been fighting her calling for twenty long and interesting years, I have this to say. The moment of surrender was one of the sweetest of my life. I have watched with amazement as what I need has jumped into my hand, as the support I dreaded to ask for has been freely and lovingly offered, and how the decision was accompanied by an outburst of creativity and personal growth. So if you’re fighting your calling, it’s not as bad as you might think. Amazing things are waiting on the other side.
Social Justice belongs to the people who claim it, who work for it, who challenge themselves with it. This church in the last two years has undertaken four congregational projects to live our principles. We called Katie Stein Sather, in my opinion the smartest thing we’ve done; we did the deep work of examining our prejudices and feelings about the GBLT community; we started our association with SHARE; and we examined our resources and commitment to having a church building, from which we can truly offer a place of refuge through all the days and seasons of the year.
I would like to name the people involved in the food bank, not to shame those of us who have not volunteered � after all, I’m one of them – but to honour those who have. If we don’t take the time to celebrate the foot soldiers in the cause of Social Justice, we may lose sight of ourselves as a group of people committed to making the world a better place.
Names deleted for privacy reasons.
And what of the other things that people in this congregation have worked for? Amnesty International, a Women’s Centre, a Hospice, endless committee work to fight for better schools for all of our children. Child care for International Women’s Day. Marching on Pride Day. Writing letters to the press about the social evil of gambling. Visiting the sick, speaking at funerals. Supporting individuals in the throes of addiction and mental illness; serving in the legislature; shovelling snow for neighbours; walking the pilgrimage road; raising money for a church bell in a far off land. From the very large issues down to the most personal, the members of this congregation have demonstrated over and over a willingness to be engaged, to witness, to work, and to hold themselves accountable to their own personal dream of a better world.
Unitarian Universalists have always been at the forefront of the uncomfortable social changes. Slavery, Women’s Rights, birth control choice, rights for sexual minorities and the extension of marriage rights, reassessment of our draconian drug laws, peace and the rights of indigenous peoples have all been causes that individual UU’s have given their lives to.
And you know what all those UU’s would tell me about the work they did? They’ll tell me it wasnt enough.
As a realist, I have to agree. But the dreaming, visioning, imagining me will answer as well that if you know what your purpose is as an individual, and keep your principles firmly in front of you, whatever you undertake in a group or as an individual will have lasting meaning and value.
If we are to tackle the evils of the world, we’ll need courage, faith, patience, and a lot of hard work. But rather than leave you with a feeling that you now have Save the World on your to do list, I prefer to leave you with a quote from Alan Borovoy, many years the senior counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union. If you really want to make the world a better place, you should find the best people to go make trouble with and have a lot of fun doing it.
So find your calling; put it at the service of your principles; and amazing things will happen. Ours is the everlasting heritage of those uncomfortable prophets. Let us be the best troublemakers that we can, as long as our strength lasts, about the issues that mean the most to us, and leave a legacy of courage and commitment to uplift a troubled world.