This is the second of three Sundays that will address the issue of compassion and justice in human relations, or how we treat each other in light of our First Principle regarding the inherent worth and dignity of every person. While it would be nice to say that the Program Committee worked with me to plan this emphasis during the holiday season, I cannot honestly say that. We simply fell into it thanks to a couple of e-mails from Beryl Shahan. She suggested the topic we addressed last week, the Doctrine of Discovery, and sent an e-mail with a number of links to our Program Committee. Likewise she included a second e-mail that has links to the material that Lydia Gittings will use next week to lead our discussion regarding torture and solitary confinement in our prison systems.
This morning, however, I want to focus on the larger picture that is hinted at in the words of the Second Principle, specifically three words: justice, equity and compassion. I will begin with this selection from “Compassion and the Individual” by the Dalai Lama.
One great question underlies our experience, whether we think about it consciously or not: What is the purpose of life? I have considered this question and would like to share my thoughts in the hope that they may be of direct, practical benefit to those who read them.
I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. Neither social conditioning nor education nor ideology affect this. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don't know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves. Therefore, it is important to discover what will bring about the greatest degree of happiness.
For a start, it is possible to divide every kind of happiness and suffering into two main categories: mental and physical. Of the two, it is the mind that exerts the greatest influence on most of us. Unless we are either gravely ill or deprived of basic necessities, our physical condition plays a secondary role in life. If the body is content, we virtually ignore it. The mind, however, registers every event, no matter how small. Hence we should devote our most serious efforts to bringing about mental peace.
From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion.
The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.
As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!
Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase.
Clearly the Dalai Lama sees compassion as the central element in life. Equally clearly he sees true compassion as a motive force, not an abstraction or mere philosophical concept. To him, compassion resolves in action, and action brings about change in circumstances.
But that is only one aspect to consider. Let us turn to Plato and his account of Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus regarding the nature and function of justice.
Justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects. Therefore, just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action. As injustice implies ignorance, stupidity and badness, It cannot be superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit.
Unlimited self-assertion is not a source of strength for any group organized for common purpose, Unlimited desire and claims lead to conflicts.
Life of just man is better and happier. There is always some specific virtue in everything, which enables it to work well. If it is deprived of that virtue, it works badly. The soul has specific functions to perform. When it performs its specific functions, it has specific excellence or virtue. If, it is deprived of its peculiar virtue, it cannot possibly do its work well. It is agreed that the virtue of the soul is justice. The soul which is more virtuous or in other words more just is also the happier soul. Therefore, a just man lives happy. A just soul, in other words a just man, lives well; an unjust cannot.
Justice implies intelligence, and results in more effective actions, according to Socrates. Thus within the second principle it becomes a guide or conduit through which compassion may flow. The application of justice makes compassionate actions more effective. Yet we have one more concept to introduce into this: the concept of equity. In the volume “The Moral Teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas” we find the following in Question 120 regarding equity.
Article I.—Is equity a virtue?
R. Human acts, about which laws are framed, are so many singular occurrences of infinite possible variety. Hence it was found impossible for any rule of law to be established that should in no case fall short of what was desirable; but legislators have their eye on what commonly occurs, and frame their law for that: yet in some cases the observance of that law is against the equality of justice and against the public good. In such cases it is evil to abide by the law as it stands, and good to overlook the words of the law, and follow the course that is dictated by regard to justice and public expediency. And this is the end of equity: hence clearly equity is a virtue.
§ 1. Equity does not abandon justice absolutely, but only justice as fixed by law. Nor is it opposed to that severity, which abides by the words of the law in cases where it is proper to abide by them: to abide by them otherwise is an error. Hence it is said in the Codex: “Beyond doubt he offends against the law, who holds fast to the words of the law, while striving against the will of the legislator.”
§ 2. To Augustine’s words: “Once laws are established and sanctioned, it must not be allowed to the judge to judge of them, but to judge according to them,” it is to be said that he judges of the law, who says that it is not a good enactment; but he who says that the terms of the law are not to be observed in this case, does not judge of the law, but of a particular business that has occurred.
§ 3. Interpretation has place in doubtful cases, and in them it is not allowable to depart from the terms of the law without the decision of the ruler; but in clear cases the need is, not of interpretation, but of execution.
Article II.—Is equity a part of justice?
R. As said above, q. 48, a virtue has three sorts of parts, subjective, integral, and potential. Equity is a subjective part of justice. Legal justice is directed according to equity. Hence equity is a kind of higher rule of human acts.
§ 1. Equity in some sort is contained under legal justice, and in some sort goes beyond it. For if legal justice is said to be that which obeys the law, whether as to the terms of the law or as to the intention of the legislator—a weightier consideration; in that view, equity is the weightier part of legal justice. But if by legal justice is meant only that which obeys the law according to the terms of the law, at that rate equity is not a part of legal justice, but a part of justice in the widest sense of the term, marked off from legal justice as going beyond it.
So we see that if compassion is the motive force behind our actions and justice the mechanism by which those actions are directed, then equity becomes the allowance for error that makes accommodation for imperfect human nature and our inadequacies in administering compassion or justice in a perfect manner. It becomes the safety valve that prevents compassion or justice from becoming imbalanced or formulaic, and thus having the intended impact of our actions diminished.
Therefore, if our belief in the worth and dignity of the individual moves us to action, then compassion, justice and equity give us a solid framework in which to cast those actions effectively. They also give us an equally solid benchmark to judge our actions and the actions of others.
For example, there is this recent story from Pennsylvania regarding the actions of a judge there.
Mark Ciavarella Jr, a 61year old former judge in Pennsylvania, has been sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison for literally selling young juveniles for cash. He was convicted of accepting money in exchange for incarcerating thousands of adults and children into a prison facility owned by a developer who was paying him under the table. The kickbacks amounted to more than $1 million.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned some 4,000 convictions issued by him between 2003 and 2008, claiming he violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles – including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. Some of the juveniles he sentenced were as young as 10 years old.
Ciavarella was convicted of 12 counts, including racketeering, money laundering, mail fraud and tax evasion. He was also ordered to repay $1.2 million in restitution.
His "kids for cash" program has revealed that corruption is indeed within the prison system, mostly driven by the growth in private prisons seeking profits by any means necessary.
Corruption of the judicial system, undermining both our ability to administer justice effectively and our trust of the system entrusted with its administration. This is followed by another story from Massachusetts.
In a maddening scandal that is rocking the state of Massachusetts, a government crime lab chemist has been caught intentionally forging signatures and tampering with evidence in as many as 40,000 cases, destroying the lives of countless innocent Americans.
Annie Dookhan worked as a chemist for the State of Massachusetts, and it turns out she had close relations with prosecutors.
These prosecutors were able to successfully convict innocent Americans because Dookhan would chemically taint the “evidence,” resulting in career boosts for the prosecutors while innocent men and women were torn from their families and locked in cells.
Prosecutors praised Dookhan’s work and depended on her to get the convictions they wanted.
Hundreds of “convicts” and defendants have already been released, and there are potentially thousands more waiting to be set free.
And finally there is this story from Rochester, New York.
Three African-American students who were waiting for a school bus in Rochester, New York were arrested on Wednesday morning when police officer told them to “disperse,” even though witnesses said they did nothing wrong.
According to WROC, basketball coach Jacob Scott had arranged for a school bus to pick up the boys to take them to a scrimmage on a day when school was closed.
A police report claimed that the boys were blocking “pedestrian traffic while standing on a public sidewalk...preventing free passage of citizens walking by and attempting to enter and exit a store...Your complainant gave several lawful clear and concise orders for the group to disperse and leave the area without complaince [sic].”
But the students and the coach dispute the police version of events.
“We didn’t do nothing,” student Raliek Redd explained. “We was just trying to go to our scrimmage.”
“We was just waiting for our bus and he started arrested us,” student Wan’Tauhjs Weathers added.
Daequon Carelock, who was also arrested, lamented that anyone could be “just downtown, minding your own business, and next thing you know, anything can happen.”
Coach Scott arrived just as the boys were being handcuffed and was also threatened with arrest.
“He goes on to say, ‘If you don’t disperse, you’re going to get booked as well,’” Scott recalled. “I said, ‘Sir, I’m the adult. I’m their varsity basketball coach. How can you book me? What am I doing wrong? Matter of fact, what are these guys doing wrong?’”
“One of the police officers actually told me, if he had a big enough caravan, he would take all of us downtown,” he noted.
Scott called the incident a “catastrophe” for the boys and witnesses who were traumatized by the arrest.
“These young men were doing nothing wrong, nothing wrong. They did exactly what they were supposed to do and still they get arrested,” Scott remarked. “I’m speaking to the officers with dignity... and still and yet – they see me get treated like nothing.”
Rochester school board member Mary Adams expressed her outrage at the arraignment last week.
“I think the charges should be immediately dropped and I think the district attorney’s office should be stepping in and looking at these kinds of matters,” she said.
“I’m very concerned about a pattern of young people being abused by police authority,” Adams told WHEC. “To me, this seems like a really clear case, part of a pattern.”
A trial for the three students is scheduled for December 11.
(UPDATE: The charges against these teens have been dropped by the District Attorney "in the interest of justice.")
Each of these stories illustrates a failure in a societal system that we trust not only with keeping the public safe but also protecting innocent people from being wrongly convicted. Each of these stories illustrates a very dramatic, almost obscene violation of the public trust. And each of these stories illustrates a gross failure to consider the dignity and worth of others. I think this is something on which we would all agree.
I also suspect that given a few minutes on Google or at the library, we could each find three similar stories less than six months old that illustrated similar violations of the public trust. Such stories have become far too commonplace, and at times we simply become numb from reading about them constantly, day after day.
As Unitarian-Universalists each of us, in our own way and through our own understanding, agree with the proposition set forth in our first principle. Last month we explored that and found broad areas of common ground. Our second principle now challenges us with two simple questions. The first question is: So what do we do? In reading about the injustice in these stories we should become offended at how they violate our beliefs. But if we do nothing other than be offended, does that offense really mean anything. You are offended...what are you going to do?
Compassion, the human response to suffering, motivates us with the desire to do something to help. If a friend loses a family member in a tragic auto accident, compassion makes us what to help in some way. If a family member is ill and in need of help, compassion moves us to respond to that need. Compassion in the human heart answers the question “What are you going to do?” with “I need to respond and not remain inactive or silent.”
But then we are challenged even further with a second question: “How do we respond effectively?” Here justice and equity must guide our actions, lest our compassion be wasted in futile efforts or actually make things worse. Justice and equity require us to learn about the situation before we take action. They require us to step out of our comfortable habits and expand our knowledge, perhaps in uncomfortable ways, as we prepare to act with compassion.
December 10 is the United Nations Human Rights Day. It is a day set aside to consider all aspects of human rights issues worldwide. It is an opportunity for us to look around us for ways that the rights of people are being violated. It may be storm damage or drought bringing disease or hunger to a remote nation. It may be the unfair treatment of people by a foreign government, or our own government. It may be lack of funding for health care, education or workplace safety. Or it could be any other issue that particularly touches you and moves you to action.
But in light of our Second Principle let us commit not only to taking action based on compassion, let us commit to allowing that compassion to be guided by principles of justice and equity, for then our actions have the best chance of bringing about our intended results.