Justice for All, or Justice for None

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

This month, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., his life, his work, and his message. Although the Civil Rights Movement, as we now know it, began garnering attention and measurable traction around 50 years ago, the truths spoken by MLK couldn’t be more relevant to our situation right now. People who have been historically marginalized, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals, are currently being targeted under the guise of “bringing back traditional values.” And we are facing the inauguration of a new president whose campaign and future administration openly disregards the civil liberties of over half the population.

But when traditional values ultimately oppress a select group of individuals, does this benefit the larger, collective whole? Perhaps a deeper understanding of boundaries will help us answer this question. In his Rediscovering Lost Values sermon, MLK said, “Some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it’s wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong.” Implying a fundamental pillar in the fight against civil injustice, MLK often claimed that the solution to the wrongness of hatred was it’s polar opposite: the rightness of love.

But where is the boundary between love and hate? And how can we recognize it more readily? In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, MLK explained how to discern right from wrong when he wrote, “Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” This not only refers to a division between justice and injustice, but it explains the boundary between right and wrong, love and hate. It’s the difference between what lifts us up and what brings us down. Which brings us back to our first question, if people are being oppressed or degraded, no matter the number or magnitude, is there any way this might benefit the collective whole?

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illustration by Lauren Cierzan; http://www.laurencierzan.com

Some might argue that oppression is a phenomenon of human nature, that it is normal for some people to hold more power and to exert that power over those who have less. This theory is inherently woven into the theory of capitalism, which is a structure based on patriarchal values of competition, authority, and access to resources determined by physical domination. Perhaps these are the “traditional values” for which so many people today are vehemently fighting. But this argument explicitly denies the peaceful existence of egalitarian social structures, where each individual is respected and revered simply for existing and being a part of the whole.

If we take an approach inspired by MLK’s ideas about “uplifting the human personality,” how might this shift the fundamental values instilled in our culture? Quite possibly, just as love is the opposite of hate, the solution to injustice might be the opposite of “traditional values.”

Community sharing, individual expression, and leadership roles determined by honest relationships and compassionate action – perhaps these are the principles that might benefit the larger, collective whole without the high costs of inequality and oppression. 

If we think about an entire country (or entire world) as a metaphor for a living, breathing human body, we might see things a little different. This is not an amputation situation. There is not a choice of “trimming off the fat.” We need the whole body and every single one of it’s parts in order to live and breathe fully. Likewise, we need to LIFT UP the diversity of our human brothers and sisters in order to maintain a world that is worth living.

by Maria Borghoff

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