Thursday, September 25, 2008

The World Stands on Truth, Justice, and Peace

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel tells us that the world stands upon three things: truth, justice, and peace (Pirkei Avot, 1:18). In Jewish thought, these three qualities are not ideals: they are the precondition for all social life.

Unless people relate to one another with the intent to tell each other the truth (and the belief that truth is being spoken to us), then social life is impossible. It is impossible because the belief that others are speaking truth to us is what binds us together in civil society. Without that belief, we cannot have the confidence that is indispensable to building anything together, to collaboration in any social project.

When lying becomes endemic, when people of the lie prevail, when we expect to be lied to and when we lie to others with no compunction, things fall apart. A society founded on lies is founded on sand, and the sand covers a fathomless pit. Once it gives way—once the accumulated weight of lie upon lie causes the foundations to collapse and all that is built on sand to fall—nothing is left except the pit, which swallows up the mass of corruption riddled by lies.

Justice and truth are closely connected in the social contract. When we live seeking truth, we constantly recognize that, just as our society comprises lies that we are obliged to combat and expose, it also comprises taken-for-granted injustice that troubles all of us, since there cannot be justice at all if injustice is allowed to thrive anywhere.

The taken-for-granted injustice with which we all too often live is founded on lies, on the big lie. It is founded on the lie that we live separate from each other, that I can ignore the burning of my neighbor’s house because surely the burning of his house will never become the burning of my own house, that my salvation is independent of the salvation of everyone else, since I exist apart from them and have no connection to them.

Social injustice is founded on the lie that they are not like me, that their humanity is somehow less than mine, that they do not feel pain as I would feel it if lied to and denied justice, that they do not understand that they are being demeaned as I would understand I was being demeaned when lied to and denied justice. Social injustice rests on the big lie that some of us deserve more in life than others do: more respect, more humanity, more deference, more security, more consideration, more justice and truth.

In the thought of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, truth and justice are practical virtues rather than ideal ones: they are virtues we are obliged to live daily, in every interaction we have with others, precisely because we have an investment in keeping civil society alive for everyone, including ourselves. The healing of the world is not an obligation imposed on sombobody else, in Jewish thought: it is an obligation imposed on me, and it is imposed daily, everytime I invoke the name of God. Truth, justice, and peace are not ideals to achieve at the end of history, when we have reached the goal of human striving. They are necessary to the maintenance of any society here and now.

Without truth and justice there can be no peace. Peace is not the absence of war. It is the condition that happens between human beings and in society at large when truth prevails and people are accorded justice—when we accord justice to others because we desire to live in fidelity to the truth that they are just like us, that they deserve justice every bit as much as we do, that their humanity is no less than ours. Peace flows naturally when people strive to embody truth and justice in their dealings with each other; strife and discord prevail when we refuse to deal honestly with others and to accord others justice.

For years, everywhere I have worked, I have had in my office a poster depicting a table/altar with bread on it. Since Steve is working full-time now and I am not (well, since he is gainfully employed and I am not, and he has an official office), it now hangs in his office.

The inscription on the poster reads, “At the table of peace will be bread and justice.” I have always kept this poster in my workplace because it serves as a daily reminder to me that providing people bread and not stones—that is to say, giving them justice rather than injustice—is daily business. It is as daily as bread. It is as necessary to everyday life as eating is.

If I expect to eat daily bread, then I must also expect to deal truly and justly with each person I meet, every time I encounter another person. There are no exceptions, no moral clauses that permit me to practice quasi-truth or quasi-justice in dealing with others, precisely because there is no such thing as quasi-peace (or quasi-bread). The only peace worth having in life, the kind that makes forward movement together possible, the kind that makes us confident we can build for the future because we are building on solid ground, is the peace that comes from truth and justice lived daily.

I like the poster and the reminder it gives me because it reminds me, too, that religious observance is never sequestered. It never occurs in isolation from the daily. When we try to cloister our religious observance, to pretend that the sacred is detached from the secular, we forget that daily bread and Bread of Life are one and the same. We cannot hunger for the Bread of Life if we refuse to provide daily bread for those around us, those in whose lives our decisions make a difference.

We cannot commune with the Lord at the table the Lord sets when we refuse to commune with our brothers and sisters, by acknowledging the truth that “we are all care of one another,” that we are connected, that what I do affects you. We cannot commune with the Lord when we refuse justice to others by refusing to acknowledge our interconnection, the truth that my decisions affect your life, and when we permit ourselves to be implicated in decisions that deprive others of their daily bread.

As Pope Paul VI put the point, “If you want peace, work for justice.” In our political life, in the workplace, in our family life, in society at large, every decision we make, every encounter with each other, has the potential either to build a better (a more peaceful) society, insofar as we embody truth and justice in our dealings with others. Or it has the potential to do the opposite, insofar as we betray truth and withhold justice.

No decision we make—including our decision about how to cast our ballots—is removed from these considerations about the practical, foundational virtues of truth, justice, and peace. We cannot lament the absence of peace from our troubled society without recognizing the role we play in creating that absence, by our failure to live truthfully and justly in each and every encounter we have with others, each and every day. And we cannot claim to be values voters if we ignore the indispensable foundational practical virtues of truth, justice, and peace in our everyday lives.