My Easter and resurrection reflections have drawn my attention once again to one of the peculiarly American liberal Quaker/Christian heresies: we are prone to making an idol of “sensitivity”, taking our desire to avoid hurt feelings to an unhealthy extreme. This idol has a companion sin: we commit acts of verbal violence against people if we think they are hurting another’s feelings. We feel justified and righteous in verbal attacks even when it flies in the face of our peace testimony and our belief in “that of God’ in every person. We seem to think we shouldn’t be loving of people who have hurt another’s feelings or are intolerant. We are tolerant of everything, except intolerance.

I write this with fondness and humor, Friends, because I am, ahem, intimately acquainted with this particular heresy and sin. I could write this as a confession of the times when I have been out of balance in my own understanding of what justice required me to do. “Balance” is the key word here: I am absolutely in favor of sensitivity and clearly naming the injustices we see. Quakers are good at being sensitive and speaking truth to power, although as with most groups, there are a few injustices we ourselves commit, to which we are still blind! I’m proud of our commitment to justice, incomplete as it is in some areas, and though we take it a little bit too far in others.

We love and desire justice, and that is good. But these good things can become idolatrous and harmful when taken too far. They become demonic when they arise from an inability to accept the flaws of humans, human institutions, and the world in which we live.

And oh, what joys we miss out on when we put too much emphasis on achieving complete justice instantly! So let me write about the theological components that I believe could bring our desire for justice into balance and give us a taste of God’s own sweet consolation. I came to these conclusions reluctantly. Resisting, kicking, and screaming, to be precise. All of the following statements used to offend my sense of justice. But much as I disliked them, I have found a deeper joy, greater sense of purpose, and more energy for action in accepting them! I encourage you to meditate on each one of these statements:

1. Life is not fair. In fact, as Buddhists would say, “life is suffering”. I think we have an easier time accepting this when it comes to earthquakes and sickness and death. Unfortunately, I suspect this to be the case with human-made injustices, too. No sooner have we done away with one injustice than another arises in its wake, oftentimes as a result of an over-correction in addressing the first injustice (examples: excessive penalties placed on Germany after World War I may have led to the social conditions that laid the foundation for the rise of Hitler and World War II; the UN’s good desire to create a safe haven for Jews after WWII led to excessive demands on Palestinians, whose land and homes were taken away). God still requires us to do justice and love mercy, so acceptance of the inevitability of injustice is not an excuse for inaction. Acceptance of injustice as the way of the world merely allows us to be generous and merciful as we seek to eradicate injustice.   

2. We humans are all fundamentally flawed, and God seems to be able to work with us anyway. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, challenged the theology of original sin and formulated a Quaker theology that says we aren’t sinners until we have sinned. Still, he claims that humans have “the propensity to sin” – not a one of us will avoid sinning. Knowing that God only has flawed human beings to work with is liberating! We don’t need to be perfect, nor do we need to insist that others be perfect. We know God’s work will get done with whatever raw material God has to work with. Jesus routinely despaired at the limitations of his disciples, yet they were his beloved companions and founded the church. Saul was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers – until he was blinded, turned around, and became a leader of the church! So we can be kind and merciful with a person who falls short, knowing it is only a matter of time until we ourselves fail and want to be met with kindness and forgiveness.

3. Brokenness, sin, and death can be sources of new life. When someone suffers, God finds a way to redeem the suffering and bring forth new life. I recently wrote about my daughter’s experience of injustice on the basketball courts here. Not a major injustice in the grand scheme of things, but to me a small-scale illustration of how character and compassion grow forth out of adversity. In my own life, I became deeply depressed and miserable when I learned I was pre-diabetic, but made changes in my life that ultimately made me healthier, more energetic, and more respectful and appreciative of my body than I was when I thought I was healthy. Sometimes we can even do damage if we insist on justice before the process of resurrection has come to completion. 

4. We are just sojourners here on earth, visitors in a strange land. Our true home is in God. As long as we wander on earth, we should expect previews and foretastes of heaven, yes. But we cannot expect that we will see the divine order fulfilled here and now. Walter Wink has done a tremendous service in proclaiming that every human institution is 1) created for a divine purpose, 2) fallen, and 3) redeemable. Rather than berate leaders of institutions when their fallen nature is visible, we can call forth the Divine purpose for which they were created and invite them to strive for redemption. But true joy and peace lies in knowing that we can never be fully satisfied with anything or anyone here on earth, and not to place our hopes in institutions or organisations that cannot truly satisfy our deepest longing.

In all of these statements, our good desire for justice becomes idolatrous when we seek to push outside the true nature of Gods’ creation and intentions, when we want people, institutions, or the world to be something they cannot be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How do I know when my pursuit of justice becomes idolatrous?