Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 6, 2008

“Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations”

Part of a series dealing with the Seven Principles
of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Rev. Catherine Torpey

READING: Matthew 20:1-16

The realm of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. Later in the morning, he saw others standing idle in the market place, and said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went.

Then at noon and again in the afternoon, he did the same. Near the end of the day, he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?”

They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” So the householder said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”

And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired last came, each of them received a denarius. When the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

The householder replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because of my generosity?”


I hope you all caught the Holiday Pageant that was presented here back in December. The young folks did a wonderful job of adapting the old story of the Gift of the Magi and on several Wednesdays working up to their wonderful theatrical offering, I saw how hard they worked to develop the play, learn their lines, block it and deliver it so very well.

On one of those Wednesday evenings, I popped into their rehearsal to observe their progress. As I entered the room, they were discussing the lines and whether any changes needed to be made. One of the young people said to Mino, our interim Director of Religious Education, “Mino, I noticed that some people have only four lines and other people have, like, seventeen lines. I think we need to make the play so everyone has the exact same number of lines.”

This young actor wanted what so many New York actors crave: Equity.

If our young people had our seven principles memorized, one of them might have cried out, “Yeah, the same number of lines, it’s principle two: justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”

Equity—the notion that everything ought to be distributed evenly—is our most basic understanding of right relations in the world. Everyone ought to get the same amount of goodies in life; no one ought to be forced to suffer with extra-ordinary pain. However, the natural world does not abide by our notions of equity: some of us are born with more attractive features or personalities. Some of us are born with extraordinary talents that make us great writers or saxophonists or brilliant entrepreneurs. Some of us are born to parents with more money in the bank.

Our nation’s inheritance and estate taxes are fundamental ways that our society seeks equity—by partially equalizing how much wealth individuals handed by birthright. The sly term “death tax” is a clever way that those not committed to equity in human relations are making the inheritance and estate tax laws sound inherently undesirable.

Left to its own devices, this world does not yield equity for all people, and so it is for us to do our small parts to bring it about.

But exact equity in many cases is an insufficiently complex understanding of right and wrong.

I wondered how Mino would respond to the request to equalize lines in the holiday pageant. She reminded them of the goal of their efforts: to offer a pageant to the congregation that would inspire us by telling us a good story. The story that they’d created together had a certain structure, and some characters were naturally more prominent than others. She pointed out that learning to be a great actor includes learning how to be a silent support on stage, and how to carry the story forward using your body, not only your words. The distribution of lines remained—by a crude standard—inequitable.

A simplistic call for equity does not always yield justice. This was the cry of the workers in the vineyard, in the parable told by Jesus. One of the men was employed first thing in the morning. He agreed to the wage of one denarius for a day’s labor—he felt it a fair bargain. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard distributed one denarius to each worker: complete equity. “But…” cried the worker, “I worked all day, in the hot sun. And you’ve given all the workers the same wage. Not fair!” Yes, the distribution of wages was equitable: everyone got the same. But the workers who had worked all day said, in effect, “It may be equitable, but it is not just.”

And so, if our second principle called only for equity in human relations, we’d all have exactly the same number of lines in every play, and every person would receive the exact same wages no matter what they did. But our second principle also calls for justice.

Justice takes into account the whole set of circumstances which has led to a certain moment in time. Justice seeks not just a crudely equivalent distribution of desirables; it asks where there might be greater need, or where there might be a history that needs to be taken into account.

Justice is the cry of, “But…” such as the one that came out of the mouth of the worker in the vineyard. When we cry out for justice, it is almost always oriented toward the past. The worker in the vineyard looked backward over the course of his day to determine whether the wages he had received were just.

When we look at admission to colleges and universities, it seems equitable to be “color-blind,” so to speak. But like the worker in the vineyard, we ask, how can it be just to judge all races against the same criteria given the past; given the legacy of slavery and segregation?

It seems equitable to say that people who have lived in FEMA trailers in the Gulf Coast have had enough time, compared to how long others have been housed by FEMA in other natural disasters, but we looked to the past and say, “But…” there is so much of the past to account for. This is not just.

The more I struggled with what I might say about justice in this sermon, the more I became aware of how tied the notion of “justice” is with the notion correcting the past.
Each time we call for justice, it seems to be focused on some wrong done in the past.

You would think that writing a sermon about the UU Principle of Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations would be a relatively easy thing. I could discuss all of the various wonderful justice work that UU’s have worked on in the past. I could talk about all of the social justice activities we have been or should be or could be involved in here at SNUUC. I could talk about the CAiR program—the monthly program bringing foster children here for recreation. I could talk about the Cuba caravan and the connections with the day laborer community, including an exciting luncheon event coming up this spring. I could talk about the trip to New Orleans in 2006 and the one that we are trying to pull together for next month. I could talk about the rally this Friday in New York City to shut down Guantanamo and end torture—if you would like to attend that rally with me, please let me know.

But writing this sermon wasn’t easy after all: What kept coming back to me was that the tendency to focus on the past in the pursuit of justice felt contrary to what I am finding more and more in my life to be spiritually healthy.

I was recently riveted by an article written by a family whose son was murdered. This family, as in the OJ Simpson case, had pursued a civil judgement when the accused was acquitted in the criminal trial. I read about what they were doing to cash in on the judgement that the civil trial had awarded them, and while I could never say what a family in such a circumstance ought to do, I could not help but feel that their determination to live their lives centered on the murder was allowing the murderer to take their lives as well as that of their loved one.

I noticed in the article that their pursuit of justice keeps them focused on the horrific moments of their beloved’s death. It becomes almost a sacrilege to them if they do not keep their eyes trained on that terrifying, horrifying few minutes of his murder. At one point in the article, they stated that “nothing we endured as a family would ever come close to what he suffered in the last few minutes of his precious life.”

They talked about how the murderer’s continuing callous behavior over the years has impelled them even more; and I thought about how we can allow our lives to be completely in reaction to those things we most hate.

They write, “One thing remained constant for us—this was about our son, this was about justice denied, and this was about making [the murderer] pay for what he did…. From an emotional standpoint, it is about taking from him, it’s about making him feel the impact of what he did…. We have suffered a great deal and want to see some measure of justice, in whatever form it must take.”

Now, thankfully, most of us have not experienced the trauma that this family has experienced. But how many of us in our own small ways deal with the injustices of our past in this way, and are we holding ourselves captive to the worst moments of our lives?

When we focus on the injustice that has been done to us, are we allowing what we say we don’t want to be, in fact, the very thing that shapes our personalities and our lives?

I was working at Manhattanville College when 9/11 happened. One student I dearly loved was a young Palestinian woman named Amilah. On that horrible day, Amilah couldn’t hide the fact that she was beaming from ear to ear. She would try to suppress it, but there was no mistaking it; she was delighted with what had happened. It took me a week before I could ask her, “Amilah, are you happy that my country was attacked?”

And she answered yes. I asked why and she said, “Finally, America is feeling what my people have felt every day for fifty years.”

So much of who Amilah was, was wrapped up in her identification with the injustices that had been done to her people. Her grandmother had been displaced from her home in 1949, and had lived her entire life wanting only to return to the home that had been violently taken from her. Amilah could not forgive the state of Israel for depriving her grandmother of what had been rightfully hers. When there were reports that a female Palestinian had become a suicide bomber—the first known female to do so—I fearfully asked Amilah, “Are you going to go home and become a suicide bomber?” She replied, “I want to, but I’m a Muslim and it’s against my religion.”

At another time, she confessed that she hated how filled with hatred she was—or, as she stated it, what she hated most about Israel was that it had made her a hateful person.

Amilah had genuinely suffered a great deal. Her family had been displaced and she watched people she loved live undignified lives because of the policies of the state of Israel. During the time I knew her, she received the report that a dear friend of hers—a Jewish friend—had been shot in the neck and killed by the Israeli Defense Force while he had been participating in a peace rally. As with the family whose son was murdered, I cannot judge the feelings that another person has because of what they have gone through, but in the case of this otherwise dear young woman, she herself said that her personality was distorted by hatred. I googled Amilah’s name recently. She was interviewed on a US television station because of her work with an organization called Seeds of Peace, which brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together at a camp in Maine, in order to begin to build bridges. She was quoted as saying that what the value of the camp is, is that, "You put a face to the other side, and then… it's not so solid in you - it becomes, like, they are human, too."

I know Amilah wants to not feel so much hatred, so much pain.

I want justice for the families of murder victims. I want justice for people like Amilah, whose families and communities are in distress because of the actions of someone else’s government. I want justice for all. And yet, there are times when calls for justice seem so bound to the past that there is no light, no air, no freedom. In our own less extreme ways, how many of us allow ourselves to become distorted and bound by past injustices?

What if justice didn’t have anything to do with fixing the past? What if nothing from the past needed to be fixed? What if we were to live our lives convinced that there was no need to correct for the past? What if nothing our parents did to us was the harm we believe it was? What if nothing our spouses or lovers or friends ever said to us was the harm we believe it to have been? What if nothing that we ourselves ever did requires correction? What if everything has unfolded just the way it should have?

If we lived this way—as though the past were not wrong, we had never made any mistakes and neither had anyone else—if we lived this way, would we have a less just world? Part of me fears it—we cannot pretend that all is equitable when there is the past to consider. But part of me wonders if we would simply have better lives? This is the question that has been dogging me as I have pondered our second principle.

We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

There is no doubt that the key is compassion. The family whose son was murdered may never be able to feel compassion for the murderer. My friend Amilah is trying, through Seeds of Peace, to open her heart to compassion for the Israeli people. For all of us, compassion and even freedom may be possible only when we give up on fixing the past.

What if justice came only after we stopped fighting? What if justice came only after we decided to suffer not apart, but together, in compassion?