Justice and the American Way

Throughout the past weeks our news headlines have been filled with discussions concerning what justice should be in today’s American society.  For the past two weeks the people of Florida have been outraged after an unarmed African-American youth was shot and killed while walking home from a convenience store.  News reports tell us  this is the second time an unarmed youth has been killed, leaving in its wake confusion as to whether or not a crime has been committed, because the law in Florida permits lethal force by civilians when they believe they are in need of self-defense.

Just a week earlier, men and women throughout this country became enraged when Rush Limbaugh publicly slandered a female law student after she spoke before congress in defense of  making birth control a mandatory part of all employer health care policies.  Rush’s harsh words were seen by many, myself included, as having crossed the line of decency in public discourse.  To this many have called for justice by demanding his advertisers withdraw their support and for radio stations to cease broadcasting his show.  In a society where the freedom of speech is a core value, we find ourselves asking where the line of decency needs to be drawn in regards to the public forum and what does justice look like when the line is crossed.

As we widen the circle around Mr. Limbaugh, the president’s plan to require all employer health plans to include the availability of birth control has raised all sorts of questions centering on justice. Questions that include women’s reproductive rights, the right to safely terminate pregnancies if it is the woman’s need or desire over that of the rights of unborn children.  This controversy has also called into  question our right to the freedom of religion in relation to the laws of the state.

All of these recent national controversies center on what justice is and should look like here in the United States. None of these discussions come with clear answers.  And all of these debates are conversations wem as  Christian people,  need to be part of as we live into our  fifth and final vow of Baptism to “strive for justice and peace among all people, by respecting the dignity of every human being.”

The justice we are to strive for, is not the justice that often comes to mind.  When the people of Florida cry out “justice for Trayvon Martin” in relation to the arrest of his killer, they are fighting for retributive justice, the justice of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But when the people of Florida shout to modify the law that may allow Tayvon’s killer go unpunished without a trial, then they are fighting for distributive justice.  This type of justice strives to level the playing field so that there is fairness and equity for all.

It is distributive justice that John Dominic Crosson argues is at the heart of what the Reign of God seeks and at the foundation of what Christ taught.  As Americans, we are all in agreement that the elderly and disabled need to be cared for, that our children whether rich or poor have the right to access health care, adequate nutrition and basic education.  The controversy, however, is often how to accomplish these goals. Because the struggle with distributive justice will often affect us where we feel most vulnerable. . . and that. . is in our wallets and pocket books as those who have more resources are asked to give more so those who have none may have enough.

In Torah, God commands Israel  every seven years to forgive all debts  and every fifty years, all lands are to be returned to their original owners.  I suspect, like you and me, the ancient Israelis felt these commands of the Divine were great ideas. But when the time came to put it into practice and those who held the debts of others were forced to give up what was owed to them, it probably didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

Recently I have struggled with my own issues of distributive justice. As the father of two young adults, I have been pleased that the State of New York is considering raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.00 an hour.  Pleased . . because I have been appalled by the fact, that a person can work forty hours a week at minimum wage or just above and find themselves still living at or below poverty level or just above the poverty level but still have no medical coverage, or the ability to live in basic, decent housing.  This is our daughter Chelsea’s reality, who, despite having a college degree, is working two retail jobs and even if given full-time employment could not make basic expenses while living in the Ithaca area. In fact, the salary one store is offering her to work full-time is still below the estimated living wage for an individual living in Tompkins County.

So as a father and as a priest, I am all for the justice that can be brought about by increasing the minimum wage in New York. However, I am also a consumer, and I know  for a fact, if the minimum wage increases, so will most consumer goods in this state, and my buying power will be greatly reduced.  As I think about this, I have to constantly ask myself, as one, who like many of us, doesn’t feel I have enough but in reality has too much, is this a price I am willing to pay, or should be willing to pay . . .so another can have just enough.

As I ponder the question, I know how God wants me to answer it, and not just because of the direct effect for my daughter, but this doesn’t make what may be a just answer any easier.  But imagine what this world would be like, if we all were to make sacrifices so God’s just reign could prevail.  Maybe then, everyone would have equal access to health care, adequate housing, education and good nutrition.  Maybe by then the twenty- to- one salary policy created by ice cream makers Ben and Jerry would become the corporate norm.  And no CEO would make more than 20 times the lowest paid employee.

This would be a world in which the working poor are a thing of the past. A world were teens can walk home in safety, no matter what they mat be wearing, where public discourse maintains the boundaries of respect and issues of justice, are discussed through the lens of respecting the dignity of every human being. In short, it would be a world in which God could fully reign.

Will you strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being?  To this we say, “we will, with God’s help.”


My question for the week, where do you find injustice in America, and to what price are you willing to fix it.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dick Wiley says:

    It should be pointed out that Rush Limbaugh publicaly apologized for his remarks.

    Regardless of whether providing birth control items is good or bad, making it mandatory seems to be an arbitrary requirement made by “officials” who have no power to make such rules. The cost must be borne by those who pay insurance premiums. I don’t see any end to arguments about such “rights,” how many there are or who should pay for them. For example, I’ve had many of my teeth capped because my “original equipment” failed. At over $1000 each, clearly, America denies Dental Health Rights to the poor. I think that trying to pay for “rights” of this kind will quickly use up “other people’s money” and in the process destroy motivation to pay our own way.

    I give at least 10% of my earnings to support causes I choose, but I do not want others to decide which causes I must support nor the amounts I must “give.”.

    1. frcraig1 says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t want to address Mr. Limbaugh’s apology as that could open a whole other discussion. Just want to say your comments about paying for “rights” is in line with my conversation about the $10.00/hour minimum wage. It costs others and that is often foundation of resistance to distributive justice, it basically becomes costly to those who have more so others can have enough. As history proved out, even Israel was not too thrilled with the concept of the jubilee year and the return of property.

      So I have to ask,is striving for God’s justice part of what Jesus was talking about when he said we must be willing to pick up and carry our cross in order to follow him. In December, I mentioned that Dr. Ellen Davis writes that it is the “lack of the religious imagination, the ability to imagine that this world could be much better or much worse that often stands in our way of moving this world forward towards the Reign of God.” As I reflect on many of the debates I mentioned in yesterday’s homily,I feel Dr. Davis has a point and it is the lack of the religious imagination in imagining this world could be much better that prevents us as a country from moving forward with change.

      FR. Craig+

  2. Dick Wiley says:

    I’ve never been sure what the purpose of the minimum wage was. I don’t think it is to lift people out of poverty if they earn it for 40 hours a week Whatever the purpose, to keep its effect, it must be raised now and then due to inflation. I note that the minimum wage today is several times higher than the starting pay was for an engineer in 1960. It seems to me that the minmum wage has had little effect on anything (perhaps it has contributed to inflation). What really counts is what is produced in exchange for the wage. What point is there to hire someone to do work if what they produce is worth less than the cost to hire them? One effect of the minimum wage is to eliminate those jobs which involve doing things that are worth less than the minmum wage. I imagine that God’s Reign would include allowing everyone the pleasure of producing at their maximum–being all they can be. Then, like the feeding of the 5000, distribution would not be the problem. The problem would be dealing with the surplus.

  3. Dick Wiley says:

    I suppose part of my problem with distributive justice is whether or not it is voluntary. I don’t think we can legislate compassion. Is increasing voluntary compassion part of the mission of the church?

    Regarding the “Ben and Jerry” rule: Consider a large company with 100,000 workers. If the CEO is paid 1000 times the wage of the workers, firing the CEO and dividing the money saved among the workers gives each an increase of only 1%. Even if it is “unfair,” I’d rather leave the decision of the CEO’s pay up to the company directors and stockholders (and ultimately market forces) than to lawmakers.

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