My religious tradition has a lot to say about justice. Beginning with the Talmudic injunction “Justice, Justice, thou shalt pursue,” the nature of our obligations to ourselves and others has been an abiding preoccupation of Jews..
My religious tradition has a lot to say about justice. Beginning with the Talmudic injunction “Justice, Justice, thou shalt pursue,” the nature of our obligations to ourselves and others has been an abiding preoccupation of Jews throughout our history. One example is the great story about Rabbi Hillel who, when asked if he could teach the entire Talmud to someone while standing on one foot, replied “Certainly. Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you. That is the entire message of the Talmud. The rest is commentary.”
This formulation of what later became the Golden Rule is typical of the Jewish approach to justice—let’s not push too hard. Unlike the more activist “Do unto others…” version, and unlike Jesus’ admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we were pretty content to define good behavior as the absence of bad behavior. I once asked a Rabbi to define for me the central difference between Christianity and Judaism; his answer was that Christians were directed to love their neighbors, while Jews were merely under orders to treat them fairly. (This was a relief to me. I thought I could probably manage fairness but I would have real trouble loving some of these folks.)
Of course, it is not only the great religions that have wrestled with the question of justice. Philosophy is centrally engaged in defining what the contours of a just society might look like. One philosopher whose work has greatly influenced contemporary political notions of “the good society” is John Rawls. Rawls began with a novel device: the so-called “veil of ignorance.” Imagine, he says, that you are deciding the rules of a society, deciding what will be fair, who will get what. You get to draw up the rules—but (and this is a crucial “but”) you don’t know in advance what your own place will be in this society. You don’t know in advance whether you will be rich or poor, Jewish or Christian or Muslim, beautiful or deformed, healthy or chronically ill, gay or straight…in short, you must create a system that you will feel is fair to you, no matter what your position in that society.
It’s an intriguing way to approach the subject of justice.
How would each of us remake the world if we didn’t know our eventual place in it? What kind of laws would Woody Burton sponsor if he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t be gay himself? What measures would Jesse Helms endorse if he might find a black face staring back at him from the mirror? Would welfare “reformers” be as enthusiastic about the need for “personal responsibility” and time limits on benefits if they knew they might end up poor and disabled? Would Pat Robertson be so sure he knows “God’s will” if he could be reborn to find himself gay, or female, unmarried and pregnant?
At base, of course, religion and philosophy are sending the same message. Despite the annoying arrogance of those who spend their energies being publicly pious, most religious traditions caution both humility and due regard for the “other,” however defined. Most philosophers try to determine the nature of human relationships and obligations in a just society. And most of the answers come down to some version of putting yourself in the other fellow’s shoes.
What the Christian Right and other fundamentalists have yet to understand is that the search for justice isn’t a zero-sum game; it isn’t a struggle for power. Justice is indivisible. Either everyone has it, or no one does. That’s why the struggle for gay rights isn’t just a struggle for gay rights—it’s a struggle for human rights. And that’s why it has to involve those of us who aren’t gay. If we are human, it’s our fight too.