September 13 – Power and Justice
Mary Sawyer, Religious Studies and African American Studies at Iowa State University
For many, the word “peace” speaks of the absence of violence, of harmonious relations, of good will toward all the earth’s inhabitants. Others of us remember the admonition that “there is no peace without justice.” Indeed, trying to move to peace without first doing the hard work of justice typically is a set up for failure.
Who was not moved by Rodney King’s plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” How many soldiers have looked into the eyes of an enemy combatant only to recognize their human self in the face of the other? How many of the world’s children have handed a fistful of handpicked flowers to the parent who the night before had beaten or molested them?
Rarely do such actions bring about peace. They may lead to a temporary suspension of violence. They may produce a veneer of niceness. But any person who has experienced abuse knows that niceness too often obscures evil.
It is no different for ethnic or religious or political groups. It is no different among tribes and nations.
Social systems and institutions, if unchecked, invariably generate social inequalities of hierarchy, dominance, and exclusion. Inherent in this inequality are unequal power relations that lead to the exploitation of cheap labor, denial of access to critical information, the theft of natural resources, war against people of color, and suppression of women.
In none of these situations will justice be obtained merely by putting one’s arm around the enemy. Achieving peace and a sustainable world are far more complex than that.
Civility and the seeking of common ground are important elements in securing peace, but neither is in itself sufficient. Intense focus on identifying areas of common concern may at the same time deflect attention from practices that continue to generate injustice and that need to be challenged.
Civility is a desirable thing, as the recent specter of uncivil town hall meetings reminds us, but civility is not synonymous with either justice or peace and ought not preclude respectful but steadfast confrontation. If we give weight to the goal of justice, then just “getting along” and “being nice” will not suffice.
Historically, the leaders of every significant social justice movement—be it concerned with labor, or civil rights, or the environment—have understood this. What is required is a redistribution of power and resources so that all parties can come to the table as equals. This, in turn, as Martin Luther King tried to tell us, requires a thorough transformation of our values and priorities.
Real justice also requires acknowledgment of the trauma to which people have been subjected, and the means to heal that trauma. It requires openness to and skills for resolving conflicts. And it requires that the means we use to bring about change be consistent with the ends we seek.
Violence cannot produce peace. And the valuing of profits above people cannot create a world where all have true quality of life.