There is something distinctly surreal about history. Though history is a series of concrete events, the way that we tend to think about it is in the abstract. Both our physical and psychological distance from events makes us likely to view specific and concrete events (particularly our own positions in relation to said events) through hypothetical lenses.
“You know, I definitely would have marched with Dr. King.”
“There’s no way I would have gone with the Nazis. You know that picture with everyone doing the Nazi salute except that one person? I would be that person.”
“There’s no way I would have crucified Jesus.”
People say these things with conviction despite the fact that to have actually done any of these things would have gone against the status quo of that time and therefore was rather dangerous and difficult to accomplish, and despite the fact that there is zero evidence in their current reality of resisting the status quo. Abstraction, it turns out, is much easier than reality.
It’s why you can cheer Katniss igniting a revolution over injustice towards District 12 in the Hunger Games, but scoff at black people in the streets protesting against police brutality. Or why you identify with the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird, even though he doesn’t actually save his client. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson talks about this blindness to reality in exchange for abstraction:
Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyer’s name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full of despair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. His is shot seventeen times in the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, pg 24.
In my own life, I dream of Love. Sometimes I even write about it. Idealized love is glamorous, full of grand gestures and basically revolves around me and another person who gives me exactly what I want. Which isn’t anything like love in real life. As Dostoevsky says: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” To love in real life brings the abstract into startling focus. The object of my love no longer exists solely in my head, but instead is embodied in a completely separate human being who lives in my house, eats all of my food and steals the covers every night. Love in real life is hard (even with people I’m related to) because of proximity – you can’t love somebody from across the street. You have to be in close contact with another person and that closeness (which enables you to know and love them) is what keeps many of us in the abstract realm. Because closeness is costly.
It will cost you time (that you could be spending salsa dancing or watching Dowton Abbey) and patience (that you don’t have) and energy (that you never have after work)– maybe even money from your checking account (which might mean no visiting Ray in Germany this Winter). Perhaps the cost of Love or Justice or any of our other ideals is unquantifiable, but I’m certain that it will cost you something – maybe everything.
How much are you willing to pay to do Justice or to Love or show Mercy? What are your ideals put into practice worth? I think that most of us upwardly mobile middle class folk want to write a check and call it good so we can go back to enjoying our local craft breweries and farm-to-table yummy restaurants. “I’m a good person”, we can declare with no shame. “I gave money to something”. And we can keep our ideals safely esconced in the abstract and ignore (more easily) the voice in our hearts that’s telling us that it isn’t enough. I give about 12-15% of my annual salary to Christian organizations devoted to social justice. I don’t think that’s a bad thing (nor a noble thing to be emulated) but it is a way to keep justice in the abstract. It gives me the illusion that I am “for justice” without having to bring Justice into proximity and get my hands dirty.
What I’ve found on my own journey is that if I want to answer a question or figure something out (like what does “doing justice” entail) then I have to grapple with it –I have to get my arms around it so that I can bring into focus. In order to wrestle, you’ve got to get physically close to whoever you’re sparring with– I don’t know of any wrestler who doesn’t use his hands when he’s on the mat. And I don’t know of anybody in close combat that doesn’t get their hands dirty. Another great quote from Just Mercy, is this reminder that Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother often gave him:
You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,” she told me all the time.
And that’s what I am finding out about Doing Justice. Getting close means that it’s not a one time deal. Not just writing one check and never altering the way that I live my life. It’s continual. It’s consistent– maybe even a lifetime’s worth of something. It’s a way of aligning my life (in every aspect from money to housing) that respects the dignity of the people around me.
What I told my girlfriend Peppa (and what I can tell you) is this:
What does that look like for you in your neighborhood?
Honestly I don’t know. I wish that I could tell you the magical 5 steps to answer the beautiful questions that you are so obviously grappling with, but this is something that you will have to answer for yourself. I believe that you –we all—are uniquely gifted to do Justice in your neighborhoods.
So keep grappling with this; Try out your local food shelter or homeless administration. Try afterschool tutoring or being a big sister. Foster kids, volunteer at the local food kitchen. You are more than capable of wrestling this to the mat and bringing it into focus and I will gladly be your sounding board. But get your hands dirty, don’t keep Justice (or Love or Grace for that matter) in the abstract.
Put your beliefs into action.