January’s Theme - Justice

Sunday Service - January 8, 10:00am
Rev. Julie Stoneberg

Music by Resonance

Justice!  We’re all for it!  But what does justice really look like, and how do we get there?  This is Bring-a-Friend Sunday!


A Vision for Justice
The Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough

January 8, 2012

Rev. Julie Stoneberg


Opening Words                                      - Elizabeth M. Strong

Today we celebrate a dream awakening.

Today we worship with renewed hope in our hearts.

Today we act on an audacity of hopes and dreams for the future.

Today we begin the hard work for justice, equity and compassion in all human relations,

For today is a day like no other and it is ours to shape with vision and action.

Let us worship together and celebrate a dream awakening.


STORY FOR ALL AGES       The Mouse Trap      - Source Unknown

In this story, a mouse brings the news of a mousetrap in the house to other farm animals.  They do not find it worth their attention, but later pay the price for not helping the mouse.


READING        from Passionate Declarations         – Howard Zinn

This reading is taken from the final chapter of Howard Zinn’s book, Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice.  Here, he envisions ways we might build a better life for everyone.  One of the ways he suggests is a conversion of language. Zinn writes:

New definitions of old terms could become a part of the common vocabulary.  The old definitions have misled us and caused monstrous harm. 

The word security, for instance, would take on a new meaning: the health and well-being of people, which is the greatest strength and the most lasting security a nation can have.

The word defence would mean, not the waging of war and the accumulation of weapons, but the united actions of people against tyranny, using every ingenious device of nonviolent resistance.

Democracy would mean the right of people everywhere to determine for themselves, rather than have political leaders decide for them, how they will defend themselves, how they will make themselves secure, and how they will achieve justice and freedom.

Patriotism would mean not blind obedience to a nation’s leaders, but a commitment to help one’s neighbours and to help anyone, regardless of race or nationality, achieve a decent life. 

It is impossible to know how quickly or how powerfully such new ways of thinking, such reversals of priorities, can take hold, can excite the imagination of millions, can cross frontiers and oceans, and can become a world force...

History does not offer us predictable scenarios for immense changes in consciousness and policy.  Such changes have taken place, but always in ways that could not be foretold, starting often with imperceptibly small acts, developing along routes too complex to trace.  All we can do is to make a start, wherever we can, to persist, and let events unfold as they will. 


On our side are colossal forces.  There is the desire for survival of [now over 7] billion people.  There are the courage and energy of the young, once their adventurous spirit is turned toward the ending of war rather than the waging of war, creation rather than destruction, and world friendship rather than hatred of those on the other side of the national boundaries. 

There are artists and musicians, poets and actors in every land who are ready to make the world musical and eloquent and beautiful for all of us, if we give them the chance....They also know the power of the imagination and can help us to reach the hearts and souls of people everywhere....

There are teachers in classrooms all over the world who long to talk to their pupils about peace and solidarity among people of all nations and races.

There are ministers in churches of every denomination who want to inspire their congregations as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to struggle for justice in a spirit of joy and love.

There are people, millions of them, who travel from country to country for business or pleasure, who can carry messages that will begin to erase, bit by bit, the chalk marks of national boundaries, the artificial barriers that keep us apart.

There are scientists anxious to use their knowledge for life instead of death.

There are people holding ordinary jobs of all kinds who would like to participate in something extraordinary, a movement to beautify their city, their country, or their world.

There are mothers and fathers who want to see their children live in a decent world and who, if spoken to, if inspired, if organized, could raise a cry that would be heard on the moon.

It is, of course, an enormous job to be done...All we need to do is make the first moves, speak the first words.


MESSAGE                        A Vision of Justice

At the end of last week, I attended the January Learning Convocation, a gathering of students and professors and leaders, at our seminary in Chicago.  Meadville Lombard Theological School has just moved into a new space, now sharing with Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, an incredibly attractive building on Michigan Avenue overlooking the lake.  I must say that I felt very comfortable amidst the signs that reminded us which parts of the building were kosher.

On Friday afternoon, January 6th, not yet 48 hours ago, I took a walk wearing just a long-sleeved T-shirt and a scarf.  It was both invigorating and unsettling.  How could this be January in Chicago?  There was something very wrong, and yet I drank in with gusto, this opportunity to take a walk without the bundle of a coat.

Michigan Avenue is lined with prestigious establishments and exclusive specialty shops.  The sidewalks bustle with people in swanky suits carrying packages and plugged into iphones.  I spent a leisurely hour ducking in and out of interesting shops and gazing at impressive architecture.  Before heading back to get a cab to the airport, I paused on the massive stairs that led to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Oh, what a beautiful city.  And yet, there was something else very wrong.  On nearly every corner stood, or sat, or lay, a street person...some hustling for change...some asleep in the unseasonably warm sun.  This did not meet my vision for a just society.  Or rather, I was aware of the injustice of the extreme gap between the haves and the have-nots, and I felt awkwardly aware of my own privilege.

I should clarify right up front that in talking about justice today I am speaking of social justice rather than criminal justice.  I’m speaking of justice as the possibility of a world in each person is treated with respect and dignity and where each person’s most basic needs are met.  Contrary to its etymological roots, this kind of justice is not about right and wrong, not about judgement or punishment, but rather about a social structure that provides a floor of material well-being on which all can stand.[1]

Unitarian Universalists gather around a set of seven principles.  For those of you who picked up a welcome packet, it includes a card on which our principles are listed.  They are also printed near the front of our hymnal.  Our second principle states that we affirm “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Justice is a very important component of and value for Unitarian Universalism, and while I could easily spend the morning listing the many contributions made and actions taken by us as a religious movement, that is not the purpose of my talk today.  I’m proud of our history, but I am also acutely aware that none of us have yet reached the mountaintop, that we cannot rest on our laurels, and that in order to continue our journey toward justice, we must be able to envision the goal. 

So, just what IS my vision of a just society?  What is yours?  It’s pretty easy to know what injustice is, to recognize injustice when we see it, but what about justice?  What does it look like?  Have any of us ever really seen it?  In struggling to create my own image I have concluded that there can be no one metaphor or icon that quintessentially captures social justice.  Still, I believe that we need to be able to imagine justice, so that we might live it out, in small and large and daily ways. 

If you’re my Facebook friend, perhaps you noticed that I recently posted asking for people to share an image or a word picture that describes ‘justice’.  I also asked several colleagues that same question during the past few days.  Several of these responses have informed my words today; although I offer them without specific attribution, I share them with deep gratitude.

One colleague, who serves a congregation in Virginia, suggested that the image of justice needs to be contextualized for different contexts.  For her, the icon of justice would be an African-American male graduating from college.  Such an image implies that the same opportunities are available to, and normalized for, all people.  Her icon is not unlike the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr...a dream of a world where all would be judged, not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
What might our icon be?  A First Nations person with a steady job as a skilled worker?  A senior citizen confident of their next meal, assured of an affordable home?  A child with a full stomach? 

Another colleague said that balance represents justice for her.  She spoke of the image created by the prophet Amos...that of justice rolling down like waters, finding its way to touch all.  She also expressed her belief that justice is an ethic of love...not an emotional feeling, but a moral imagination that calls us to respond to others with compassion.   Together, we considered the image of water from a Taoist perspective...how water humbly seeks the lowest level, nurturing all life, reacting to changes by simply shifting and flowing to fill in the cracks.  As I engage with this image, I can see a landscape of difference into which water flows and touches and heals and embraces without prejudice for that difference. 

Continuing with the H2O theme, one friend played with the word ‘justice’ as ‘just-ice’...an ice that freezes the hearts of those who would deny justice, a force that melts the hearts of those who are open to it, a source that refreshes those who thirst for it. Perhaps, he suggested, just-ice could provide a ‘cooling’ reversal of the trend toward global warming by finding a path to sustainability.  His imaginings made me think of justice as a thermostat...something that has the potential to make adjustments for extremes that either burn too hot or leave us coolly dispassionate and isolated.

My own working image of justice was inspired by a birthday gift.  A friend gave me a beautiful scarf, one with a loose weave in variations of colour and texture.  But, in wearing it, I found that it caught on everything...earrings, watchband, coat zipper...and quickly has become riddled with snags and even holes.  As I pondered justice within our interconnected web of existence, I kept fingering this scarf, trying to relieve the snags, and repair the holes.  At first glance, it’s beautiful, but on further investigation, its construction is weak.  It got me thinking of justice as the underlying structure for the weaving of beloved community...justice as the warp threads... the threads that create a foundation for security and connection.  Those of you who have done any weaving can imagine this...no matter the length, strength, composition, or colour of the weft threads, if the warp is strong, so is the entire fabric.  

I would suggest that the warp threads of a just society must be resilient and evenly distributed.  The warp threads are our basic human rights, and while we might not totally agree on what those basic rights are, the UN Declaration of Human Rights[2] proclaims that each person is entitled to dignity, life, liberty, security, equal treatment under the law, privacy, the right to marry and to own property.  Each person should have the right to assemble peacefully, to work and to rest, and to have an adequate standard of living.  Each person should also have the right to an education and to participate in the arts and sciences, as well as to the free development of themselves.   This is not a complete list, but imagine if everything on this list was a warp thread in our society...a foundation on which to create and weave and connect the life of every person.

The weft, the threads that symbolize each individual, will never be identical. Some will be long, some will be short.  Some will be bold in colour, others less noticeable.  Some will be coarse, others fine.  Some will be weak, even broken, and yet to the degree possible, the warp will provide a constant support, so that no where are there holes that cannot be repaired by other connecting threads.   I like this image, although I recognize that like all metaphors, it has its limits.

Another response to my question suggested that justice is an ideal that can never be reached, that rather it is a journey that we walk together.  I like this image too.  The road is ‘full of broken branches and stones’[3], yet we continue to walk it, because we believe in the possibility that the destination promises.  Rev. Nate Walker has written that because we are a people of vision, when we fall down, we are able to get up again.[4]  The vision gives us resilience and inspiration, moving us forward on this journey toward justice. 

Another way to think about this is proposed by Rev. Paul Beedle.[5]  If the path of justice feels like it’s leading up a mountain too tall and too wide, remember, he writes, that the first step is simply for somebody—and then several somebodies—to try to climb it. It may be a hard climb, but they explore, they find footholds, they blaze a trail or make a way out of no way.  Then, they come back and teach others about the climb, and the promise of the view from the top.  More hikers follow the newly-blazed trails and make them well-worn.  It may still be a rough road, but there are now markers on the trail and no one is climbing it alone.  Some look for a place where the path can be broadened and evened out, believing that the road to justice should not require hiking gear, and that it should be possible for us to all walk together.  Most importantly, the vision makes it possible to build the road. 

From this, it’s clear to me that my image of a weaving is too static.  The image must be in motion, and must also require something of us.  And so, justice for me, is not only a fabric where the warp threads are strong and available to all, but it is also a fabric in which strong or capable individual weft threads are obligated to look for ways to use their potential to interweave a strong tapestry of community...to support the weak, to tie up the broken, to fill in the gaps. 

I don’t know about you, but one of the most difficult things for me in conceptualizing justice is figuring out how justice is to be distributed.   I have been unable to be reconciled with my default assumption, which is that any justice must be distributive justice, where all get an equal portion of resources and opportunities.  I have been unable to be reconciled with this assumption because, not only is it an impossible task to create equal shares, but it runs contrary to the character of creation itself, a creation in which everything is unique and diverse and unpredictable.  What we need instead is a theological and moral and restorative justice, one that builds and restores strong threads of support and dignity and opportunity, one that recognizes our diversity as a strength within which we share and help one another and treat each other with equal respect, [6] a justice that calls us to take the next step, and when we fall, to get up again, knowing that there are other threads there to support us. 

The prophet Micah has reminded us that what is required of us is to DO justice.[7]  Justice is an action, an ethic of love, a vision.  Justice is never static, it is in motion, rolling down like waters, dependent on who we are and how we use what we have.   It is a tapestry of rights through which we weave our best efforts at courage, compassion, forgiveness, joy, resilience, hope, respect. 

And why?  There’s no better answer for this than found in these words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:  “All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”[8]

Our world’s harsh disparities between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, comfortable and struggling, have created the illusion that it is possible to avoid our inescapable mutuality.   Extreme inequalities are a threat to the solidarity of the human community, for great disparities only lead to snags and holes, to deep social divisions and conflicts.[9]  May we, instead, commit to a vision of justice that motivates us and inspires us, and then may we use our deeds and our resources to sculpt that vision into reality.  We must walk the path, climb the mountain, share the journey with others, and weave our destiny into a beautiful garment of compassion and joy and belonging and belovedness. 

And then, will justice roll down like waters.  Ahhh.....



* CLOSING WORDS                                       - Erik Walker Wikstrom (adapted)

As we stand together in the final moments of our service, I invite you to call into your imagination a vision for justice.  Then, look around this room, and include all of the people here, those you know and those you are seeing for the first time, and all the people who aren’t here, in your vision.  Justice belongs to all of us.  We are in this together.

Now, as you are willing, join hands and hearts.  These words are inspired by those written by Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom.

One snowflake is a marvel, a miracle;

Four snowflakes, five, and the kids begin to run around in the yard

One hundred and the cars start slowing down;

One thousand, two... you can see where this is going.

We are strengthened in coming together, joining with others, blending our efforts with those in this room, and in our communities, and in our city.  We can work together with Unitarian Universalist congregations nearby and those across this land.  We can work together with like-minded people from all walks of life, in the next town or the next province, or the next country. Together we are more than we could ever be alone.  We can help to create a wonderland—a world blanketed with love and justice, understanding and hope.

Go forth and snow!  Amen.

[1] From “Economic Justice for All”, a 1986 pastoral letter from the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States. 

[3] From Mary Oliver’s “Journey”

[4] Nate Walker, “To Be An Effective, Justice-Seeking People”

[5] Paul Beedle, “Bending Toward Justice: One More Step” http://www.uua.org/worship/words/sermons/submissions/128669.shtml

[6] Paul Beedle, “Bending Toward Justice: One More Step” http://www.uua.org/worship/words/sermons/submissions/128669.shtml

[7] Micah 6:8

[8] Warren, Mervyn A.; Taylor, Gardner C. (2008). King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. InterVarsity Press. p. 174.

[9] From “Economic Justice for All”, a 1986 pastoral letter from the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States.