Justice, Equity, Compassion

a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, May 6, 2018



“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” That is the definitive version of the Second Principle of Unitarian Universalism that was established through the democratic process of our national association by the deliberations, debate, insistent wordsmithing, and vote of the delegates of the congregations that comprise our movement. By virtue of our membership as a congregation in the association, it is part of our promise, the covenant we have entered with other congregations.


In the Reverend Tony Larsen’s words with which we sang the children to their classes this morning: “I believe in justice and compassion; I believe in equity.” This simplified version, intended to be more accessible to young people and to anyone who is less at home with the bureaucratic language that fills any bylaws document, uses exactly the same three words that are in the bylaws. Justice. Compassion. Equity. The version simplified for children in the curricula of Tapestry of Faith says, “We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.”[1] What are justice, equity and compassion? And how might we affirm and promote them?


Justice seems like a straight-forward enough word. But like another traditional word that is both religious and tied to right relations within the larger community, it was the word that perhaps took me the longest to understand. After all, we have the Justice System, the Department of Justice. I grew up thinking that righteousness was proper behavior under a strict set of religious rules. Likewise, I thought that justice was the enforcement of the law through the punishment of crime. Our society assumes that the reasons our courts and the whole punitive system the courts feed into exist to enforce and achieve justice. When a person has been wronged and the case goes to court, we say that they are seeking justice. And occasionally we, as a society, may have the discussion about whether it is really justice that they are seeking or, instead, revenge or retribution. A balancing of the scales through the imposition of new pain in recompense for pain caused. In its less angry, less injured form, that kind of justice is not all bad. It is about staving off chaos through accountability to the standard of law.


But justice as a spiritual practice is so much deeper, richer, and sustaining than balancing the scales by adding pain to the system as a counterweight to the pain elsewhere in the system. The justice I eventually came to appreciate is aimed at balancing the scales through eliminating favoritism, by decreasing the total amount of pain in the system, rather than by adding to it. Justice is about dismantling the wrongs that are built into the way the world works and replacing that with a world where all have what is rightly their due as a human being, their rights recognized and honored, with everyone equally having access to the resources present in the natural world. In our system as it is, some are poor and some are rich and it is not because of their differing levels of virtue. It is not a function of the value they add to the system. Rather, the system itself is out of balance, granting different access, different power, different control to people of different identities and circumstance. Healthcare is provided differently for people with different standing in the system. The enforcement of law is handled differently for people who are poor than for people who are rich, for people of color than for white people, and at some times and places various other identities receive not what is their human due but what the system unequally offers to people in their setting.


How many of you have ever heard or felt the truth of the old saying, “Nobody said life would be fair”? That root unfairness that manifests itself in the divide between rich and poor, in the school-to-prison pipeline, the for-profit private prison system with inmates providing slave labor, the breakdown of the social safety net, the prevalence of sexual harassment, of unequal pay for equal work, of homophobia and transphobia… Human society is out of balance. And justice, were we to seek it, were we to give it hot pursuit, would not try to make balance by adding pain to the system but by subtracting pain from the system. Justice as a spiritual principle and practice is not about enforcing laws and mores through the imposition of pain but about rebuilding society with an ever-reducing pain component. Sometimes too slowly. Often incrementally.


It is built into our DNA, isn’t it? Children’s sense of what is fair is pronounced. It shifts over time, with each developmental stage, and is influenced by cultural values and child-rearing techniques, but fairness, justice is a human concern that is part of our biology as social creatures. Despite the efforts of such people as Social Darwinists to promote a view that the struggle to better one’s own position entails no essential responsibility to the well-being of others and of the group, developmental psychology shows that approach to be partial and not the best expression of what humanity offers. Very young children start from a position of selfishness, behaving in ways that attempt to get what they need without regard for fairness. In elementary school, that gives way to an increasing fairness principle: equality. Level the playing field. Everybody starts out as the same starting point. And if one child is given more cookies than the others, everyone instinctively knows that is not just. It is not fair. But that is not the end of human development. Theoretical equality of starting points does not guarantee justice. For that we need to remove a few letters from equality to reach equity.


What is equity? How is it different from everyone simply getting the same resources, the same exact chances? Have you seen the two-frame cartoon that shows three children looking over a fence to watch a ball game? In the first frame, you see the children arranged in order of height. The tallest is head and shoulders above the top of the fence and has a clear view of the game. The middle child’s eyes barely reach the line of the top of the fence. They must stretch and strain to see the game. The smallest child is not tall enough to see over the fence at all. Their view is totally blocked. This frame is labeled “Equality.” In the next frame, the same children and the same fence, finds a different result. The tall child stands as before. The middle child stands on a medium-sized box that raises their eyeline to the same level as the tall child. The smallest child is on a large box that raises their eye-level to the same view enjoyed by the tall child without any adjustment or assistance. This frame is labeled “Equity.” Where equality would call on us to provide equal funding to education for all children of every identity in every neighborhood, equity would call on us to make adjustments for other social realities that affect children’s ability learn. Equality means everyone’s school is in safe and pleasant facilities, everyone’s teachers are well prepared, well supported, well paid, everyone as the same extracurricular development and opportunities, everyone is encouraged to pursue a life path that develops their best abilities and prepares them for the work of their field. Equity means poverty and social injustice and violence are both reduced and mitigated against everywhere they appear so every child can equally benefit from the equality of resources. Equity means that those who receive in their bodies and in their lives the injustice of systemic, institutional racism, white supremacy culture, sexism or homophobia, for example, are provided with means to step up to the point they could be without the injustice in the system. A grown-up example of equity at work is Affirmative Action. The system that is not yet fixed, not yet just without some equalizing component added, is worked around to provide a more just result. Equity is ADA-compliant restrooms, ramps or elevators instead of or in addition to stairs. Equity is appropriate accommodation for those who are not at the same starting line.


And what is the driving engine for justice and equity? Compassion. Probably the best-known ambassador of compassion is the Dalai Lama. A casual leafing through his books or online finds such quotable quotes as, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”[2] Or, “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” Or, in a show of that radicalism, this longer quote:


We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion…. This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practice these in our daily lives, then no matter if we are learned or unlearned, whether we believe in Buddha or God, or follow some other religion or none at all, as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy.[3]


Or in the words of Ziggy Marley:


I don’t condemn, I don’t convert
Yeah, this is a calling, have you heard?
Bring all the lovers to the phone
‘Cause no one is gonna lose their soul

Hey, love is my religion


Compassion is the engine that calls us to create a more just world, that pushes us toward establishing increased equity. Love is our religion, and a religion of love requires that we not accept the injustice in the system.


In addition to presenting the increasingly familiar seven principles that can guide our action together, seven things that we covenant to affirm and promote, the bylaws of our association also name six sources that can inform and inspire that promised activism. Two of those sources are worded in a way that specifically support the promise of the Second Principle. These are:


Words and deed of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; […and] Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.


We are supported in the challenge to live out our covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations by the work of justice leaders who have gone before. We are also supported and encouraged by some baseline teachings of both Judaism and Christianity that place compassion and the increased justice flowing out of compassionate engagement. Love is our religion. And it only shows as we work to keep our promise and change the world.


What are some ways this congregation can act together to promote justice, equity, and compassion – whether among ourselves or in the greater world?



[1] https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles/for-kids

[2] From The Art of Happiness

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/search?q=Dalai+Lama+compassion


© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley