Many years ago I was having a continuing argument with a friend on matters of institutional religion. One time, à propos of nothing, he leaned across the dinner table and said, "Katy, do you really believe the word of God can be found anywhere besides the Bible?" Luckily, although he addressed the question to me, there were enough other people there with strong opinions on the matter that I merely had to say yes, I did believe that, before they all jumped into the discussion. If I had been pressed I would have said that it can be found anywhere that someone has discovered a transcendent truth.
I have, I think, mentioned before that it seems to me that there are two kinds of verbal languages that enable us to speak of the transcendent. Good poetry does it with the layers of meaning found in its words and metaphors. So does humor, because humor is about the ultimate fitness of things. That should indicate that humorous poetry may be a particularly rich source of "the word of God," as my friend put it. That is surely true in the wisdom of archy, the poetic cockroach. It is my contention that in this poetry Don Marquis proved himself one of the best and most important theologians of the 20th century. There are essentially four important religious questions: What is the nature of ultimate reality? What is the nature of humankind? What is the relationship between them? And how does this relationship play itself out in our lives? These are the questions that archy the cockroach asks and answers, and answers more satisfyingly for me than Tillich, the Neibuhrs or even the death of God theologians. None of those questions can be answered separately from the others since our understanding of them is embedded in our lives. For the next few sermons, then, I will try to justify my contention that archy the cockroach had them pretty well figured out.
He often wrote about the nature of the universe: It is a very interesting thing about human beings that we desire and even expect fairness -- justice -- from the universe. We see injustice all around us, and yet we desire justice of all things. The first moral statement of any child is, "It's not fair!" and it is a cry of outraged disappointment, because somehow we seem to have been born expecting it to be fair. All we need to do is look around us, and we know that justice and the world we live in have little to do with one another. The innocent suffer, and often their suffering is not only through no fault of their own, but through no fault of others either. It's just the way the world is. Some people are born beautiful, others ugly. Some are naturally quicker, some slower. Some have strength and agility, while others are born klutzes. Some are healthy and live to be a hundred with no special effort put forth to achieve it, while others die young. And yet we demand justice of the universe.
Many, if not all, of the structures of religion are built on this demand. Seeing injustice all around them, they nevertheless cannot believe that ultimate reality can be unjust, and so they decide that someday, somehow, all these wrongs will be righted, and they adopt belief systems that tell them so. The deserving will finally receive a reward in heaven, and the undeserving will burn in eternal fire. If it can't be even during this life, it will all even out after you die. The idea of karma and the transmigration of souls is built around this need as well. If you don't get what you deserve in this life, you will in the next. Everything you do in any of your lives, good and bad, is tallied up, and ultimately you come out even. You pay for your sins and are rewarded for your virtues. I don't find the evidence for either of these outcomes compelling, but it is a measure of our need for justice that the ideas are believed in with such passion and tenacity.
In spite of the fact that we imagine justice in an afterlife, we are not satisfied. We want it here, too. One of the ways we deal with that is through denial. We won't admit that the injustice is real. Either it's really justice that our minds are too limited to understand or, "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," we say. We say it even when we see the shorn lamb struggling to survive a hurricane. Some years ago one of the UUA's own Wayside Pulpit messages said, "All that we are asked to bear, we can bear." It ain't necessarily so -- in fact, it isn't so at all. People are continually falling by the wayside in their inability to bear what this life requires of them. There are suicides and drug addicts and people who are unable to deal with or face reality, and we know that, yet we put on our Wayside Pulpit, "All that we are asked to bear, we can bear." Probably the truest thing ever said about it was what your mother said the first time you cried out with a sense of betrayal, "It isn't fair!" "So who ever promised fair?" she said, in those words or similar ones, and that's the truth. Archy was right; your mother was right; life isn't fair. An esteemed rabbi of a previous generation said as his most famous and quotable line, "The arc of the universe bends toward justice." Yet clearly it does not. It bends, according to Einstein, only toward itself, and for the universe justice is an irrelevant concept. Unmerited suffering surrounds us and so do unmerited joys. There is even such a thing as a free lunch, now and then, frequently for those who don't need it.
And yet we are called to justice. If we are called to anything, we are called to that. Admittedly, we are more likely to notice injustice if we are the ones suffering under its oppression, but even the youngest child, if convinced that something is indeed fair, will be satisfied. It seems to be inherent in our souls -- the need and desire for what is just.
It's inherent, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we agree on what justice is. We might think that it means equality, but not only is inequality inborn, but to seek absolute equality could lead to great injustice. There was a science fiction story written some years ago, probably about thirty years ago, possibly by Kurt Vonnegut, about a future society which had taken absolute equality as its goal. That meant that everyone had to be maintained at the lowest common denominator of achievement. If you were of uncommon intelligence, a scrambler was implanted in your brain. If you were a particularly light and lissome dancer, you had to dance in weights. If you were a talented athlete....well, you get the picture. Nothing could have been more unjust than that idea of perfect equality.
There is a sentimental notion that we really are equal, that if we don't have intelligence, maybe we have kind hearts. If we've been born or have become "differently abled" we automatically somehow have abilities that those born without disabilities and lucky enough not to acquire them do not have. This is pure sentimentality, and it just ain't so. That doesn't mean that those who are blind or lame or deaf (and why do euphemisms change the reality?) may not have great abilities in fields that don't have those particular requirements. They may indeed. They may be models of courage and achievement, mentors to those of us who have not had to overcome those kinds of blocks in the way of success -- but they may not. Some people are born with a great deal, some with very little, and there is no magic distribution of talent and good and bad qualities. A commitment to justice cannot erase these kinds of inequalities.
Too often the word justice seems to be equated with retribution. We have become, as a society, almost unbelievably punitive, and we seem to feel that the call to justice is satisfied if we can punish wrongdoers with sufficient severity. Victims of crime, including the families of murder victims, are expected to be satisfied that justice is triumphant if the criminal receives a harsh enough punishment. We have a higher percentage of our population in jail than any other civilized country, and far more people executed. Not only does such severity not seem to reduce the incidence of crime, but it does not seem to me to indicate that we have really understood what justice is or how to create it.
Maybe we should start at the other end. What would the world look like if it were based on justice? Perhaps if we knew that we could see more clearly what is needed to achieve it. There are things we can imagine about such a world based on justice. Everyone -- every single person -- would be free in body, mind and spirit. All of us would be able to receive the attention, the care, the materials necessary to enable us to reach the fullness of our beings. There would be no artificial blocks of race or class or resources. There would be no privilege of ethnic background, or accent or attractiveness. There would not be complete equality. Some would still be smarter, some stronger, some healthier, some prettier, than others, but no one would be kept from achieving what their qualities allowed them to achieve. In a truly just world each of us would be responsible for our own lives and our own decisions, and help would be available for all who needed it to become what they needed to become. There would be no victims, no oppressors, none taking more than their share of the world's resources or treating others as exploitable or even unnecessary objects. Our relationships would be real, based on who we really are rather than the group or class to which we belong. We would be judged, as Martin Luther King said, on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin or, for that matter, our sex or sexual orientation, or any of the other things which we use to dismiss our brother and sisters from a true relationship with ourselves. And the judgment of character would be one of candor, seeing the other as a whole person with strengths and weakness which we admire and forgive, as we also hope to be forgiven. Justice would require as well that we treat the world around us with the respect that we offer to one another. We might still spray for cockroaches -- even with archy as a deterrent -- but we would not heedlessly exploit the world any more than we would exploit one another. We would live in peace with one another within and between tribal identities and national boundaries. Perhaps such identities and boundaries would even cease to exist except as they honored proud heritages -- their own heritage -- while giving equal honor to others.
Utopias are impossible. We are an imperfect species on an imperfect world. Nevertheless, if we can reach for the impossible, perhaps we can at least make things a little better. We can't change the world overnight, and we cannot change other people at all, unless they wish to be changed. But it is we who are called to justice. We can determine to live as if ideals of justice could be achieved, and then perhaps we can achieve at least some of them. We can try to live generously, respectfully, responsibly and freely, and offer help to others to do so too. We can live justly and call others as individuals and in community to live justly.
Archy forgives the universe its injustice, suggesting that it perhaps has more important things to worry about. It does, of course. It maintains itself, the dance of the stars and galaxies, the wonders of gravity and cosmic forces, and the beautiful planet which is our home. Justice is not a part of its makeup. The world of nature can be beautiful or horrible. Things may go well or ill, and the universe can take neither credit nor blame. We can meet it in a give and take spirit. The call to justice is not to the universe but to us. Archy will still be ugly as was his former self. Some of us will be too, and some will be beautiful. Some will understand Einstein's general theory of relativity and some will barely be able to balance their checkbooks with the aid of a computer or even read the directions. Some will be able to make a hole-in-one and plot the lovely equations in chaos theory, some will be able to do one of those things, and many of us will never achieve either. But all of us are called to justice in a universe in which justice means nothing except to us. All of us can live responsibly and treat others with respect and awareness of their ultimate importance. All of us can live justly. So no one promised fair. We must live as if it was our own promise.