“He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;”
— Isaiah 42: 2-4
This month we wonder about the virtue of justice. Many of the definitions shared with you last week carried the root word “just”: to be based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair. Who can argue with that sentiment? Is there anyone here who does not want our society to be just? I have a hard time believing that there is anyone out there who if asked would say “I want things to be immoral and unfair” I am pretty sure that should any of you take a position on the subject, you would say, “I want justice in this world. I want things to be fair.” Still we are embroiled in so many places in this world in conflict. And we are because we cannot agree on what it means to be fair, what it means to live out the virtue of justice.
In the last nine months, we have seen many disagreements about fairness. Just a few examples:
- Is it fair that we have a country in which pandemic conditions impact certain groups of people more than others?
- Is it fair that certain protesters seem to have been treated one way while other protesters seem to be treated another?
- Is our electoral process fair?
I want us to be a school where we can talk about these questions. As someone who believes in the democratic system, I know we would be doing you a disservice by squelching dialogue. However, if you are looking for me or your teachers to tell you the answers to these questions, you will be disappointed. Our role as teachers and my role as head teacher is to teach you how to think, not what to think. I want to acknowledge in front of you students that this is not always easy for us teachers. Understand though that we are doing our level best.
Like any engaged American citizen, I have my opinions on these questions. I also firmly believe in our Episcopal Identity and its foundational element that every child is made in the image of a loving God. I also realize though that many people of goodwill would offer different ways to live out that ideal. It is the process of determining how we as a school community and we as a city, state, and country determine what that saying means that I want to talk about.
I have no doubt that discussion on this subject will cause debate. When we are surrounded by argument, by conflict, a tempting reaction is to remove oneself. Let me just live my life, alone, in peace. Humans however are by their nature social animals. We must interact and cooperate to flourish. The Ancient Greeks realized this 2,500 years ago. They saw a person’s greatest responsibility as to be engaged in the activities of their polis, the town or city. In fact, the Greek word for someone who was private and kept to themselves was not engaged, it was idios. This is the root for our English word idiot. That is how contemptible they saw being unengaged. So my first request - don’t be an idiot.
One reason to be unengaged is to become overwhelmed. These are complicated questions we ask ourselves about justice. As an adult, there are many times I find myself agreeing with points made by both “sides”. It can be easy to throw up our hands and say, ‘this will never be solved”. We can be tempted to give up, believe in nothing. That is called nihilism. But, we have to be better than that. We have to continue to engage in conversation about confusing topics. It is the only way we survive together.
The flip side of nihilism is emotionalism. This condition exists when we allow our emotions to overwhelm our thinking because we believe so passionately in something. We become angry with those with whom we disagree. We condemn, We demonize. We stop making reasoned arguments but instead label people, call them names, use slogans. Typically this also leads to disengagement. When stuck in the throes of emotionalism, we see people we disagree with as the “other”, rather than thinking about what we have in common. When conversation stops because of this type of disengagement, history tells us that violence can often be the next step.
So how can you become engaged, participate in the conversation without falling prey to either nihilism or emotionalism? Determining fairness requires judgment, and to render judgment, you must have a set of standards. One place you can get information at ESD about a possible set of standards is here in daily worship. Pay attention in chapel! We also educate you in religious studies classes on a variety of other ways people form values. We have things like the Honor Code to help you. These are just some examples. They matter. Without a set of standards to live by you have no anchor when things get hard.
Next as you engage in your community you need to know what its system is based on. History class, the study of the constitution and our legal system are vital. If you do not understand our system and its history, your point of view becomes shallow and ineffective.
Next, learn to read and write. I mean really read and write. English class matters. You live in an age of information where all kinds of opinions and facts will be thrown at you. Understanding them and being able to express your own in a concise way will be crucial. Additionally there and in history class, read about people other than those who are like you. Develop a cultural competency that leads to cultural empathy. This disposition leaves an openness for dialogue.
Third, statistics. Humans’ ability to collect and analyze data is more robust than ever. That is both a blessing and a curse. Data analysis allows us to make better decisions. It is also easy though to manipulate numbers to make arguments and many do, sometimes for unscrupulous purposes. Statistical literacy will be a basic need for you to engage responsibly. Math matters too.
Fourth, understand the scientific method. One of the greatest contributions made by science is the process by which we can observe, thoroughly observe, and make judgments. Understand the rigor that is needed to deeply analyze any subject, any theory, any hypothesis to determine the truth.
Humans are social animals, and we do live together. In order to survive, we have organized systems and built institutions to carry out these systems. Our federal, state, and local government and by extension our court systems, police, and military are examples. We have also created private institutions - churches, schools like this one, businesses large and small that help us thrive. Through the lens of my fifty-six-year life, I would offer to you that a fraying of our national fabric has come because of a loss of faith in many of these institutions. Part of what has occurred has been a failure of leadership.
Informed citizens, engaged citizens demand better from their leaders. We need leaders who have a firm foundation of values. We need leaders who are transparent, open-hearted, who believe every child is made in the image of a loving God. We hope someday you will be those institutional leaders - whether in the public or the private sphere.
I began this homily rereading today’s passage from Isaiah - the great Jewish prophet of the messiah. Old Testament prophets talked of how the messiah would be a figure of great strength. Isaiah was no exception. But notice he says that justice would be spread without “ shout or cry out, or a raise of his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” True strength of leadership whether from you in school or on a larger scale comes from those who lead, who bring justice, with a calm mind and without breaking or extinguishing those in their path.
My prayer for all of us here and in our nation is that we can all lead, in ways both large and small, with this strength that comes from rationality and an openness of heart.