Hindrances to Justice

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

As I ponder what it is that I think motivates work in social justice, these lines from The Merchant of Venice came to mind–the often quoted truth about the core similarities that exist between people who have otherwise been taught to hate and distrust each other.  I am fairly sure that social justice stems from simple compassion, the ability to see in the other person, the other people, something of myself, and then to be moved by their suffering because I know what suffering is like.

When I find in myself or others a resistance to alleviating suffering, I have to wonder what it is that hinders this capacity for compassion that I am sure comes with the human package.  Even in very complicated situations where there seem to be competing interests for our compassion, what keeps us at times from being able to say:  I feel deeply for your suffering, and in this situation, I am not sure what to do? Social justice issues around women’s health care and women’s economic status in our culture are examples.  I know that abortion is very painful and difficult subject for most of us, but I also have not ever been privy to a situation in which a woman had an abortion that did not elicit in me deep compassion for her in the details of her situation.  Economically, I have never been made aware of a situation where a woman was paid less than a man for the same job in which I thought:  oh, yes, she really should be paid less. Instead, around abortion we hear the most extreme language being used: murderers and child killers.  Around women’s economic issues we hear, largely, resounding silence.

What prevents us, as a community of human beings, from allowing our compassion to work even when we are conflicted about how to proceed?  I keep coming back to two interior movements:  ignorance and fear.  Often these two human heart slayers walk hand in hand.  Ignorance may visit us first as a simple lack of awareness or experience–often as the naivete of childhood and adolescence.  That kind of ignorance is easy to remedy through education and storytelling.  When, however, fear arrives first and makes us afraid to find out more about our neighbor’s suffering, the pair–ignorance and fear–effectively shut down the human heart’s capacity for compassion.   Teach a child to be afraid of “the other” and she will never venture to allow her heart to know that if you prick the other, the other bleeds, just like she does.

Bob Patrick

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