Justice is not a zero-sum game

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The opening convocation speaker this year at Luther College was Karen Joy Fowler. Her best-selling novel, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," was the required summer reading for all first-year students. In her convocation address, Fowler identified "empathy"—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—as a Darwinian characteristic. As part of her assertion that empathy is a Darwinian trait, Fowler offered the caveat that empathy is actually only extended to those whom we consider to be "like us," and that we often actually exhibit "antipathy" (i.e. animosity and dislike) toward those whom we consider to be "other."

A few days after Fowler's opening convocation address, I gave a chapel talk at Luther (as well as a talk at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in town). The selected text was Luke 4:16-29. In the story of Jesus' visit to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah where it is written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

When Jesus asserts, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," the crowd gets excited and speaks well of Jesus. However, when they realize Jesus is suggesting a divine extension of this graciousness to those considered to be "other," the praise and admiration quickly turn to rage and disdain.

Reading this particular story within the larger literary context of the Gospel of Luke, it seems that the author is emphasizing and critiquing the commonly held expectation and practice of exhibiting empathy toward those we consider to be like ourselves and antipathy toward those we consider to be different.

It's often this way of thinking and being that causes some people to get upset when individuals often identified as "allies" start betraying their "own people." Why should we be so concerned with providing for immigrants? We need to care for our own people. Why should we be concerned about ensuring the safety and well-being of Muslims? We're Christians, and Islam is a false and violent religion. Why are you as a white person walking around with a "Black Lives Matter" shirt on, don't you know white lives matter too? As a matter of fact, "All Lives Matter."

People who demonstrate empathy toward so-called "others" are often identified as "traitors" by their "own people," and are often responded to with the same type of rage and disdain exhibited toward Jesus by his "hometown" people.

Reactionary responses to the Black Lives Matter movement have included "All Lives Matter," "Blue Lives Matter," and "White Lives Matter." While the response, "All Lives Matter," might seem to suggest a concern for the well-being of "ALL" people, the fact that the slogan was a direct response to the phrase "Black Lives Matter" rather than a direct response to the violence and injustice perpetrated against unarmed black men, women and children, suggests that the phrase is NOT an attempt to demonstrate empathy toward victims of excessive police violence.

Instead the phrase, "All Lives Matter," actually illustrates the practice of exhibiting empathy toward those we consider to be like us and antipathy toward those we consider to be unlike us. I believe this practice is partly rooted in the "zero-sum fallacy"—the fallacious belief that ALL resources are fixed and limited, therefore, one person's gain is always another person's loss.

An underlying premise of the opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement is the unfounded belief that advocating for justice on behalf of black people somehow negates or diminishes the availability of justice for all other people. Justice, however, is not a limited or fixed resource.

While we live in a society where people recite a pledge of allegiance that asserts, "One nation under God with liberty and justice for all," when the absence of justice for a particular group of people is illustrated and protested, often the response is to suggest that the demands for justice for that particular group of people is somehow taking justice away from other people. Some people believe that as a "College of the Church," Luther College cannot institutionally endorse a statement of solidarity with our Muslim students because somehow it diminishes justice for Christians. We can't demand justice for unarmed black men, women and children being killed by police officers because somehow that diminishes justice for all of the police officers who do their jobs daily with integrity.

Justice is indeed for everyone and working to ensure justice for a specific group of people who are being denied justice does not diminish the availability of justice for others who are also in need of justice.

It's important for each of us to work for justice where we see it lacking and to realize that while we each may be working for specific causes, the fight for justice for one group is NOT an opposition to justice for other groups. What the world needs is MORE justice not less justice.

Those who assume the fight for justice for black people is a diminishment of justice for all other people fail to understand the interrelatedness of all life. Those who assume a fight for justice for Muslims is a diminishment of justice for Christians fail to understand the interrelatedness of all life. Those who assume a fight for justice for transgendered people is a diminishment of justice for cis gendered people fail to understand the interrelatedness of all life. Those who assume a fight for justice for non-human animals is a diminishment of justice for human animals fail to understand the interrelatedness of all life. Those capable of exhibiting empathy ONLY toward those who are like them and antipathy toward those who are unlike them fail to understand the interrelatedness of all life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail":

"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…."

Justice is not a zero-sum game. There is indeed enough justice to demand and to insure "liberty and justice for all."

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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