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No empathy, no peace or justice

Fr. Thomas More Garrett, OP - published on 06/06/20

Neither peace nor justice can exist without the other.  Cultivating empathy is the work that will lead to a harvest of both. 

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A search online for the origins of the chant “no justice, no peace” delivers inconclusive results.  One modern source of the construction is probably Martin Luther King, Jr., who, speaking outside a California prison where Vietnam war protesters were being held on December 14, 1967, declared that “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”

Regardless of the slogan’s origin, the mantra highlights a relationship that centuries of human experience have validated. A tranquility imposed by force of any variety is no peace. And because coercion cannot give rise to peace, the calm that emerges from under the cloak of oppression is no product of justice. Every outburst of violence, whether individual or collective, unmasks the charade.

In 1972, Paul VI wrote in his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace that “If you want justice, work for peace.” For Paul VI, this work is not the product of wise legislation, let alone the result of a successful struggle for power, but rather a collective striving to empathize with the needs of others. A society intent on peace must first avoid anesthetizing itself to the suffering felt by only a part of its membership. Discriminate pain threatens to divide and lead to insurrection. Empathy lessens its burden by distributing the anguish. Violence multiplies and spreads the pain.         

Simone Weil wrote that revolution, not religion, is the real opium of the masses. A French Jew who escaped Nazi occupation, Weil generated the idea against the backdrop of a political fervor that gave birth to the twin revolutions of fascism and communism. Both movements sparked upheavals fueled by a demand for rights backed by a force intent on seizing power. 

Perhaps her insight into the movements of her time is what fed Weil’s suspicion of the language of rights. Weil explained in her essay, Human Personality, that rights are always asserted with a tone of contention. Once a contentious tone is adopted, force must be present in the background or the claims themselves, as well as those who make them, risk ridicule. 

A struggle for justice then, is not the same as a struggle for rights. A group can lose one and win the other. Whether the movement be one of populism or activism, Weil’s advice to both would be to remember that force and the threat of force deliver, at best, Pyrrhic victories. Each success is one that must be guarded or regained with violence.   

Weil substituted a demand for rights with a call for empathy. To arrive at empathy, we must respond to the question raised by every victim of injustice and violence, “Why am I being hurt?” For Weil, this is a question we all ask in one way or another. The failure to find a satisfactory answer frustrates the effort to achieve peace and justice and instead, makes all the more tempting the substitute that violence and the pursuit of power supply.  

Empathy is what links the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul VI. Neither peace nor justice can exist without the other. Cultivating empathy is the work that will lead to a harvest of both. 

But before attempting to plant the seeds, Weil’s question turns attention to the heart of the problem of injustice and violence. From the first victim to the last, the question of where the hurt came from resonates without an answer that would satisfy the demands of peace and justice. Only by asking the question “Why am I being hurt?” from the perspective of another can we arrive at an answer that begins to treat the pain. First, however, we must work to care, to empathize, before bothering to ask. 

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