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When is Righteous Indignation Right?

March 25th, 2017

Richard Marker

Most of us know the aphorism by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In an international interreligious meeting I co-chaired several years ago, leaders of 6 religions – 3 Abrahamic and 3 Eastern unpacked the concepts of Justice and Forgiveness for 3 days. For almost 2 of the 3 days, we continued to reach a roadblock. The leaders from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions could not understand the Abraham insistence that evil must be repudiated with justice as a precondition for peace. Their traditions emphasize that the individual must learn to make peace with her/his lot as the precondition for personal peace.

Finally, a Hindu Swami, a University President from India, realized the dilemma. When the Westerners talked about “justice”, the Easterners heard “retribution.” For Western religion, evil and injustice represent flaws in behavior, and by extension, the human universe, that must be corrected. The human condition is too interwoven for injustice to prevail. But for the Easterners, for whom there is already an essential one-ness to the universe even if inscrutable, acceptance is the only legitimate starting path forward. Retribution, as they heard it, was not built on ultimate acceptance but ultimate inflict of pain on another – repeating a destructive cycle.

That insight of how our very language can create barriers to understanding opened up real avenues of communication: for example, such statements as “who is wealthy? One who is happy with her/his lot” from the rabbinic literature had counterparts in the Christian and Muslim literature as well. The sentiment that emotional well-being is best achieved when we learn to control our tendency for envy and jealousy was a shared response. Once we defined justice to include emotional well-being, it wasn’t a huge leap to find common ground with our Eastern counterparts.

Much more interesting was our challenge to acceptance of life’s lot seen in the Eastern Traditions. After all, were they really suggesting that we should accept slavery, human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, and more? Aren’t there limits? Isn’t there a time when righteous indignation, repudiation, and even activism for social justice take precedence?

Indeed, they concurred and unpacked elements in their traditions that too demand equity and humane behavior, and indeed repudiation.

So, we found common ground, and the rest, as they say, is commentary.

All of this resounds these days when I hear some people try to justify proposed public policies the effect of which punish the poor, the ill, the infirm, the elderly, the at-risk, the unemployed, the under-educated, those who live near contaminated water, and those of minority status, legal or otherwise. In fact, pretty much everyone except the rich.

The implicit philosophy of these public policies, couched in the rhetoric of individual choice, is that you, we, are on our own. Too bad. Get over it. Make your peace with it because that is your lot in life now.

But I come from a tradition that says it need not be, as do most religious traditions. It is not simply an option, but a mandate to see that the hungry are fed and the at risk are cared for. The underlying theologies may differ, but every world religious tradition affirms that responsibility. Societies are commanded to build institutions to guarantee that compassion is not simply the whim of the moment but a guarantee.

Now let it be clear, I am not suggesting that we institutionalize any religious tradition in American society. Nor that every insight from every religion aligns with the needs of pluralistic post-Modern societies. But I am suggesting that there is much to learn from world religions in alleviating human suffering and risk.

In this era of cynicism and facile dehumanization, I read Niebuhr’s aphorism as a challenge to be courageous, especially now. Most certainly this is the time for righteous indignation in the face of injustice, inequity, cruelty, mean-ness, dishonesty, and the absence of integrity. Our many religious traditions and American constitutional values and ethics subscribe to a culture of justice or fairness.

This is not the time for serenity; it is not a serene time. it is the time to change that which MUST be changed; it is the time for courage.

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