The meaning of justice

From the novel Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, a native Hong Konger. The novel is set in Hong Kong in the year 2014, and follows the adventures of Au Nga-Yee as she tries to find out why her sister Siu-Man committed suicide by jumping from the window of their apartment. Without spoiling things for you, I can safely tell you that the plot involves social media, the Dark Web, and the tech industry. Nga-Ye has to hire N, a hacker and a most unusual detective, to figure out what really happened to Siu-Man.

Late in the book, N, the detective, reflect on his motivations for continuing to work as a detective:

“The word he hated most in the world was ‘justice.’ Which wasn’t to say he didn’t know the difference between good and evil — but he understood that rather than simplistic morality, most conflict in the world arose from differences of opinion, with both sides raising the flag of justice and claiming to be on the side of reason. This allowed them to justify the most underhanded means as ‘a necessary evil’ to defeat the other side — the law of the jungle, essentially. N had a deep understanding of this. He had money, status, power, and talent, so he could do pretty much whatever he wanted and other people would see him as an avatar of ‘justice’ — but he knew that keeping others down in the name of justice is another form of bullying.” (Chan Ho-Kei, trans. Jeremy Tiang, Second Sister [2017; trans. Grove Atlantic, 2020])

While this passage merely represents one character in a murder mystery talking to himself, there is some truth in what this character says. It is all too easy to misuse the word “justice.”

Not me

Today is the National Day of Prayer. Let me tell you a little bit about Unitarian Universalist (UU) views on prayer.

Back in 1997, I was on the Pamphlet Commission for the Unitarian Universalist Association. We were updating an old pamphlet titled “UU Views on Prayer.” We were reviewing a collection of excellent brief statements on why Unitarian Universalists prayed, and how they prayed. Suddenly I said, “I don’t pray myself. And I notice we have nothing that says ‘prayer is a crock.'” We argued back and forth for a bit on whether a pamphlet on prayer should have a statement against prayer. We finally decided that a full range of UU views on prayer must include a statement from someone who did not pray.

We asked several well known humanist ministers to write such a statement. One turned us down rather rudely, saying he couldn’t be bothered. The others were more polite, but clearly didn’t want to have their humanistic credentials tarnished through association with a pamphlet on prayer. So the other members of the Pamphlet Commission told me that I’d have to write it, and I did. Here’s what I said:

“I don’t pray. As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned how to pray. But when I got old enough to take charge of my own spiritual life, I gradually stopped. Every once in a while I try prayer again, just to be sure. The last time was a couple of years ago. My mother spent a long, frightening month in the hospital, so I tried praying once again but it didn’t help. I have found my spiritual disciplines — walks in nature, deep conversations, reading ancient and modern scripture, love — or they have found me. Prayer doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

That old “UU Views on Prayer” pamphlet was retired several years ago (thank goodness). Sadly, the new pamphlet on UU prayer doesn’t include a statement from someone who doesn’t pray. I wish it did. In a time when prayer has become weaponized by Christian nationalists, we need to affirm those people who don’t pray, who can’t pray, who refuse to pray, who dislike praying.