On Spirituality and Justice

Love your neighbour as yourself

Do unto another as you would have them do unto to you

Do nothing to another that would be hurtful if done to you

These are some of the most broad reaching moral teachings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The world of religion and spirituality has long been intertwined with morality and goodness. These words suggest that we must each behave in ways that will lead to greater happiness for all.

From its earliest days, religion has offered ways of behaving that, if followed, would make for a more peaceful and productive society. The 10 commandments ask that we refrain from killing each other, stealing from each other, lying, being unfaithful. These are all good rules if you want to maintain a civil society where each person has an opportunity to live their life relatively free from conflict and violence.

Religion went even further with the Hebrew prophets who castigated their own societies for injustice - for failing to care for the most vulnerable among them. This is the source of religion’s so-called prophetic tradition. You will probably find these words of the prophet Amos familiar as he speaks on behalf of his God:


“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and [...] grain offerings, I will not accept them; [...]
Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


I frequently say that religion must include three dimensions or facets: personal spiritual growth, community, and third - the one we focus on today and for the rest of the month - working to build a better world - one that is more just, fair, and peaceful.

But it is not obvious that spirituality and social justice must be tied. In fact, there are three problems with the assumption that working to build a better world is a necessary part of spiritual life.

First - Many of us do not believe that this linkage is in any way divinely ordained - at least not in the traditional sense. You may not believe in God, or at least in the kind of God that gives us explicit instructions. You almost certainly do not take scripture literally.

Second - many religious and spiritual practices place little or no emphasis on building a better world. Buddhism, for example, emphasizes an escape from suffering - not by creating a better world, but by changing ourselves. And many of the practices that now go by the general term “spirituality” have nothing to do with the larger world. They often focus only on the first facet - the personal spiritual journey.

and Third - where such moral teachings have been a part of a religious tradition, they have usually applied only to other members of the “in group”. While Christians may aim to treat other Christians with love, they don’t necessarily feel the same obligation to atheists, Jews, Muslims or others. For many religions, love your neighbour only refers to the neighbour who “one of us.” The rules for strangers and foreigners tend to demand a standard of care considerably lower than love.

Thus, the God in whom many of us do not believe says we should make a better society for people just like us.

That will hardly be very convincing for many of you.

Do we really need to work toward a better world for everyone?


Ashley Jones:
I've been in an exceptionally good mood of late and so I've been conducting a little experiment, on the streets of London. With a spring in my step I've been randomly smiling at strangers This is how it goes..... Picture it....here's us on the street... you and me......you're going somewhere, I'm going somewhere... heading in opposite directions. Minding our own business..... I'm probably having a little daydream.... I don't know what you're doing.....something distracts me, something distracts you... ... we look up at the same time.... our eyes meet......ever so briefly...Oh... it's Awkward !!...I hold my breath...just a little ….Too far away to acknowledge it too close to ignore it....mmm..... shall I ...shan't I.... But then I get the impression you're on the edge too, wondering the same thing..... Both of us holding ourselves right on the verge....I decide to be brave and just go for it I give you one....tentatively at first...I can always snatch it right back if you turn out to be a grump.....but no...you return it with your own tentative lip curling....mine grows...and in turn so does yours.....The street changes.. and suddenly…...you're no longer in my vision...that's it... we've passed.......but .. I'm still smiling.... I like to think you are too...that was nice.....Thanks.

Ashley’s experiment with smiling is what I would call a spiritual practice. We might think of that term more with regard to meditation or yoga or prayer - more traditional practices. But courageously breaking down the barriers to connection within ourselves and others is very much a spiritual practice.

I have my own. It’s easy to do anywhere there are strangers. It simply involves looking at people an making an effort to recognize them as human beings. Now I know that sounds a bit strange - of course they’re human beings. But think about how you interact with people rushing for the tube... especially the ones walking the opposite direction and getting in your way as you rush for the closing doors.

Our tendency is to dismiss all those people as obstacles. In a way, they seem no different than a wall or table or any other prop in the drama of our own insular lives.

So - when I remember - I look at a face - preferably the ones that seem most foreign and strange to me. And I think about their childhoods and the relationships they might have. And I think how they have had their joys and that they have their dreams and have had their terrible disappointments and losses. And I get to the point where I feel like I want to grab and hug them. I don’t! Don’t worry! The feeling of connection becomes so strong that I know in my heart that it is something real that was there all along and has just been revealed by practice.

In our Unitarian way of being spiritual or religious, there are two essential elements: The worth and dignity of every person and interconnection.

I can’t prove either of these to you. I can’t prove that every person has the potential for goodness. I can’t prove that in the heart of a person who has done something terrible is a hidden, tarnished, but still living fragment of everything that is sacred. I can’t prove that we should not give up on anyone or treat anyone as less than human.

I can’t prove that - often unnoticeable - is a web of connection that unites us.

Spirituality is knowing and living these truths. In the words of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." Spiritual growth is like this - it is learning to unveil the hidden sacredness within every person and the connections between us.

For us, being spiritual is not simply about sitting in silence or praying for hours although these practices and others can help. It is not just about studying and understanding all the commentaries on the scriptures. It is not about following a set of rules. Being spiritual is a quality of perception - of seeing the world as beautiful and filled with beings to whom we are connected and with whom we share an indwelling element of the sacred.


ASHLEY: One Monday morning, a young woman left her home to go to work. She had not slept well. She was tired and cranky and not at all looking forward to spending 8 hours in her boring job.Blah! She got to the tube and it was as crowded as usual. Jostling with everyone else she was just barely able to jam herself into the carriage as the doors closed. To her left, she noticed an older woman who seemed just a bit shaky and who would certainly have benefited from a seat. Just then, the train slowed suddenly and the older woman seemed to lose her balance. Without thinking, the young woman put out her arm to steady the older. It was out of character and she felt awkward right away, but their eyes met. There was a warm smile and a thank you. Another smile as the older woman got off at the next stop.

ANDY: As the older woman left the station, she felt an unusual warmth inside. A smile came quickly to her lips as she walked down the street. Five people noticed it. Two of them smiled back.

ASHLEY: As the young woman disembarked the train at her stop, she too felt a strange warmth. ShE opened the door to her office and greeted her coworkers with an unusually cheerful "good morning". She asked how they were and she meant it. She even listened to their responses.

ANDY: One of them had had a particularly hard weekend - he and his partner were on the edge of a break-up. He felt an unusual warmth when someone actually cared about how he was. Later, he went out for lunch. He passed a homeless man on the way to the sandwich shop and - out of character - bought an extra sandwich and gave it to that man.

ASHLEY: By the end of that day, 27 people were carrying around a strange warm feeling.

ANDY: 4 arguments were avoided.

ASHLEY: 3 people were assisted

ANDY: And one man, despondent over what he felt to be his empty life, tossed the pills he had been saving into the dust-bin


Can we be religious or spiritual without working for a better world?

My colleague Richard Gilbert says “life is our only chance to both grow a soul and repair the world. We cannot really do one without the other. Ultimately, mystic and prophet should be one.”

If we believe in inherent worth and dignity and if we believe in a greater interconnection, the answer must be no.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Within the network of mutuality, we must act for others just as we would act for ourselves.

And remarkably we find that the cause and the effects of spiritual growth can be interchangeable. Spiritual growth leads to compassion and work for justice. But work for justice - connecting with those who are suffering or victimized - changes us. We find compassion growing in our hearts and pushing aside the barriers we have built to love.

We are not alone and we are not separate. We are connected and we participate in a greater sacredness. As we grow as spiritual beings, our understanding of these facts compels us to reach out, compels us to feel compassion, compels us to work for justice, compels us to create a world of peace for all beings now and for all the tomorrows.

Love your neighbour as yourself - surely as we recognize that we are not separated from our neighbour, anything else becomes an impossibility.