Justice For All

I grew up with the phrase, Life’s Not Fair. Usually it was used to stop whining between siblings but it seems to have taken on a whole new global meaning. Life’s not fair means we can write off systemic injustice, using the rational that life was never meant to be fair, so why even try?

equality-doesnt-mean-justiceWhen I was getting master’s degree in Urban Education, most of my classes were on the discrepancies of education between neighborhoods in our city. Wealthier neighborhoods had better public schools; poorer neighborhoods had gaps in funding and resources.

We often looked at this graphic of Equality and Justice: Three children of varying heights are standing on three boxes of the same height, looking over a fence. The tallest child can easily see the baseball game on the other side; the middle child can just see over the fence; and the smallest child, even when boosted, still cannot see over the fence. Justice shows the tallest child standing on the ground, still watching the game over the fence. The middle child is standing on one box, and the smallest child is boosted up on two boxes and now enjoying the game.

ajAerM1_700b_v2This is a great start in understanding the difference between justice and equality. But it’s still imperfect. After I got my degree, the much-used graphic became imperfect (or perhaps it was always imperfect?) and a new one was created. The first two images are the same but a third scenario is added, this time the fence is chainlink and no one needs a box to stand on because they can all easily see through the fence.

(I suppose this one is imperfect, too. Why do we need a fence at all? If this is an image of life, why do we have those who are not at the field? I guess that’s a different conversation wth a lot of nuances and economics to consider.)

For now, I’m thinking of the Pledge of Allegiance that we teach to our children: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Liberty and Justice for all. We teach our schoolchildren these words. We demand respect while saying them, facing the flag, hands on hearts. But our daily practice doesn’t always amount to justice for all. We don’t like the idea of giving someone else our box to stand on, even if we don’t need it ourselves. We don’t like having people watch through the fence when we’ve paid good money for our seats.

The thing is, I’m still sitting in a pretty great seat, right on the third base line. I’m still enjoying the game with an incredible, closeup view. Is it fair that others are watching through a chainlink fence while I’ve paid a lot of money for my tickets? No. But is it changing my experience? It’s not. I still haven’t given up my seat to those watching through the fence.

In a redeemed world, I think we’d all be sitting at the best seats. But for now, let’s remember our own spot in the stands and allow others to watch the game, too.

Where do you sit on the field? What’s your view of the word justice in the Pledge of Allegiance?

BackyardThis post is Day 11 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the Backyard Justice. You can find the entire series over at my Backyard Justice page.

Remembering to Ask Why

I had been teaching a few years before the mandatory requirement to say the Pledge of Allegiance was decreed. Before this, I’d say it occasionally, usually after a staff meeting reminder, but never regularly. With middle school students reading the Pledge over the public announcement system, it was hard to ignore.

Three Flags by Jasper Johns, http://collection.whitney.org/object/1060

I was in second grade when I first became politically aware, so I decided to talk with my own second grade class about expectations around the Pledge of Allegiance. We talked about respect for our country; we talked about the history of the pledge; we also talked about our right as Americans to choose not to stand during it. We agreed as a class that if someone didn’t want to stand up during the pledge, it was ok. They had to still look at the flag and couldn’t be making noise or messing around, but we agreed that standing wasn’t a requirement.

During the first few weeks after this discussion, about half the class tried out sitting down. It never happened at the same time – only a handful of kids ever sat on any given day. After they tried it out, most kids chose to stand during the recitation. Some never did. My goal wasn’t to force patriotism on seven-year-olds. My goal as their teacher was to create an atmosphere in which they could learn and decide for themselves. What choices did they want to make? How did they express respect?

In the following years, we had this same discussion and it became part of our class culture. I always stood, facing the flag, reciting the pledge, though I could never bring myself to place my hand over my heart. I felt too uncomfortable with that level of patriotism. If given the choice, I would sit during the pledge. Not because I don’t appreciate our country or that I’m not grateful to live here, but because I have always felt incredibly uncomfortable pledging allegiance to a nation. For me, it’s not about respect or disrespect but the face that my allegiance isn’t tied to a particular nationality.

I’ve been reminded of this during the debate over football players and other athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. I know that this protest isn’t about the Anthem itself but about the continued oppression and injustice in America. It’s about something so much bigger than respect toward a song and what it stands for.

But it’s made me think about how we show respect and how we think about our allegiance. It makes me wonder about how we interpret the Bible. I’ve heard some argue that God requires us to be good citizens and others argue that God requires us to remember that our allegiance isn’t to kingdoms of this earth.

It also makes me think about how we interpret justice. What does justice mean? Does it mean that our courts hand down strict sentences to those who break the law? Does it mean that we give opportunities to those who don’t have the same inherent privilege? Does it mean justice for me, individually or justice for us, as a community?

I hope that, if nothing else, when our pledge is recited or our anthem is sung, that people pause for a moment and reflect about why they stand or kneel or sit. Why do we do what we do? I think when we can pause and ask that question, we take steps toward reconciliation and understanding.

How do you balance patriotism with your faith? Do you find they enhance each other or do you find them conflicting?

BackyardThis post is Day 3 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the Backyard Justice. You can find the entire series over at my Backyard Justice page.