To clear my head of the ugly lingering images of 2006 — a hangman’s noose, faces of 3,000 American soldiers dead, the detritus of war and violence on every screen — I decided to start the new year with a hike on the Virginia side of Great Falls. Today was chilly and rainy — perfect weather to enjoy the majesty of this great place in relative peace and quiet. There’s nothing quite like spending a few hours immersed in earth’s splendid natural power to restore a sense of balance.
The wild Potomac raced over these ancient rocks hundreds of millions of years before human feet trod the banks, before Stephen Tyng Mather lent his name to the massive gorge that cuts through the awesome rock formations. The river will certainly be powering through Mather Gorge long after we are gone, perhaps even after our current society has disappeared like the giant trunks of once-mighty upstream oaks and pines smashed and borne away on the crests of the great waves. The balance of nature: life flourishes and then is swept away as new life germinates again from the old seeds on the river banks.
Balance seems particularly scarce in contemporary human experience. Americans have entirely too much “stuff” while the majority of people on this planet have too little food, clothing, shelter. We have too much information but, in fact, know very little about what’s really going on. We have incomparable freedom but feel trapped in a web of complicated choices.
An equation that I can’t seem to balance: 1 = 3,000 = 150,000+
1 = Saddam, gone. Good riddance. But to what end?
3,000 = the last number I heard as I went to sleep on new year’s eve, the number of American military killed in Iraq. That number now exceeds the number of civilians killed on September 11. Another 22,000+ military personnel have sustained injuries in the war.
150,000+ = reported estimate of the number of Iraqis killed thus far in this war.
Vengeance is an impulse that throws all other considerations out of balance. When does legitimate self-defense become unreasonable vengeance?
Justice, in the Christian and Catholic sense, is a virtue that compels us to be selfless in service to others because we owe that to God for the gift of life. Catholic social justice includes the idea of solidarity with our brothers and sisters, the option for the poor and vulnerable in our society, the defense of life, the rights of workers, the values of family and community, and care for God’s creation. Justice in the secular sense means ensuring equality and fairness of treatment for all people without discrimination. Justice in the legal sense includes the distribution of rewards and penalties fairly according to the law.
Justice is not vengeance. In contemporary politics, we hear a lot about “bringing him to justice” when, sometimes, the quest is really motivated by a desire for revenge. Vengeance is not justice.
Justice is about balance — the balance of rights and obligations, the balance that comes with good moral choices and acceptance of consequences for bad choices. When justice is established, society can achieve peace, because peace is that ultimate state of balance between individual rights and communal obligations.
The United States went to war in a search for justice, having been grievously attacked on its own soil, feeling a great need to establish its right to defend the homeland. War is incompatible with peace, but, ironically, at times it may be essential to retore peace. Somewhere along the line, though, this war stopped being about justice, and slid into vengeance. We now have revenge, Saddam at the end of the hangman’s rope. And, still, we have no peace.
In this young new year, we must resolve to restore the balance. We must not let justice devolve into vengeance. We must keep the balance in justice in order to achieve the peace that is essential for human life to flourish.
The river runs on long beyond these days, past the memory of current generations toward a future we cannot imagine. But what we do in these short days allowed to us will affect the future of other human beings who, perhaps someday, will also climb among these rocks and wonder at the great force of water in the gorge below. In accepting our obligation of justice for them, we must work for peace in this world today.