The Means of Justice Must Match Its Ends

Friday, December 2, 2016 - 5:30am
Photo by Jason Redmond

The Means of Justice Must Match Its Ends

The last few weeks since Trump’s election have been more than a shock. They've been an assault, a trauma.

Quickly, we have had to abandon any delusion that things would be OK. Looking at the people who now surround Trump, it’s clear that we are in for a long dark slide, including assaults on our educational system, housing, environment, health institutions, and more.

So what do we have to say? How do we respond?

In the last few weeks, I have sat down with many friends, including wise friends like Luke Powery (dean of Duke Chapel), Bill Hart (my critical race theory professor), and more. I have listened carefully to Reverend Barber, Cornel West, and Eddie Glaude, inviting their wisdom. Hart reminded me of what I hear from many African-American friends: this is not new. This is not just about Trump. This is what racism in America has been like. What is new about it is that it is now merged with the state apparatus at the highest level.

Powery and I shared a conversation that had a different focus: how does one respond to racism with dignity? Powery delivered a powerful sermon after the election, written in the form of a letter to his children. These inspirations have lifted me up, and stay with me. Many of my friends have been speaking, quite understandably, about the need to fight, to organize, to mobilize, to reach out in solidarity. I share all of those sentiments.

But there is also a moral question here that Powery has left me with. A spiritual question beckons: How do we respond to hatred and bigotry? Can we hate hatred? What about hating the hater?

Yes, I keep coming back to W.E.B. Du Bois. And pondering his four questions:

“How shall Integrity face Oppression?
What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception,
Decency in the face of Insult,
Self-Defense before Blows?
How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?
What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

In thinking about integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue in this age of bluster and hot air and outright lies, I also think about so many of the best people I know who want to lash out at Trump and Trump-ism. I know that urge, for I feel it in my own veins as well.

And yet I wonder if that’s not giving in to the same Dark Side of the Force.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t confuse the racism and xenophobia and misogyny of the Trump regime with the desire to fight for a better world. I don’t. These are not mirror images of one another.

But I think there’s a spiritual lesson here for us as well. We cannot hate our way out of Trump.

We need something to illuminate the darkness, and it may not be cursing it. Our very being has to become a candle, bringing light into a world deeply in need of it.

Oh, yes, there is urgent need for righteous indignation to awaken us from the state of slumber, but we need more than just that. We need something divine to lift us up above hatred, and it’s love.

I still believe in love.
I still believe that love will have the victory.

I was turning recently back to one of the defining movies of my life: Star Wars. I can do without the lightsabers and the CGI. I watch it for Yoda, for the Force.

There’s a powerful scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke takes on Darth Vader. At first Luke refuses to fight his father:

Vader: You cannot hide forever, Luke.

Luke: I will not fight you.

Vader: Give yourself to the Dark Side.
It is the only way you can save your friends.
Yes, your thoughts betray you.
Your feelings for them are strong. Especially for...
So... you have a twin sister.
Your feelings have now betrayed her, too.
Obi-Wan was wise to hide her from me.
Now his failure is complete.
If you will not turn to the Dark Side, then perhaps she will.

Luke: Never!

It is in the next scene that Luke seems to give in to his own inner demons. He lashes out again and again and again at Darth Vader. Yes, there is real power in this. The Dark Side of the Force is also real. Anger, hatred, revenge. They are not merely the absence of love, compassion, and light.

This scene reminds me so much of how many of us would lash out, if we could, at Trump and Trump-ism. Righteous indignation so easily turns into the Dark Side.

Somehow our means and our ends have to be consistent. We can’t hate our way out of Trump. There is still the need for love, for love to move into the public spaces. There is still the need for that love to be called justice when it is public, and for that same love to be tenderness when it moves inward.

In confronting the Dark Side, let us never turn to the Dark Side. Let us not become the very quality we so despise.

Let us counter this vicious hatred with an insistence on love for all, including a redemptive love for those who are seduced by the charlatans’s promises, starting with those who at the moment find themselves weak and vulnerable.

Back to Star Wars.

Emperor: Good! Your hate has made you powerful.
Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!

Luke: Never! I'll never turn to the Dark Side.
You've failed, Your Highness.
I am a Jedi, like my father before me.

May we heed the wise words of that wise Sufi master, Yoda:

“Once you start down the dark path,
forever will it dominate your destiny,
consume you it will.”

The Dark Side is not stronger. It is, as Yoda taught us, “Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

I still believe that love will have the victory. Let us make sure that our means, our way, our method, is as refined as the beloved community goal we espouse.

It may not be quick. It surely won’t be easy. And let it not be seductive. Be let us cling, o prisoners of hope, to the light side of the Force in this age of Trump.

It’s a marathon…


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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I enjoyed the article and it reflects so many of my own thoughts. I have admired the Clintons but I did not wish to see her elected because of the hatred that would have been poured upon her. I did not want Trump elected either but I believe there might be a glimmer if it is only that we will see the side of darkness that we do not wish to explore further. If this term inspires new and more moderate candidates to enter public service, we shall have made some progress. I do wish to offer this: I spent a career as a social worker and came to know bullies and tyrants well. A liar can never believe anything he might see or hear because the voices in his head are telling him how he would distort the facts to serve his own ends and thus, he expects everyone else to be doing the same. I believe part of the answer is love. We are looking at the shell of a man who has had very little love in his life and he has had a glimmer of the adulation we tend to pour upon our presidents, past and present. He will do for love and adulation what he would never do simply because it was the right thing to do.

"I have admired the Clintons but I did not wish to see her elected because of the hatred that would have been poured upon her."

That kind of male privilege is one of the problems here. I'm sure Hillary didn't need your "protection"; she's proven for the last 50 years that she can take the hatred and scorn thrown at her for her policies and, yes, for her gender.
That attitude is one of those sides of "darkness" that must be explored further. I hope you do so.

This response is directed at Michele and Howard. As a 60 year old woman, I would have celebrated to see Clinton elected and grieve at Trump's electoral college victory. But I agree with Howard - Hillary Clinton's election would have unleashed a tsunami of hatred not just directed at her, but engulfing our entire nation and grinding our government to a standstill. While I still want the election results to be different, and I voted for HRC, I see from today's vantage point that maybe, just maybe the outcome will be better this way as the dark side is really on display now, for everyone including Trumps supporters, including Republicans who now must face choices that I hope will shake them to their souls' cores, for Democrats who must face their own demons of having compromised too deeply in the name of maintaining political power. The money is vast and the power imbalance now is huge - but the numbers of people who didn't vote for this government or didn't vote at all out of disgust and despair are larger still.

Thank you so very, very much for this! These very thoughts have been running through my own heart but when Trump or KellyAnne Conway open their mouths, it is so difficult to imagine that these people represent the America I know and love. To imagine that my own family embraces this man and his choices for cabinet posts is astonishing to me.

I think their loyalty stems from the heavy weight of owning a business responsible for the livelihood of 50+ families. I never really know what government regulations they are sick of but they constantly talk about yet one more requirement handed down from Washington for them to comply with. This business began from my father's invention of a fertilizer blender in the heart of the Midwest. He has worked tirelessly and taken great risks to create the business. I almost think that Trump could actually rape someone in office and my family would still want to keep him there! I know that seems extreme but all of his behavior thus far hasn't impacted them in the least. My parents and brother and his family are devout Christians. I was taught to be someone completely different from everything this man and those in his cabinet are about. My only way to grasp it is in understanding that one's survival.

"Maslow's theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs." Wikipedia

Government regulations on businesses are layers thick and for those who initiate, maintain and seek to grow new ones, the common thing they say is that if they had known what it would take to comply with everything required, they would have never started a business in the first place. The process has turned my once socially conscious parents whose social circle while I was growing up included the poor, the disabled, Native Americans, African Americans and very few if any of the white upper class, into devoted Trump followers. I can only conclude that when one's life FEELS threatened, which for them the business has been their life, they will go to whatever lengths possible to secure its future. I know the validity of their experiences with the regulations and their constant frustration with the government's impact on their business and yet for me, I only reap the benefits of being their daughter. My children learned how to work as a result of their business's existence. My children and me had a road paved out of poverty as a result of my father's inventions and tenacity to make the business work. I was the first one on both sides of my family to graduate from college and my parents have had the resources to save my daughter's life when illness threatened to take it. When an insurance company treated us terribly, it was their hard earned wealth that came through for us. They have given me a life worth living and I am so grateful for that. And yet, even with all they have accomplished, they do not realize how much of it was possible because they enjoyed white privilege. To even suggest that to them implies that communicates that they were given a handout and handouts are completely unacceptable to them.

I guess I share all of this because it is clearer to me as the days go by that our issues are not as all/nothing, either/or, right/left as we would like to imagine or like them to be. Somehow we have to govern with the awareness of having really heard what the other is saying and that is an incredibly difficult order.

My intention at present is to continue to do what you suggest. To reach out and believe that beyond the rhetoric and noise, there are real human beings with a very different body of knowledge and understanding lodged within themselves that I must pay attention to. If I do not, things will never change in my own circle of influence.

You have touched on the heart of so much that needs to be said. Not long after the RNC, there was a FaceBook about an article written by Benjamin Mathas titled, How to Listen When You Disagree/A lesson from the Republican National Convention (UrbanConfession). He writes that "we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view". He quotes Agape "Hear the biography, not the ideology". Your points are a beautiful example of this. Mathas formulated the question "Will you tell me your story? I'd love to know how you came to this point of view." Now if we can only learn to listen to the answers!

Jane and Joyce, I would just like to express great appreciation for what you have written here. It helps me understand - Jane's sense of her family's experience and Joyce's bringing forward of the question that can help further understand. Omid, your essay is a gift.

Further: If there is a villain, look to Trump's father and imagine the burden of living up to expectations. The dominant force and goal is to rule, to outshine and outglitz everything and everybody. Only then can you pause for the moment on top of the mountain and there is no relaxing even then because the masses you overroad to get where you are, are coming after you. To see the other end of this evil, look no further than Trump's young son. He is beaten and thoroughly cowed and will be only a very minor player, if at all, in the White House. He has gotten the message at a very young age of the very steep road he will have to climb to win acceptance and love.

I so valued this sentence in particular: "Let us counter this vicious hatred with an insistence on love for all, including a redemptive love for those who are seduced by the charlatans’s promises."

And from Jane's comment below: "To reach out and believe that beyond the rhetoric and noise, there are real human beings with a very different body of knowledge and understanding lodged within themselves that I must pay attention to. If I do not, things will never change in my own circle of influence."

So many calls forward I read, even from thought leaders, suggest in essence a self-protective retreat to ones own communities of comfort and safety and natural allies and effectively staying as far away as possible from acting out of real sympathy for "the other side."

We see where that comfortable strategy has gotten us. It is a time for heart and courage, particularly among those with privilege and voice.

I read your reflections with some regularity and am most always moved to further reflection with you. In this case, I was struck by what was missing. If you've written about it elsewhere or have otherwise named your attempts at this, I have missed them. I noticed, though, that the persons you name as wise friends are likely ones with whom you share many beliefs and values. Honestly, your motivation for doing so may not be so far removed from my motivation to return to the OnBeing blog with consistency. Conversely, I wonder about your sit-down conversations with folks who are Trump supporters. As you well know, they're not just "out there" somewhere, they're at the grocery store, in our families, in your classrooms, etc. Could you tell us about those conversations. My belief is that the rhetoric of othering each other is at the heart of the matter.

"My belief is that the rhetoric of othering each other is at the heart of the matter."...concise and to the point, not just in America/politics, but in fact, worldwide, pursuitwide. Well done.

We need to create a new term to be included in this hate : "the racism and xenophobia and misogyny of the Trump regime" : the hatred of the poor & the wish to see them get sick, starve & die. Certain politicians are expert at this kind of hate. This hate that crosses every other categorization like race, religion, & orientation.

Casting Mr. Trump as Darth Vader is not civil conversation.

"The Dark Side is the force... forcing."


Always enjoying your insights, i now summarize the latest with a quote from a present day philosopher, "You can't have a light without a dark to stick it in." - Arlo Guthrie

The pendulum swings both ways always.