John Rawls believed, "justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought."
Predating Rawls by several thousand years, Aristotle, famously defined the virtues as the contextually appropriate means between two extremes, one an excess of the trait and the other a deficit of the same trait, e.g., courage is the appropriate mean, in a given situation, between rashness and cowardice. But Aristotle, who struggled with defining justice, believed it to be the only virtue of which one cannot have an excess.
My nearly four decades of ministry have taught me that as difficult a concept to define as justice may be (see the three previous posts in this series on justice, the third of the four cardinal virtues), the harder, more important challenge is being an effective catalyst in encouraging people to live justly and to work for a just society. Stories about people have an emotional power that purely cognitive approaches lack, so I end this series with two anecdotes.
A massive boulder had fallen into the middle of a highway. Cars would zip around the curve and crash into it. A family living nearby was horrified and moved to pity by the sight. They would help people from their smashed-up cars, tend their injuries, feed them, pray with them, and send them on their way. Finally, after years of compassionate care, one family member said, "You know, we really should try to move that boulder." (Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Salt of the Earth, March/April 1995, p. 35)
So what, exactly, does the rabbinate at Beth Emet aim to persuade its membership to do? 'That which I feel like I’m compelled and obligated to move people to do,' Rabbi London explains, 'is to really reach out and to make the world a better place. I feel like that is a place where I have some responsibility to push. I don’t feel like I have a responsibility to push people to light Shabbat candles. I think it’s really powerful to light Shabbat candles—it’s made a huge difference in my life and I’ll share that with people, but if I got everyone in the congregation to light Shabbat candles, you know, I didn’t really do much. If I got everybody in this congregation to give ten hours of community service because they felt compelled by their religious tradition to do so, I’d feel like I had done a lot.' (Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell, American Grace, Kindle Loc. 5299-5305)