“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Much to my roommates’ surprise (“I’ve read this for at least six classes!”) I have never read Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, but I have heard the above quote. As someone who grew up for three months out of the year in the toil of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” I’ve heard my dad use this quote in his defense of Irish Catholics – though, to be fair, it applies to both sides. Dr. King’s famous letter and Kolvenbach’s discourse on the Jesuit commitment to service and justice both hit home and made me consider the nature of justice and my own obligation to uphold it. Before reading Dr. King’s letter, I read the statement which had originally prompted it. The pastors who opposed Dr. King’s tactics, though they were the impetus for one of the most famous retaliatory responses of all time, are not necessarily bad people. However, because they are unaffected (or at least less affected, as they were white) by segregation, they cannot see the necessity of Dr. King’s and his follower’s tactics. Despite the fact that King championed civil disobedience and passive resistance – both non-violent approaches to an often violent problem – they fear his actions are too inflammatory and feel instead that issues related to civil rights should be kept within the confines of the courtroom.
Fr. Kolvenbach, likewise, reflects on the problem of a commitment to service and distance from the actual issue;“Dogmatism or ideaology sometimes led us to treat each other more as adversaries than as companions.” When one is so far removed from a situation, as the white clergymen and the Jesuit clergy were, the issue becomes more academic and less personal. It becomes about rhetoric rather than the well-being of the oppressed people in question, leading even those who are supposed to be united in the name of justice to bicker amongst themselves. Both King and Kolvenbach seem to solve the problem by taking another step back rather than attempting to involve themselves further. They consider all opions, address all approaches, and finally do rely to a point on their own personal experiences to bring their readers back to what is important: not how justice is achieved, but that one way or another, it is achieved.
As I mentioned, I grew up with the turmoil of the Troubles in Northern Ireland as an important part of my life. My dad was heavily involved in amnesty programs and Irish political movements throughout the 80s and 90s, thus making it an important issue for me. I realized, however, that when I left Ireland’s incongruously luscious fields and morbid TV clips of bombs exploding, I largely forgot about the issue altogether. Now and then I would see a clip on American TV regarding violence in the North or overhear a distressed phone call between my dad and a friend or family member “back home.” Yet, while I was devastated when such events transpired minutes away from me in Ireland, I was merely bemused thousands of miles away safe in my Rhode Island home. Some time in my teens, I realized this discrepancy , though by that point it was largely too late – the Troubles had ended though tension still existed in the North. Though it was too late to make any real impact, I did realize on thing; the ability to argue over tactics used in the face of injustice is a privilege held by those least affected by it. Just as the clergy in both cases dug themselves into arguments over theoretical solutions, I argued with my family over the correct approaches to peace in Northern Ireland. While such discussions are pertinent to these kind of problems, I know now that what is most important is a personal and empathetic connection to injustice. When this connection is lost, as it was in both King’s and Kolvenbach’s cases, the real drive behind achieving a just society is lost.