Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

Justice — The Song We Can't Get Out Of Our Head (Bob Oesch)

At Theology at the Bottleworks (“TATB”) we strive for conversations that matter.  We talk about topics that are large, fiery, timely and important.  In that vein, the September Theology at the Bottleworks took up the topic of “With Liberty and Justice for — Whom? Where is Justice in America?”

Sometimes hot-button topics draw huge crowds — we have 100 people stuffed in the Crown Room at Schlafly Bottleworks from time to time.  Sometimes hot-button topics seem to scare people off.  That was apparently the case in September as our crowd was below average in number.  But we dove deep into the topic anyway:

What is justice?  Why do we want it?  Where do we get it?  

What’s behind the strong tensions today between law enforcement and members of communities?  Are the Black Lives Matter and similar movements of the moment leading toward justice?  Are you hopeful or not about justice prevailing in your community?

Giving a good recapitulation of an event like Theology at the Bottleworks is about as difficult an assignment as they come:  dozens of people think and speak and interact and the moderator asks and directs and pushes back in a dialogue that is as gloriously organic and spontaneous.  Interestingly the crowd this night was really pre-occupied with the “social justice” aspects of justice far more than the “law and order” aspects, and so we talked much about equality and opportunity and fairness in society, education and careers.

Want more details on the discussion?  Well, each TATB is a bit like a fireworks display  — is it to be enjoyed in real time, once and irrevocably.  If you missed this one, you missed a good one.  

When I conclude a TATB discussion I try to drill down into the foundational values which form our views on these deep topics, like “is there justice in America?”.  Here are my concluding comments from the evening, that I hope lead you to some good introspection and conversation:

Is your view of justice hopeful or pessimistic?

Does your spirituality, or your irreligiosity, influence your hope here?  

People of faith and completely irreligious people have some important things in common.  As Jennifer Hecht says in her fascinating book, Doubt: A History,   

"Great doubters, like great believers, have been trying to figure out whether people would be better weaning themselves from their sense of narrative, justice and love — because the ideals seem so far removed from reality.”

Hecht says we’re in a “meaning-rupture,” where what we want in our heads and hearts is truly divergent from the reality of the universe we live in. In other words, we may not be able to explain why we persist in dreaming of an ideal of justice when the role of the world seems to be to stamp out justice wherever possible.  

How can we believe in something that seems so rare or even unachievable? The ugly truth is that justice as the concept we discussed at TATB is often flawed or weak or completely absent in our world.  Tragedies happen all the time; crimes are committed;  wrongs are done — all at a pace that is dizzying.  It’s almost as if the default mode of the universe is actually INjustice.  As Metallica put it, in their popular late 80’s song, “And Justice for All”:

Justice is lost

Justice is raped

Justice is gone

Pulling your strings

Justice is done

Seeking no truth

Winning is all

Find it so grim

So true, So real

Ugh. The true state of justice is enough to make you curl up in bed and pull the covers over your head.

And yet…

Justice — real justice, true justice — is like the song we can’t get out of our mind; it’s like the scent of a flower we haven’t seen but is there, somewhere.

Where DOES this seemingly irrational and futile gesture of a hope for justice come from?   Could there be a real and rational basis for our hope? And where does it call us?

I'd call these some of the most important questions of our time.

Bob Oesch


The October Theology at the Bottleworks will be held on October 21 at Schlafly Bottleworks | 7:30 pm | The Power, and the Problems, of Human Beauty