On Lions and Injustice
“If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmund Tutu
“If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
As I was perusing my various social media feeds waiting for my son to finish his blackberries, I came across this quote, “If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Wanting more of an intellectual sparring match than my one and a half year old could provide, I began concocting responses to such a statement, which I could post below the comment. My first salvo was, “Does this mean that when the Devil tempts me, if I do not actively resist sin, I will sin anyway because I will be working with the Devil?” If you are reading this, you might wonder how I could possibly have come up with such a strange response. You, whoever you are, reading this post presumably have some reason to think that you understand the quote from Desmund Tutu. As I do not know who you are, I cannot imagine what that might be. The quote forced me to consider that social media feeds create such historically bizarre occurrences of language and thought. In what context am I meant to interpret Desmund Tutu’s quote?
Before I return to Tutu or to my likely bizarre-seeming response, I would like to take a brief stop in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Many people look at Wittgenstein in two phases, the Tractus-Logico-Philosphicus and the Philosophical Investigations. The first work aims to create a precise language without misinterpretation on the level of a science. The latter work has continued to shape the way I think about language. In it, Wittgenstein sets forth a rather difficult kind of paradox, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Assume with me for a moment that I am a good enough interpreter to explain to you what Wittgenstein is up to, or maybe more precisely, that my reflections in this piece will be sufficient to give you enough context and explanation to make you sufficiently sure that you do in fact understand what I am saying about what Wittgenstein is saying.
Wittgenstein seemed to think that language was so context-dependent that it would be nearly impossible to understand someone (or something, depending on your view of animals) from a radically different context. In this case, even if the Lion could speak English, a contemporary American speaker would not understand. This is likely true if you are an American who has heard someone speaking the Cockney dialect of English. It is likely so out of context that it can be difficult to make out the meaning, or what the speaker wants to convey. For charitability to the English, let’s say the American is the Lion and the Brit is the one trying to speak to her. Unless the Cockney English speaker spends sufficient time in the American context, he will be unable to understand the American and vice versa. Sometimes the tagline explanation of Wittgenstein is something like “language is understood in use, not reference.” That is, language does not simply refer to specific things in the world, but is understood in a community of speakers of that language. We can point to a ball and say “that is a ball,” but to understand what “that is a” means, you have to be a sufficiently experienced user of the language. Only then can you be sure you know what “that is a” means, because it is not something to which one can point.
Let’s return to Desmund Tutu. What exactly was he trying to convey in that statement? If you know the story of Desmund Tutu you might guess that he was referring to the situation of Apartheid in South Africa, which created segregation between various racial groups, with white being on the top of the hierarchy. Desmund Tutu, a black Anglican bishop, fought against Apartheid for most of his adult life. “The time of injustice” to which he refers can be either Apartheid or, presumably, any situation in which there is a state level, legal enforcement of segregation among fictive racialized groups. Thus if you are white in a time like that of Apartheid and you assume you are “neutral” (that is, not taking a side) in the struggle against oppression, you are in fact on the side of the one who oppresses. That is, you benefit from the system enough, or care too little, and so you allow the oppressive-dominant group create inequities, which harm those under them.
We could add another layer and wonder what the context was of the post when my friend had posted it. The odd thing about Facebook or Twitter timeline is that there is no context. I can only guess because I know my friend what he meant by posting this quote at this time. He could be simply affirming the import of Desmund Tutu as a historical figure who fought injustice in South Africa. He could be leveraging Tutu’s authority to speak to another time of injustice. It is impossible to know for sure, but one could guess. Critically, the quote without context is almost useless. What follows below is my attempt to imagine various contexts and layers of meaning which could be applied to the quote with the hope that it might bring greater insight.
The first oddity about the quote itself is what exactly is a “time of injustice.” This side of the eschaton one would imagine that there is constant “injustice.” If, of course, by injustice one means the opposite of justice. If you believe that people do wrong and sin is prevalent in the world, there will always be an injustice to fight. But then, the curious thing about the present day use of injustice language is that we imagine that there is “injustice” out there in the so-called political space which is different from internal or local “injustice.” The Platonic philosophical tradition understood injustice to mean a disordered soul. If you are a slave to your passions, there is an injustice at work, and you are not acting justly. You would be on the side of the oppressor, that is, the desiring part of the self which is uncontrolled by reason. If I were an ancient Platonist, I could read this quote as saying that you should always be on guard that your passions can get out of control of reason. (Plato pictures a tripartite view of the soul, with reason as the Charioteer leading a white and black horse, the two passions, in his work the Phaedrus).
The classic Christian appropriation of Plato’s idea can be found in the desert monastic tradition. In this world, the desert fathers fought constantly against the temptation to sin. If they were not virtuous and did not fight against the temptation to vice, they would not inherit eternal life. For in ancient Greek and Latin, the word for “righteous” and “just” is the same word, dikaios, iustus. There was no distinction. There was no distinction between public and private forms of justice or righteousness. Most contemporary speakers of English assume that “justice” is something which has to do with the state or politics, while “righteousness” has something to do with how one acts before God.
This might get to the heart of the problem for me as a contemporary American Christian who studies ancient Christianity. I think it is a perfectly appropriate position to hold that one struggles against injustice by considering both what we might call “internal righteousness” and “external justice.” I am not happy that we have created the distinction, because it assumes that we can fight one and not the other. But I am not going to be able to change the way Americans use the language, so I can only modify it for my purposes.
What if a perfectly acceptable way to respond to Desmund Tutu’s charge is to struggle against my “internal unrighteousness?” As John would say, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). It seems that our political bifurcation has allowed us to assume that by stating the right things on Facebook or Twitter, or even by marching in a protest, I have done the hard work of fighting “injustice.” Or even worse, if I don’t do those things, I am suddenly “choosing the side of the oppressor.” If every person who read such quotes like Tutu’s simply considered in their heart whether or not they have treated their brother or neighbor well, and then responded by asking forgiveness and seeking reconciliation, it would be a different world.
It seems to me that the simple and devastating command of Jesus, “love your neighbor as yourself,” was profound in the most personally difficult way. He asks how we treat the proximum in Latin, the one nearest to us. I can post on Facebook or put a sign on my front lawn, but that is easy. How much harder is it to love that racist person or family member with whom we come into contact every single day. I need to do justice, and be just, to that person who is acting unjustly. That person who says all those terrible things and is just downright impolite in every circumstance. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor for a reason. It is so much harder to consider how I love that person right next to me, and if everyone responded to that call in the grace of the Holy Spirit all the hard work would already be done.