MicSem Publications

The Struggle for Justice…But Under Whose Terms?

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1995 Justice & Law

Just about everyone, whatever one's creed and ethnic background, claims to support justice. How many would ever count themselves as opponents of justice, after all?

Then why the strife? We may think that much of the controversy today, especially in what is commonly called the Third World, is over how to get there, what means should be used to achieve this incontestable good. But an even bigger problem may be the idiom, or language, we use to speak about justice. My presentation today will be a development of that last statement.

If I were to ask people in Micronesia, or any other part of the Pacific, to define justice, their definition probably wouldn't be too much different from the response we would get in London, Berlin or New York. Just about everywhere, justice means to ensure that each person gets what he/she deserves.

The problem lies in the clause: "what the person deserves." On Pohnpei, the Micronesian island on which I now live and work, the pigs at feasts and funerals are divided and apportioned according to this formula. Accordingly, the high chief receives the head, second-ranking chiefs the hindquarters, still other chiefs the forequarters, and so on. Each receives his portion of the pig as well as other feast food according to his title. High-titled persons walk away from the feast heavily laden with baskets of food; commoners may leave with nothing–even commoners who donated a pig that might have a market value of several hundred dollars. Is this fair? Pohnpeians think so. So do Tongans, and Samoans, and Fijians, and Marshallese, and Cook Islanders.

What the high chief deserves, in the estimation of island people, is a good cut above what the low-born deserve. In their view, the value of a person is largely determined by his social standing–his niche in society. As in Europe until only two centuries ago, there were those born to rule, those whose destiny was to be nobles or "gentlemen", those whose lives were meant to be spent tilling the soil and waiting upon their betters, and even those whose lot was lifelong servitude.

Church people in our age can be expected to react strongly to the position that a person's value is somehow dependent upon that person's role in society. Yet this has always been one of the basic assumptions in Pacific societies. A few years ago, when the church in the Kingdom of Tonga rushed to the support of those seeking to democratize a society that had always been staunchly monarchical, many islanders wagged a critical finger at the church charging that the democratic reforms it was supporting were as inapplicable to their island society as mashed potatoes. They accused the church of supporting Western institutions against the traditional order, even though the church had repeatedly gone on record as endorsing inculturation and supporting in principle island ways. Shouldn't the church be prepared to accept Tongan values and institutions, even if they are clearly hierarchical and non-egalitarian?

So the quarrel over justice is substantive, it seems, having to do with who should be given what. The Westerner tends to emphasize the right of every individual to a fair share (often understood to mean "equal" share), while the Pacific Islander expects that each will receive from the bounty of the community according to his status. Pacific Islander and Westerner look at the matter from very different perspectives. The islander sees the rights and responsibilities of a person tied to that person's status in society. The Westerner thinks of all persons as inherently equal and endowed with certain basic rights (like the right to participate in political decision-making) that demand respect. The quarrel has to do with much more than words, but the language gap that has arisen between these parties has only compounded the misunderstanding and added to the confusion.

Westerners come from a recent tradition of human rights. All human persons are endowed with basic rights–the right to decent housing, the right to demand fair compensation for their labor, the right to participate in political decisions, for instance. Everyone from the least to the greatest possesses these inalienable rights. A recent international conference even produced a list of rights of children. We preach this as though it were axiomatic–but it isn't. Not to a Pacific Islander, or to many an Asian or African, I would be willing to bet.

There was no word for "rights" in the indigenous language of most of these people. In some of the local languages, the English term has been adopted into the vocabulary. The word sometimes draws hisses and snorts from older people, who speak of "rights" as a kind of disease afflicting the young. The very term "rights," in the minds of many older islanders, stands for a selfish individualism and all its attendant evils. It is tantamount to embracing the cause of the single human person over and against the good of the entire society, selfishness versus communitarianism. In the minds of many, the modern advocacy of rights is one of the most pernicious contagions that the West has unleashed on traditional and proud societies: the misguided emphasis on "me' rather than "us."

The adults on Chuuk, an island group on which I worked for 25 years, used to speak with disdain of a philosophy that emphasized what one is entitled to receive (rights) instead of what one is obligated to give (reponsibilities). They saw this as puerile and simply cottoning to the silly tastes of the young, who were already trying to get a better deal for themselves. In their minds, a code of social justice that was built on rights ran the risk of condoning irresponsibility.

A further criticism of "rights" theory I would often hear is that it is confrontational rather than conciliatory, reflecting Western legal tradition as it does. The rights of one person, after all, are bound to clash with those of another, resulting in adversarial positions that must be adjudicated. In other words, rights theory more often generates an open confrontation rather than the kind of consensus Pacific island societies characteristically try to achieve. The island alternative to this is making known various parties' needs and trying to meet these through consensus.

Let us summarize. Rights language is perceived as inimical to the "Pacific way" because it is seen as:

  • seeking to abolish the legitimate social distinctions in traditional societies in the name of equality;
  • rooted in a radical individualism that strikes at the heart of the communitarian spirit so important in traditional societies;
  • self-seeking in its emphasis on what is due me rather than what I owe others;
  • confrontational in setting up opposing claims rather than conciliatory or consensual in approach.

The language of human rights is a recent Western invention. For most of human history, in the West as everywhere else, society has been regarded as static and hierarchical. The prevailing social ethic in such societies was grounded on the person's duties to society, rather than in what he might expect to receive from others. Any formal rights that individuals possessed were linked to their status rather than to their personhood as such.

With the development of modern Europe emerged individualism. This was partly the outgrowth of the self-consciousness of the Enlightenment, but even more a reaction to the development of the modern nation-state, which posed a greater threat to the individual than the ancient society ever did. The new emphasis on individual rights grew out of this milieu.

The Catholic Church resisted this mode of thinking for a time, but by the end of the last century, with the publication of Rerum Novarum, the first of the modern social encyclicals, the church began adopting this same language. Part of the explanation for the sudden turnaround in the church's position lay in the misery inflicted on laborers and their families during the Industrial Revolution. In response to this, the church began to develop an ethic of individual rights–at first economic rights, but later political as well when Marxism threatened to sacrifice political liberty for the sake of economic development.

We can assume that in due time rights theory, like MTV and Western dress styles and the computer, will become an established part of life throughout the world. This could happen in 30 years, or in 10 years, or in 50 years. But the cultural chasm has not yet been crossed. Rights language is still not understood or accepted in my part of the world, and I suspect in many other places. And not just by rulers and reactionaries.

In the meantime, the church may be called to serve as a cultural broker, as it has had to be so often in the past. It could play an invaluable role in translating the idiom of human rights into language that better speaks to the people in traditional societies today and is more universally acceptable. For the church to do this, it will have to reach into twin sources for a language that is better understood: scripture, and the cultural traditions of the society it is addressing.

Scripture has very little to say about human rights, but it is eloquent on the subject of respect for the individual person. Like all pre-modern writings, it deals with ethics from the standpoint of obligations of the agent rather than the entitlements of others. The gospel is filled with admonitions to show respect for human persons, no matter how low their social status. The ethic of love is applied rigorously to all–prostitutes, collaborators with the Roman government, religious rivals, and cheats and scoundrels. The Old Testament (which, we should remember, was the product of an Asian culture) was especially pointed in its injunctions to protect the poor and the powerless–the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

The Old Testament laid out in great detail the responsibilities of persons toward one another (but at least implicitly described what people could expect from one another–that is, what would today be called their rights). Persons were not to have their oxen slaughtered, their wife or daughter seized, or their house burned at the whim of their neighbor or of the state. The law code was one important means of safeguarding the interests of individuals. To live under the law, especially the covenant code, was to be shielded and protected from the danger of power run amok.

The human person is not just an instrument of society, a tool to be used or discarded, according to scripture, but is an end in itself and deserving of respect. The two "moral commodities" (as Filipino Jesuit Fr. Archy Intengan once called them) that protected individuals long before the invention of the concept of individual rights were justice and compassion. This is the language used in the bible, a language that also resonates with Pacific islanders.

Most traditional cultures in Oceania, which also lacked rights language, employed the same devices for safeguarding the respect owed human persons. The norms for justice may not be codified, but they exist in oral form throughout the Pacific. Land boundary markers should not be moved. Mechanisms were established for safeguarding the legitimate claims of those without power, usually by placing them under the protection of others, sometimes through adoption or by fashioning a client relationship with those who can provide for them. Most Pacific islands have strong traditions of compassion and respect. I have often seen islanders melt when observing a person in real need, whether that person might need a place to stay for a month, a loan of hundreds of dollars, or a job to feed his family.

One of the toughest men I knew in Chuuk told me that once when visiting Tijuana, Mexico, he saw some youth scavenging in garbage cans for something to eat. He left the cantina in which he was eating, opened his wallet and handed the kids a twenty dollar bill. His response was typical of the people with whom I have been working all these years. He might have responded to a challenge in the old warrior mode, but when faced with those who made no claims upon him except by virtue of their need, he responded with characteristic Pacific largesse. This is the Pacific way.

Let me conclude here by repeating the point of this presentation. If the church is to work for social justice, it will have to help people in traditional societies understand the framework for the language we use to describe justice issues today–that is, rights theory. It may be a serious mistake to assume that they will be able to understand and respond to this language, so foreign to the Third World. Once again, the church must be not just an advocate for the poor, but a cultural broker and translator in making the social ethics of the church resonant to the local society. If we are prepared to do this, we will present the church as truly a bridge between cultures and their languages.