Making peace with proximate justice?

Several years ago I was asked by a magazine editor to write an essay on the vocation of politics. I thought about it over a summer, and offered “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” Having watched Washington for a long time, for many years teaching political responsibility to undergraduates on Capitol Hill, the vision of “something” seems more honest than every version of all-or-nothing. When anything happens in the political world that is more just than not, it is because there is some peace made with proximate justice.

Flying back into Washington this afternoon after days in Boston and Indianapolis, seeing the standoff between the partisan voices of the political left and right, I have thought of proximate justice one more time. Both sides are eager to play their blame-games, shouting out to all who will hear, “Of course I’m right! And of course they’re wrong!” Neither side is willing to give the other anything.

I don’t think that moderation is itself a good, or even that political moderation is in and of itself a worthy ambition. Being luke-warm has its own curses. But wiser folk have always understood that politics is the art of the possible, especially when the work at hand is politically serious. If one can bully his way because he can, that kind of arrogance will eventually come back to bite. If one side doesn’t really give a rip what the other side thinks, certain as they are that their vision and their vision alone is right, it is a dead end for everyone. Both sides show a self-righteousness that has become self-deception, unable to see their own frailties and flaws.

Does health care matter? For everyone everywhere. Are health care costs outrageous? For everyone everywhere. And healthcare is only one face of the showdown about the budget and the economics of our common life. Finding a way forward that addresses our true needs as a society is very complex, and beyond what anyone has yet imagined, or at least anyone that has gained a hearing. What do we do?

Wendell Berry has taught me that even the most complex situations, socially, economically, politically, are like marriage, and I’m sure that he is right. Most moments in our marriage reflect the deeper, harder truth that we each are implicated in the problem, and that we each have something important to say about its resolution.

The only way forward is to make peace with proximate justice. It is a choice to make peace with something, something that is honest and true, something that is more just and more merciful, even if it is not everything. All-or-nothing never works– in marriages, in friendships, in the workplace, in the church. And it never works in politics.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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