The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.
Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.
Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act. Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.
The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.
Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.
Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.