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One of the first eateries that I was invited to this summer as a newcomer to Washington, D.C. was Ben's Chili Bowl. Family-owned and in operation since 1958, the restaurant has become a regional landmark and has long been a mealtime hotspot. Why is the place so famous among those "DC-ites" in the know? The food served there by friendly staff, featuring "half smokes" (referring to sausage) and chili (full of cheese and beans), the antithesis of tofu and greens, draws in escapees from more healthy diets. Many people also come, I suppose, because it is a "happening place." One finds clustered within its fifties-era confines commoners of two types: those who admit they are common and those who think they are uncommon. Pictures on the walls, detailing the visits of mostly Black American celebrities and political figures, document the cache of a diner with soul. But maybe the real secret to the place is its critical role in the 1960s during the race riots.
The story, as related to me by Chili Bowl regulars, is that during the riots that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King the whole District was burning, except for Ben's place. Ben Ali, a native of Trinidad, with his wife Virginia and other family members, kept the restaurant open and both police and activists would meet there, usually in secret, to work out plans for stemming the violence and addressing community complaints. The family of restaurateurs had earned the trust of both sides, and that trust helped them provide a safe spot within which opponents could begin to know and then to trust each other. Chili and reconciliation -- a combination that still reverberates today with significance.
Finding such a place for knowing and trust-building is a critical task in any society that hopes to sustain itself amidst the inevitable divisions and conflicts of the human condition. It is in fact a demand of justice because justice itself depends on it.
This insight is drawn from my recent reading from a book by John Finnis, a philosopher and principle progenitor of what has been called the "New Natural Law Theory." His work aims at reviving and updating natural law thinking in a way that does not change the substance of old ways of thinking. It seeks instead to make ancient truths relevant again to minds and hearts malformed by modern educational trends.
The book is titled Natural Law and Natural Rights, published in 1980. On page 108, Finnis addresses what has to be considered one of the central problems of justice -- determining when it is reasonable to prefer the interests of one's own self, or one's own family, community, and nation. He states: "In the Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions of reflection, this question was approached ... by adopting the viewpoint, the standards, the principles of justice" which as a practical matter involves "one who sees the whole arena of human affairs and who has the interests of each participant in those affairs at heart and equally in mind." Exercising impartiality with respect to persons helps one to see with greater clarity when self-preferences cross the boundary into arbitrariness.
Where else can this impartiality be nurtured so deeply but in the family, where love draws together two fundamentally different souls, who in their sexual complementarity are invited to know, to trust, and to give of themselves to an "other" more "other" in kind and quality than any other "otherness" there can be? And if and when this society of the sexes is enlarged through God's gift of a child, whose very being is a surprising combination of donated gene, temperament and aptitude, the opportunity for discovery and understanding increases exponentially. Through the family, the new becomes familiar.
The Church too plays a critical role in increasing impartiality among persons by not entering public policy debates with political attachments or partisan brands. The goodwill earned by the Church's practice throughout history of not taking sides against persons, while maintaining its convictions about what is true and good for all persons, has helped the Church to establish relationships with an astounding variety of groups who, among and between themselves, may be archenemies. The Church has become and continues to serve, as a result, as a welcome and welcoming place where amazing reconciliations can be achieved.
Finnis cautions that the goal of impartiality between persons should not be misconstrued as a call for "'impartiality' about the basic aspects of human good." Impartiality, he says, "does not authorize ... indifference to death and disease, to preferring trash to art, by favoring the comforts of ignorance and illusion, by repressing all play as unworthy of man, by praising the ideal of self-aggrandizement and contemning the ideal of friendship, or by the treating the search for the ultimate source and destiny of things as of no account or as an instrument of statecraft or a plaything reserved for leisured folk ...." In other words, justice requires that all be welcome but not on just any set of terms that disregard as irrelevant what is true and good.
Whether it is serving "half smokes" even when the world is going up in smoke, saying "I do" every day for the rest of one's life to one's spouse and family even in the midst of "I won't"- inducing challenges, or standing one's ground as a faith-based participant in the great policy debates of the day even when confronted by resistance and calumny, these are the acts and commitments that make justice possible.
Daniel Avila formerly served the Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts and now lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area.