When I was a young man, I was all for justice. I was for justice for the working class, who were being exploited by capitalism. I was for justice for blacks and other minorities, who were being discriminated against. I was for justice for the Vietnamese, for Latin Americans, and for all the people of the third world, who were oppressed by Yankee imperialism.
Justice! I demanded. And I acted on it. I wrote flyers and newspaper articles, made angry, profanity-laden speeches, protested, demonstrated, marched, picketed, rallied, occupied offices and buildings, and went on strike. I joined a revolutionary communist party that wanted to overthrow the U.S. government, read and taught Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Che Guevara, and conspired to turn the student, labor, and civil rights movements in a radical direction. All in the cause of justice.
But I didn’t practice justice. Whoever disagreed with me politically were nothing but petit bourgeois reactionaries, counterrevolutionaries, pigs, fascists. I would try to intimidate them, silence them, block them, shout them down. They weren’t just wrong. They were the enemy. They had had to be stopped—by any means necessary.
I didn’t practice justice at work, which I saw as nothing more than a base of operations for my real work, my political work. I would consistently come in late, clock out to the field and go to a bar instead, file false reports, and create as much unrest in the shop as possible, abusing both management and union leaders, whom I considered to be sellouts.
I didn’t practice justice in my personal life, freely engaging in adultery and promiscuity, cheating on wife and girlfriends, betraying friends, neglecting financial responsibilities, borrowing money and not paying it back.
Yes, I was selfish, self-centered, dishonest, arrogant, and all the other things we say about drunks like me in the program. But all of these things manifested themselves in widespread injustice. I was terribly unjust.
And yet, I had no idea. My problem was not hypocrisy. I simply thought of injustice as something somebody else did—the ruling class, the system. It was something to be demanded of others, not of myself. My problem was self-righteousness.
Justice is unique among the virtues in that it is a quality, not only of individual persons, but of groups and institutions, nations included. This explains the temptation to see justice primarily and even exclusively in social and political terms, to see it in effect everywhere except in ourselves. That’s why it was so easy for me to focus on class and racial injustice and the injustice in far off lands, while being totally blind to my own personal injustice up close in my daily life.
A searching and fearless moral inventory of myself is where I started to open my eyes to all the harm I did when I drank and began to see it for what it was, a product of the injustice that was deeply rooted in my own heart. The experience humbled me. It helped me to see that justice begins with me.
[Image: Dr. Bob. AA’s cofounder first got sober in May of 1935 and relapsed soon after at a medical convention in Atlantic City. After regaining sobriety, his first act was an act of justice. He drove all over town and made amends to people for all the harm he had done to them. He never drank again.]