A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Nov 11, 2017
What does justice look like to you?
The image of justice in our nation is of a woman, with a blindfold, holding scales that are perfectly balanced, equitably balanced, just.
I’ve always liked this image of Lady Justice. She’s strong. She doesn’t really care what anyone thinks. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe she cares. But her blindfold keeps her from being influenced by the people who want to influence her unduly.
I confess that as a woman, I’m a little worried for a blindfolded Lady Justice. As a woman in America, I would not wear a blindfold in public. It is not safe for women in America to stand as she does.
We know that the ideals of this nation are good and just. Listen to the Preamble to the US Constitution.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
We know we don’t live into our ideals in our day to day interactions. Despite our best intentions, personally, we are surrounded by systems of education, and economy, and criminal justice, (to name a few) that benefit some of us and exclude —or cause harm— to others of us.
There have been strides toward justice in the past 60 years. The civil rights movement upended the segregation of Jim Crow, even if people of color still face violence, poverty, and discrimination in rates far higher than white people face.
The women’s rights movement upended the accepted sexism of our culture, even as women still need to say “me too” to issues of harassment and assault.
People who are gay, lesbian, or transgender now have the legal right to marriage and other civil rights, even as they still face violence and discrimination far more than they should. Idaho still needs to Add the Words.
It is worth claiming and celebrating the way we have made strides for justice in our country.
Looking at the news, it is easy to forget that things are better than they were 50 years ago in many ways, for many groups of people. We must not let the present troubles and worries lead us to despair and hopelessness.
We live in the tension of gratitude for the strides already made and the awareness of the strides we will yet make.
The prophet Amos was active in the Northern Kingdom around 750 BCE, which makes his one of the oldest book of prophetic teachings written. Amos knew about injustice too.
Earlier in the book, he lists the sins of the surrounding nations, and makes clear for his readers that God is aware of the faults of the “other”. He knows how easy it is for us to focus on the faults our enemies, our opponents, as if it excuses us from attending to our own issues. It is the same phenomena that prompts Jesus to remind us to attend to the logs in our own eyes before we worry about the mote in someone else’s. And then Amos pronounces a similar judgment against Israel and Judah.
The people of Israel:
“sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way”.
They are warned that the time is surely coming that God’s justice will flow through and demolish their systems of injustice because they have spent no time destroying injustices themselves. Even if we ignore issues of justice, God will not. Amos’ lament is that Israel and Judah have not returned to God. They have not acknowledged their mistakes and their affronts. They turn away from God and seek pleasure, seek wealth, and seek power.
Amos saw people making big sacrifices to God but then leaving church and abusing the poor and stealing from the needy. He saw people speaking about justice in worship and then only offering “thoughts and prayers” in the face of the world’s injustice.
He pronounced that God was not fooled and saw what they were doing. God does not want our shows of faith if they are not connected to just ways of living and interacting in the world.
Amos tells the people to “seek God and live”.
How are we to know where to find God?
I suspect the work of seeking God is more about the journey and less about the destination. God isn’t hiding behind a tree, just waiting for us to find God and end the game.
Amos also tells the people
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.”
To seek God, we seek goodness.
God will not be found among people whose actions are evil. When men unload hundreds of rounds of ammunition in churches, and theaters, and concerts, and schools, God will not be found in their acts of violence.
God will be found in the goodness of the people who respond to the tragedies, in the kindness of our care and compassion for the victims.
Here is a link to a story about one Emergency Room’s experience in Las Vegas on the night of the mass casualty terror event at the concert. Dr Kevin Menes, who was in charge of the ER at Sunrise Hospital in Vegas. He writes:
“The surgery team performed an unprecedented feat that night. The numbers speak for themselves. In six hours, they did 28 damage control surgeries and 67 surgeries in the first 24 hours. We had dispositioned almost all 215 patients by about 5 o’clock in the morning, just a little more than seven hours after the ordeal began. That’s about 30 GSWs per hour. I couldn’t believe that we saved that many people in that short amount of time. It’s a testament to how amazingly well the hospital team worked together that night. We did everything we could.”
God will be found in people actively working for life.
God will not be found in the voices of people using scripture to justify the abuse of children, as if political victory were more important than human decency. God will be found giving strength to the victims who face threats for merely speaking their truth to men in power.
I’ve just returned this afternoon from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians conference in Baltimore, MD. In addition to continuing to work for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church, we are also beginning to address the way the church is complicit in systems of racism. While we proclaim sincerely that all are welcome in this place, the fact remains that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of our week. It is not as easy as saying we want to welcome people to come here. What are we doing to go to people whose experiences in the world are so very different than ours?
I don’t know much. I don’t know how to fix all of the systems that contribute to the racism in our country. I don’t have 5 easy steps to heal our nation. I’m learning. I’m becoming more aware of the ways our society is set up to benefit people who look like me and to put up roadblocks to my brothers and sisters whose skin is shaded darker than mine.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I’m committed to working to “establish justice at the gate” and to call out the systems of racism that pervade our lives. It’s easy to speak against people carrying torches and burning crosses on people’s lawns. I confess it is harder to face the way prejudice infects my own life.
One of the speakers at the conference was Taylor Branch, one of the pre-eminent historians of the Civil Rights era. He spoke of the necessity for stories as we move through these struggles. The stories of personal connection—of seeing the “other” and listening to their experience and looking for their goodness— allow us to overcome the divides that separate us, in a non-violent manner.
The “other” can be a klansman wielding a torch, a woman in hijab at the post office, a politician from the other party, or anyone we encounter whose experience is so different from us that it is easier for us to presume we know their motivations than it is for us to ask them about it.
Branch told the story of the first of the freedom riders to be murdered in 1964. That night one of the three voter registration volunteers, Michael Schwerner, spoke to one of the Klansmen, who had stuck a gun in his ribs. As Branch recounts it, “He says to the guy who was about to shoot him, ‘Sir, I know just how you feel.’”
I’m struck by Schwerner’s courage.
“But it was more than courage—it was a disciplined act of the kind of nonviolence King preached. Not just passive, but active nonviolence—reaching out to get inside the Other, even empathize with what brought him to such a hateful place. It did not convert the Klansmen…” but it had a profound effect on the FBI agents who heard the confessions years later. It became a testimony that lived on and pointed to the goodness of God, and pointed to hope for humanity, despite the intentions of the klansmen.
Branch said, “You’re not giving into your terror, your anger, and you’re still trying to make some sort of contact with a snarling animal. There’s an expression of faith that there’s something human, even with no sign of it.”
(You can read more here.)
We know what Schwerner said as he died because, years later, when the klansman was finally captured and tried for the crime, he said he had never forgotten those words. Another one of the klansmen confessed the same thing.
Are we committed enough to seek goodness, to seek God, that we could proclaim to the person about to take our life, “sir, I know just how you feel”?
Radical non-violence did not save the Michael Schwerner’s life. It did save him from losing his humanity. We are not guaranteed long lives, free from danger. We can seek to live, right until our final breath, seeking our shared humanity and searching for connections with the other.
This passage from Amos was one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorite passages.
His translation was closer to the King James Version when he evoked Amos in his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, telling people not to be satisfied until:
“justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
Listening to Branch speak the other night, he helped me see that America’s image of Lady Justice, blindfolded with her scales is not the only image for justice. The prophets saw justice as water.
Water might look innocent and pretty when it’s sitting quietly in a pond. Yet water pervades things, filling the ground to saturate the water table and provide life down the road, as the rains cease. Water shapes the landscape, eroding mountains, and carving channels in rock. Water has a quiet, persistent power, that leads us, day by day, year by year, toward new paths, down different roads.
The waters of justice move similarly. When we try to tip the scales in our favor, when we take advantage of others, we may get away with it for a while. But justice is slowly seeping into the cisterns of our souls, and our nation, and our churches, filling up to give life when the rain of our self reliance dries up.
The waters of justice flow like a mighty water, denuding the mountains of our prejudice and bigotry, bringing God’s goodness and love to people beyond our limited scope of compassion. The waters of justice are a mighty stream that will not be stopped by the dams of our fear, our hate, or the “thoughts and prayers” of our indifference.
I’d like to tell you the waters of justice could solve our problems quickly. They often move in ways that are slower than our eyes can see. King said, in 1963:
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
He was, sadly, correct. While many things changed after the Civil Rights movement, we returned, in part, “to business as usual”. And we are facing the whirlwinds of revolt in Ferguson, Charlottesville, and other places where the waters of justice are slowly flooding the streets. What began so many years ago is still waiting for us to finish.
We’ve also forgotten the message of non-violence. King said in that same speech,
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
I don’t know if you noticed in the middle of our passage from Amos, but there was a doxology, a hymn of praise, inserted into the text.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
There are a few other similar passages elsewhere in Amos. I’m not sure, exactly why Amos put them there, but I wonder if they are a reminder that God is also an “other” to us. The plan and mystery of God is so beyond our understanding that we presume we understand God’s motives, God’s design for the world without ever questioning our assumptions.
If I can’t understand why a man would pick up a torch and march for hatred—a man who speaks my language, shares my culture—how could I begin to pretend I know the mind of God?
God put the stars in the heavens, created the morning and darkens the sky at night—do we really think we can declare so easily that God agrees with our human agendas, our structures of privilege and separation?
Sir, I know just how you feel.
It’s humbling enough to seek that understanding, that compassion, for the people with whom we share this journey. It brings me to abject humility and awe to seek to understand the mind of God. I’ve a way to go before I can sincerely say “God, I know just how you feel”. But it is within my grasp to listen to the stories of the people I label as “other”.
And so we keep at it.
Seeking each other’s stories.
Trusting the voices of people who are brave enough to trust us with their truth.
Working to establish justice at the gate.
Praising the God who created the universe, and created us, and called us good.
It’s up to us to see life as it should be, and not be limited to life as it is. (with thanks to the Man of LaMancha).
Seek God and live. Seek goodness and find God.