11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection March 22, 2020
“Where Might We Find Justice?” by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, my sermon was titled “March On!“ In that sermon, I touched upon a good number of justice issues which we face in our country. This sermon can be found on my Facebook page (Thomas Aldworth) and on our church Facebook page. I thought it might be helpful to examine some further thoughts about seeking justice.
God and justice are deeply interwoven. This truth comes to us again and again in the Bible. As the Austrian theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, phrases it: (The God revealed in Jesus) “obviously is not primarily interested in how and what we think about (God), but rather first in how we behave toward (others); and only in this – how we deal with others – can it be known … what we think about God.” In other words, our belief in God directly shows itself in how we treat one another.
We must always seek God’s justice since God’s justice and the kingdom of God are the same thing. As Matthew 6:33 states: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we’re called to help bring the kingdom of God more fully into our world. And this means we must bring God’s justice more fully into our world.
The Bible makes it clear that we are to engage in social justice – which means helping bring God’s justice to every place and to every one. As the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser, states it: “To practice social justice is to examine, challenge, refuse as far as possible to participate in, and try to change those systems … that unjustly penalize some even as they unjustly reward others.”
Rolheiser continues: “The Book of Genesis makes four major, interpenetrating affirmations that provide the ultimate basis for justice. (1) It affirms that God made all people equal in dignity and rights; (2) (it affirms) that the earth and everything in it belongs equally to everyone; (3) (it affirms) that all human beings, equally, are co-responsible with God in helping to protect the dignity of everyone and everything; and (4) (it affirms) that the physical earth itself has rights and needs to be respected in and of itself, and not just as a stage for human activity.”
Jesus calls us to hunger and thirst for justice. This means we must be concerned with all the manifold problems that beset our society. This means we must never close our eyes to the woes we witness, especially in our own neighborhoods. This means we must question some of the assumptions underlying our culture of consumerism and competition. This means we must take a stand on the side of fairness and equality. It means we must love diversity, as I preached last Sunday.
The Lutheran German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, notes in Creating a Just Future: “As a result of the principle of competition (that underlies modern industrial society) the capable are rewarded and the weak (are) punished. When, in addition, opportunities, professions and jobs are … kept scarce, the result is a struggle of all against all, since there is never enough for everyone.
“The result is a society of the upwardly mobile, in which more and more people are forced to the margin or oppressed. The ideology of ‘there is not enough for everyone’ makes people lonely, isolates them, deprives them of their relations with others and leads them to social death.”
There are many among us who are lonely. There are many among us who are pushed to the margins of society especially in neighborhoods awash in violence. This is not the way God wants us to live. This is not the justice of God.
Rolheiser makes this important point: “Ultimately, how we conceive of God will color how we conceive of everything else, especially justice and peace and the road that leads to them … (sadly) We often think of God as someone who will use violence to overthrow evil and bring justice and peace.” Aretha Hampton touched on this problem last Sunday when she spoke about too many Christians who see the current crisis as some sort of punishment from God.
But this is not how God works among us. As Rolhesier notes: “We must try to bring about justice and peace as Jesus did, recognizing that the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ beats up no one.”
If we are to work for justice in our world – we must keep this truth always before us. Let me share something from the priest-poet and activist, Daniel Berrigan, whom I met and heard speak many years ago. (Berrigan died at the age of 94 in 2016.)
In one of his talks, “He simply told the audience how he, working in a hospice for the terminally ill, goes each week to spend some time sitting by the bed of a young boy who is totally incapacitated…
“The young boy can only lie there. He cannot speak or communicate with his body nor in any way express himself to those who come into his room. He lies mute, helpless, by all outward appearance cut off from any possible communication.” Berrigan then described how he goes regularly to sit by this young boy’s bed to try to hear what he is saying in his silence and helplessness.
“After sharing this, Berrigan added a further point: ‘The way this young boy lies in our world, silent and helpless, is the way God lies in our world … God’s power in the world is like that young boy. It does not overpower anyone or anything. It lies muted, at the deep moral and spiritual base of things.’” (from Rolhesier)
This is a potent image for us to ponder! We may want to rush to God’s defense and suggest that God’s power is not muted or helpless as that young boy. And yet – and yet! Is there not a disturbing and distressing truth to be found here?
We can argue that God can do anything God wants to do. And yes, this is true. But it’s not how God seems to act in our world. God seems to be much more like that mute young boy than Rambo.
Rolhesier writes: “If you have ever dreamed a dream and found that every effort you made was hopeless and that your dream could never be realized, if you cried tears and felt shame at your own inadequacy, then you have felt how God feels in this world.
“If you have ever been shamed in your enthusiasm and not given a chance to explain yourself, if you have ever been cursed for your goodness by people who misunderstood you and were powerless to make them see things in your way, then you have felt how God feels in this world.
“If you have ever tried to make yourself attractive to someone and were incapable of it, if you have ever loved someone and wanted desperately to make him or her notice you and found yourself hopelessly unable to do so, then you have felt how God feels in this world.
“If you have ever felt yourself aging and losing … the health … of a young body and the opportunities that come with that and been powerless to turn back the clock, if you have felt the world slipping away from you as you grow older and ever more marginalized (because of your age), then you have felt how God feels in this world.
“And if you have ever felt like a minority of one before the group hysteria of a crowd gone mad, if you have ever felt, first-hand, the sick evil of gang rape, then you have felt how God feels in this world … and how Jesus felt on Good Friday.” I recommend re-reading this past sentence again!
Reflecting this truth inevitably brings tears to our eyes. Tears for all creatures exiled on our unfinished earth. Tears for our God who must suffer deeply because of the injustice, the war, the violence, the degradation, the rape, the plunder, the sins, the racism, the assaults that assail this masterpiece of our Creator.
There can be only one response to all we see around us. There can be only one response to what we experience as God-believing, Christ-following, sisters and brothers. We must hunger and thirst for justice. We must hunger and thirst for justice as deeply as Christ does.
In these days when many of us are “staying home” - in these days when we move through this very strange season of Lent amid our necessary physical isolation, what better time to reach out to each other?
I hope to make many phone calls in the weeks to come. I hope to reflect deeply upon the suffering and sick who will be stricken among us. I don’t intend to spend my days of “staying home” watching soap operas. (I referred to soap operas in Sunday’s sermon!)
I end this reflection with words from the prophet Isaiah: (And God says) “Listen to me, you who know justice, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you … (for) my deliverance will be forever; and my salvation (my justice) to all generations … I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand … and say … You are my people.” (Isaiah 51: 7,8,16)
Shuttered: We did not easily decide to shutter our church services. While we had only ten of us at last Sunday’s service, I know that many are rightfully fearful of gathering together. There are also the difficulties of being in a building that is filled with children who may or may not be sick or carriers of this dangerous virus. Those of us who are elders or who have compromised health need to be extremely careful.
We will cancel our next Bible Study, scheduled for Wednesday, March 25. We will postpone our remembrance of Dr. King, Jr. scheduled for Friday, April 3.
We hope to have our regular Sunday services resume on April 5 (Palm Sunday) but this may be too optimistic. We will follow the guidelines of our health leaders. Let us keep each other in prayer - especially those who are health-care workers and first responders!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor