Becoming Justice in our World
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Service
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
January 20, 2019
Grace, mercy, peace and justice be to you all this evening as we gather to begin this week of prayer for Christian Unity. I want to thank Fr. Rick Ginthers and Wanda Coffin Baker for inviting me to share with you all tonight.
“Corruption is experienced in many forms…It infects politics and business, often with devastating consequences for the environment. In particular, corruption undermines justice and the implementation of law. Too often those who are supposed to promote justice and protect the weak do the opposite. As a consequence, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; and so, a country rich in resources has the scandal of many people living in poverty…Meanwhile, particular ethnic and religious groups are often associated with wealth in ways that have fed tensions. Radicalization that pits one community against another has grown and is exacerbated by the misuse of social media that demonizes particular communities.”
When I read those words in the introduction to the theme for this year from the Christians of Indonesia, I couldn’t help thinking the description was of America not Indonesia. It seemed to fit our current state, all too well. I believe what this does is show us how clearly, we as American Christians, are becoming more and more able to relate to our neighbors throughout the world. Whether Indonesia or America, we all are in need of the balm of Christ’s healing in our fractured and broken world.
The Indonesia Christians were moved by the concerns which I just read to seek justice. As well, we should be concerned for America and seeking justice ourselves. The Indonesia Christians clung to the words from Deuteronomy 16:20 which is our theme verse for this week, “Justice, and only justice you shall pursue.”
Ironically, last week, I had the opportunity to teach Quaker Theology to our Youth Affirmation Students. For those wondering Affirmation is our version of Confirmation – you confirm, and we affirm – it is a matter of semantics.
We were playing a kind of educational exploratory game where the students would pick one of several questions we had prepared and read it to the group. They would then write an answer to that question, pass it to me and I would read their answers. They were to guess who they thought wrote the answers. (think like Apples to Apples).
One of the students picked a question and read it aloud to the group, “What is life’s biggest question?” Each student handed me their answers and I began to read. Some of the answers were funny, like “Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?” and others were more serious. But one caught my attention. It was actually written by one of my own sons. It read,
“What is justice?” And then in parentheses because I was not to read this out loud, he wrote, “(I learned this in English Dad)”.
Now, I don’t know my son’s High School English teacher yet, but I have a feeling my son is learning a lot more than how to diagram sentences in that class.
What is justice? It is such an important question not only to ask, but to seek an answer to.
It seems we are quick to quote a plethora of people who we believe have an answer to this question. Take for example this weekend as Facebook has already begun to explode with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. such as:
“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” or
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” or
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Do we even understand what King was saying? Do we understand his context? Or do we simply post because, well, that sounds good?
For about the past 10 years, my wife, Sue, and I have been diligent in taking our three boys on tours of Civil Rights sites in our country. This past summer, we had the opportunity to return to the King Center in Atlanta, GA. We also visited for the first time the New Peace and Justice Memorial, in Montgomery, AL, and we ended our time at the National Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee – all in the year of the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Each site was powerful and gave new insight to the injustices we have produced and the people who have endured the consequences in our own country.
But it was a bonus experience while in Montgomery, that literally stopped me in my tracks. You may have read or at least are aware of the #1 New York Times Bestseller book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. (If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.) Stevenson has an unforgettable story, but what you may not know is that as a young civil rights and public interest attorney he created and founded the Equal Justice Initiative. As it states on their website:
“The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
Not only did Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which remembers and acknowledges 4400 (and growing) African American victims of racial terror lynchings in our United States including two hanging monuments for Indiana victims alone, but they also created a museum, which is housed in a former slave warehouse in downtown Montgomery.
We took our family into what they call The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Now, this is one of the first museums I have ever experienced that is solely focused on the injustices from our own history and injustices that still go on today. I don’t think I will ever forget this experience, because my eyes were opened to injustices that I had never imagined or understood. It made me want to seek further an answer to my son’s great question, “What is Justice?”
Well, after our experience in Montgomery, I began to see with new eyes my world and much of that was due to the hard work and dedication of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. So, who better to ask life’s biggest question – What is Justice? – than Bryan Stevenson.
Come to find out, we weren’t the only one asking that question to Bryan. In November of 2012, reporter Kyle Whitmire apologetically asked Bryan Stevenson that “big” question. And this was his answer,
“I think justice is a constant struggle. That’s as good a definition as I can come up with. I think that injustice is evident when people are not struggling to protect the norms, the values, the goals, the aspirations of the entire community – for fairness, equality and balance. I think we tend to measure justice with metrics that are not exactly right. We’re looking at a particular place, a particular situation, a particular end. It really is a struggle. You never get there, and you’re never done. You have to keep at it…. When you can identify injustice, when you can identify inequality and unfairness, and you confront that, then in my mind you are doing justice. You are doing something corrective to the abuse of power that is at the heart of injustice, to the bigotry and bias that is often at the heart of injustice. So, in a lot of ways, identifying injustice, confronting it and challenging it is what justice is about.”
Let that sink in for a moment. (Repeat the underlined above)
Now, let me bring into perspective that quote of Martin Luther King Jr. which I shared earlier. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King addressed the church and its leaders of his day, but I believe he is still addressing you and I gathered here tonight…
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I cannot sit idly by as young men in Washington D.C. disrespect Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips because we are tied by that “single garment of destiny.”
But too often for me it sounds a bit different. It sounds more like this.
I can sit idly by in my office or home and not be concerned about what happens in other places. Injustice is part of society and it’s simply the lot of those less fortunate or those lacking education or wealth to dig themselves out. Each one to themselves, I have too much on my plate right now, I don’t have time to deal with their problems, too. I have my future to worry about. You do what you need to do, but I probably am too busy to help. Let me post my thoughts on Facebook, that will make me feel better.
Sadly, too often, you and I and our churches out of convenience or lack of making a statement or stand, allow unfairness to flourish. Sometimes we may even perpetuate it out of unawareness or simple laziness. At times we see injustices happening and we turn the other cheek hoping “maybe I didn’t see that.”
It’s not comfortable to speak up and speak truth to power. It’s a struggle to admit our privileges and how we came about them. It’s a struggle to work for fairness. It takes a lot of time to raise up a new generation of people that can identify injustice.
What is justice? – it’s a universal struggle. And as I started this sermon, it is because our world (whether in Indonesia, America, or elsewhere) is corrupt and infected with injustice, misuse, scandal, and at its core, what we would call downright sin. We are no better than those boys in Washington D.C.
But when you and I admit that we are joined by that “single garment of destiny” which King so eloquently spoke of, we quickly become aware that we are in need of something more to keep us together. Something outside of ourselves that shows us a better way.
One who will save us from the pain we inflict on each other.
One who can show us by example a better way.
One who is and embodies and takes up our struggle.
One who brings us together as sisters and brothers and calls us friends.
One who faced the corruption of power in the world, who reinterpreted and fulfilled the law, and who offers abundance, hope, and healing.
One who doesn’t look at our skin color, our gender, our ethnic heritage, our family lineage, our sexual orientation, our educational experience, or denominational affiliation.
One who said I have come to bring good news to the poor.
One who said I have come to set the captives free.
One who said I have come to restore sight to the blind.
One who said I have come to set the oppressed free.
Folks, Jesus became Justice He took up the struggle. He died for the cause. He spoke truth to power. He righted the wrongs. And with compassion and love he looked the injustices of this world in the eyes and said no more.
And now, he calls his church – each of us here tonight – to partner with him and go and do the same. It is our turn to become Justice in our world. Each of us here tonight are opportunities for justice to be made manifest in our world. We have the power to expose inequality and unfairness, correct the abuse of powers, and stop the bigotry and bias that tears us a part. We can be the corrective change.
What is Justice? It looks like you and me.
With our sisters and brothers in Indonesia, I commend us… Justice and only Justice WE shall pursue! And all of God’s people said, Amen.