Justice, Not Just Us

Paula Northwood July 1, 2018

Scripture 1 Kings 3:16–28

Many of us will be celebrating the Fourth of July this week. It reminded me of the preschool teacher who during the week of July Fourth took the opportunity to teach her class about patriotism. She said, “We live in a great country. One of the things we should be happy about is that, in this country, we are all free.” One little boy shouted from the back of the room, “I’m not free . . . I’m four!”

I have been thinking, with respect to our text this morning, that we as a country are behaving like the mother who is willing to have the child cut in two. With the recent separation of children from parents at our border, the mass shootings in our schools and the statistic that 1 in 6 children go hungry in the United States, it’s difficult to think otherwise.

This text is also about wisdom and God’s justice. God is passionate about justice, which shows up a great deal in the Old Testament. The prophets proclaim that what God really wants from us, even more than worship, is justice—justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream! In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word mishpat is used for justice. It’s not a justice based on fairness, or even individual rights, but a justice that comes from living in right relationship. So, at a time when our hearts are clearly not in the right place, at least as a society, as we are inundated with images of injustice, it is helpful to be reminded of what God’s justice looks like: living in right relationship.

Carter Heyward, Episcopal priest, theologian and teacher, describes God’s justice as radical relationality. Radical relationality is about mutual relationships that empower all people to experience each other as intrinsically valuable, irreplaceable sources of joy and love and respect. How do we live in right relations with others, especially when we fear our country will get too crowded, become unsafe and have fewer resources? Much of the injustice perpetuated currently is fueled by fear. We are bombarded daily by the rhetoric of fear. I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer last week, who has some important things to say about the spiritual damage fear creates. He preached: “[Fear] crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides . . . secretly gnaws and eats away at all that ties and binds a person to God and others.” As a people of faith, instead of falling prey to fear, we are called to stand up to the injustices around us. But to do so, we must face up to some truth.

Unlike the woman in our text who lies about the living child, we can start with being honest about how we came to this country. Unless you are of Native American descent, you are the descendant of an immigrant. We are a nation of immigrants. At a protest on the Texas border, Rabbi Mara Nathan said, “[I]t is easy to forget where we came from. It is easy to disregard how each of us has at some time been seen as the Other. But we must not forget. We must not turn away. We must not violate our American heritage as a nation of immigrants. And whether your family has been here for seven generations or seven months, your people also came here for a better, safer future.”

She went on: “As a person of faith, I look to the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible for inspiration and guidance on how to live my life. The Bible tells us again and again that we are commanded to welcome the stranger. We are commanded again and again to protect the widow, the orphan and the vulnerable in our midst. We are commanded to welcome the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The separation of migrant children from their families at the border is abhorrent and cruel. As Americans, as people of faith, as human beings . . . we cannot justify these actions. There must be a more compassionate way.”[1] There must be a more just way, a better way to live in right relationship with our neighbors.

As a country, we must also be honest that we have a history of separating parents and children. Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York, was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. In his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, he described a slave auction where a woman named Eliza and her little daughter, Emily, were sold to different buyers. This was not an uncommon practice among slave owners. Then, beginning in 1879, tens of thousands of Native American children were required to leave their families and attend boarding schools. In the 1950s, another cycle of forcible separation of Native American children from families began when the federal government instituted an adoption program. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 sought to put an end to these practices without complete success. Native American and African American children are still disproportionately in foster care programs in many states. It is long past time that we end the destructive patterns of family separations that have been a part of our nation’s history.[2] We must come to terms with the reality that our country was founded on acts of exploitation and genocide.

If we are to live in right relationships, we must also be honest that currently we are putting our perceived right to own, carry and use a gun above the safety of our children. Mass shootings in the United States are at epic proportions. There has been, on average, one school shooting per week this year. Now that we are on summer break, we have a respite from school shootings but, as we saw this week, not from workplace shootings. Not to mention another unarmed African American man shot in the back by police. How do we respond in a timely way as people of justice, not fear?

If we are to live in right relationships, we must be honest about the number of families living in poverty in our country. Recently, Pope Francis called poverty a “scandal.” He said, “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. We all have to ask if we can become a little poorer; all of us have to do this. How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?”[3] How can we live with less so that others might simply live?

There is so much injustice in the world, how do we as people of faith respond now? How do we unveil the injustice and show God’s justice? How can we celebrate our country this coming week, knowing what we know? The late Marcus Borg, theologian and teacher, wrote this: “Much is exceptional about our country. We are the world’s oldest enduring democracy. We pioneered human rights, even though it has taken us a couple of centuries to make them more or less universal. We have been a magnet for immigration from our beginning, and continue to be. We are rich in natural resources and beauty. We are the most powerful country in the world. And we are the wealthiest in terms of gross domestic product, even though we are not the wealthiest in per capita income. There is much to admire about our country and there is nothing wrong with being grateful to live here.”[4]

But let us hold this in tension with the preponderance of recent news that we, as a country, are becoming more unjust, divided and undemocratic. It is in this tension that we live, immersed in the love of our country and the desire to make it better. In a time when we see our country making decisions that promote injustice, we must choose justice now, not later. We must promote and live out loud love over hate, mercy over retribution, hope over despair and right relationship over injustice.

We must step from this Sanctuary to be a living sanctuary engaged in the simple and profound work of being light in the world. We cannot fix all of the pain and evil we see. But we are privileged; we are not powerless, nor are we without agency. Jesus shows us that the sacred way is to criticize and even disobey laws when they get in the way of helping people. He lost his life for this belief. Government is not the only or always the best instrument to deal with injustice. But it is one of the institutions that can advance the welfare of people. Because we still live in a nation with a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” we have a special responsibility to use the power of our citizenship to promote justice and a special obligation to heed the Old Testament prophet’s call to “fight evil, promote good and do justice in the courts.”

The good news is—and there is good news—that we have this power to live the way of justice, to live in radical relationality. We do this by the way we show up. We do this by practice. It’s not enough to think the right things or even believe in the right things or to click “Like” on Facebook. Beliefs espoused in the shadows do not guarantee good behaviors. Our country was founded on some pretty great ideas, but if they are not put into practice, they are useless. So we work at practice in our personal lives, our communal life at church and as citizens.

In your personal life, strengthen your spiritual practice so that you are infused with hope and fearlessness so that when you go out into the world you are treating people with kindness, respect and care. Who are the vulnerable people you meet or drive by on an overpass during the day? How do your treat them? Connect with a neighbor who annoys you and have coffee. Invite a person with opposing views to a caring conversation. Open your heart in love and reconciliation rather than closing down in fear or righteous indignation.

In the public sphere, do things to promote children’s rights, not just for our children but for all children. These are the ones Jesus emphasized and welcomed. Be active and volunteer. Do not discount the small things. Continue to do what you already do. Protest, write letters and make calls. A number of you are doing this, and I will highlight two examples of what Plymouth members have done recently: John Humphrey was arrested in protest of immigration policies; Judy and Blake Jaskowiak protested the Zero Tolerance Policy. Blake is 90 years old, so don’t think you are too old to do anything.

There are many ways to work for justice. Visit people in the jail. Deliver meals. Help veterans find their way. Listen to the immigrant. Volunteer for a nonprofit. Make your own workplace a place of kindness and goodwill. Join the Poor People’s Campaign. Promote environmental concerns. Promote a $15 minimum wage. Write cards. Visit the sick. Welcome the stranger. Feed the hungry. Help the needy. Sing. Dance. Create art. Fly the flag. Love our country.

In our text, it is the real mother, out of genuine love and care, who gives up her own child to save it. We must be willing, at the very least, to give up our fear. This is a daily spiritual practice these days; it is not a one-time attitude adjustment.

I know our efforts are imperfect. But God works through our imperfect efforts, and God works beyond what we can do. We are not alone. God is within us and has called us not to give in to fear. If we slow down enough to listen, God will embolden us to do the justice work we are called to do. May it be so. Amen.

[1]Mara Nathan, “A Prayer for the Children Separated from their Families,” Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, June 6, 2018, https://rac.org/blog/2018/06/06/prayer-children-separated-their-families (accessed July 5, 2018).

[2]Tera W. Hunter, “The Long History of Child-Snatching,” The New York Times: Opinion, June 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/children-border.html (accessed July 3, 2018). Dr. Hunter is a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton.

[3]Pope Francis, “To the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, June 7, 2013, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/june/documents/papa-francesco_20130607_scuole-gesuiti.html (accessed July 5, 2018).

[4]Marcus J. Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 184.