Monday, March 24, 2014

Justice: A Lenten Homily

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on several occasions quoted a 19th century Unitarian minister and poet who wrote that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Dr. King was surely right, but there is much more that needs to be said.

As Christians we confess that the long moral arc of the universe bends toward justice because it belongs first and foremost to the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, or it is nothing at all. I am not claiming that only Jews and Christians have any sense of what it means to do justice; that would be ludicrous. Flannery O’Connor teaches us that the world is full of people who have been forced out to meet evil and grace, to act on a trust beyond themselves, and often without knowing clearly what it is they upon. Christians should rejoice whenever we see women and men, whatever their convictions, conform themselves to the arc of justice.

No, there is a much more serious point to be made here. For all their manifest differences, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche share at least one idea in common. They reject the delusion that we who are the heirs of the Enlightenment continue to nurse, which is that, as Terry Eagleton has written recently, we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Eagleton puts the matter succinctly:

Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, (and we would add, our hunger and thirst for justice) all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.”

The heart of justice is therefore not a principle such as equality or rights, though these notions can be of considerable use in particular situations.
Justice is also not a possession of any form of government or economic system, though again different forms and systems may at a given time and place do a better or worse job in relation to the moral substance of the universe, but none of them has a corner on the market.
And justice is never simply a product of a program or policy, as important as these efforts at organizing are. It is God’s, or it is nothing at all.
This leads me to one other point. The long moral arc of the universe indeed bends toward justice, first, because its source and goal is God, and second, it bends because it is refracted through the cross.
One of the last things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in prison is a poem entitled Stations on the Way to Freedom, which goes hand in hand with justice. The second station is action:
“Not always doing and daring what’s random, but seeking the right thing,
Puzzling not over what is possible, but boldly taking hold of the real.
Not in escaping to thought, for in action alone is freedom found.
Dare to quit anxious faltering and enter the storm of events,
carried alone by your faith and by God’s good commandments,
then true freedom will come and embrace your spirit, rejoicing.
Action, however, is only one of four stations on the way to freedom. It is bracketed on the one side by discipline, and on the other, by suffering and death. The importance of discipline is the recognition that the hunger and thirst for justice are in fact appetites. If we set out to seek justice, we must learn first to discipline our soul and our senses, or else our desires will lead us astray. Like all our other appetites—for safety, for food, for intimacy, for posterity, for knowledge—the desire for justice can be bent away from the moral arc of the universe and toward ourselves, and believe me, even at our best we make very poor gods.

Suffering for justice is something that most of us would rather not do, if you don’t mind. And yet we only fool ourselves if we think we can do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and then jump into our SUVs and go merrily on our way. Bonhoeffer says of suffering in connection to justice:
Wondrous transformation. Your hands, strong and active, are fettered.
Powerless, alone, you see that an end is put to your action.
Yet now you breathe a sigh of relief and lay what is righteous
calmly and fearless into a mightier hand, contented.
Just for one blissful moment you could feel the sweet touch of freedom,
Then you gave it to God, that God might perfect it in glory.

The only way to truly do justice in this world, then, is to find ourselves swept up into the messianic suffering of God in Christ.
The last station on the way to freedom, says Bonhoeffer, is death:

Come now, death, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal;
Lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures
walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,
that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, action, and suffering.
Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.
Bonhoeffer here reminds us that justice neither begins nor ends with us, for we are mortal creatures and not God, but that should not worry us, nor deter us from our labors. Hear now the good news: because of what God has done, is doing and will do in Christ Jesus, nothing can separate us from the love and justice of God. In the end, life and not death, peace and not strife, freedom and not captivity, justice and not tyranny, will have the final word. Amen.


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