Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon for February 12, 2012

Principles of Spiritual Activism: Double Justice

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you." Deuteronomy. 16:20

I just read a story from the newspaper in Salem, Massachusetts. Jan 4, 2012. Headline: Mother asks police to arrest her squabbling children. When police arrived, the mother lamented that her five children were fighting all day. The mother couldn’t stand the bickering, so she went out for a while to run a few errands. While she was away, her oldest son, a 15-year-old, punched his 8-year-old sister in the arm. That provoked an intervention from the 16-year-old daughter, trying to protect her sister. When asked what she felt the Police Department could do to assist her with the issues she's having as a parent, the mother replied, "I want them both out of here." According to the report, she then asked to have the brother and sister arrested.

This is a complicated little story for me. On one hand, what parent, after listening to a child tattle on a sibling for breathing, doesn’t want to deport the little angels for a day (bless their little hearts)? Everyone needs a little break now and then. On the other hand, I see an escalation of conflict that, if not stopped, can have disastrous consequences. How will the children respond to their mother from now on? Does the mother regret her decision to arrest her children? Will this family be able to forgive, or will they instinctively seek revenge against each other. Will anyone get justice?

Unfortunately, when people talk about justice, they mean vengeance, punishment, pain for pain, and an eye for an eye. Some people are impatient with anything that delays the gratification that comes from the exercise of retribution.

Some Christians actually have a theological rationale for revenge. At one point in my life, I was taught that God’s job is to punish wrongdoing. Since God is holy and perfect, God cannot put up with sin. If God has any contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately. Because of this holiness, I was taught, God is not free to act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible for God.

This theology may be a projection of our own impulses onto God. In a more forgiving world, we would realize that the people who hurt us have often been hurt themselves. We would remember that those against whom we struggle are actually “us,” not some impersonal “them.” In real life, when we’re hurt, we want to hurt the enemy worse than we were hurt. Our motivation is neither the common good nor the upholding of justice and truth. We simply want to get rid of our own pain by seeing ourselves as holy and perfect and our enemies punished for their evil behavior. Part of what makes us human is that we are not above taking revenge and bearing a grudge.

Justice, in this framework, requires payment for wrong-doing. Let’s call it the dance of double exclusion. In the first move of the dance of double exclusion, victims cry for justice. their bonfires of rage burn against their perpetrators, inflamed by unredeemed suffering. The second step in the dance of double exclusion happens when the victim’s sense of justice seeks revenge. It would be unjust to forgive. In the dance of double exclusion, a person can be both a perpetrator and a victim. Both the perpetrator and a victim are locked in a dance of mutual exclusion, united in a knot of mutual hate.

Forgiveness flounders when victims feel free to commit the same crimes that victimized them -- when victims want justice for themselves while dehumanizing their enemy. The dance of double exclusion plunges victims into a plummet of proud purity where they may forget that we are all human, that we are all sinful, and that we all answer to God’s call to repair the world.

The counter-move to double exclusion is double justice. The idea comes from our second reading. Deuteronomy 16 summons Israel to appoint judges and officials who will govern the tribes with due justice. The law of Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation. We hear it in the Hebrew words of Deuteronomy 16:20: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” Jewish scholars have long wondered why the word “justice” is repeated twice. Are the words repeated for poetic emphasis, or is there more to it?

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” What if the repetition is intentional? What if God expects people to work for double justice? Double justice means both victims and victimizers get treated fairly. If we want to stop rounds of revenge and reprisal, if we wish for marginalization and exploitation to end, if we seek to stop perpetrators from claiming victimhood, then we spiritual activists must offer double justice. Yes, victims get compassionate justice -- but not at the expense of dehumanizing the foe. Our spiritual tradition is quite clear: our enemies get compassionate justice, too. As Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere 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.” Double exclusion means that I only get justice when my enemies are obliterated. Double justice means that my enemies get fair and humane treatment under the law. Double exclusion means that when wish harm on my enemy, I sacrifice part of my own humanity. Double justice means that I seek fairness for the oppressor and the oppressed.

Most U.S. Marines know the story of the battle of Iwo Jima. Soldiers knew that the ancient Japanese warrior code did not believe in surrender, or being taken as prisoners. Unfortunately, during the battle some U.S. Marines began to follow suit with the killing of wounded, captured, or surrendering Japanese soldiers. One day on patrol, Dr. Robert Humphrey and his men came upon a young, emaciated Japanese soldier in a torn, filthy uniform. The young Japanese soldier was at the mouth of a cave, waving a white flag. It looked unusual. At the time, many believed that Japanese troops faked surrender in order to kill Allied troops, often with a concealed grenade. Convinced that this was some kind of trick, A Marine raised his rifle to kill the young man. Humphrey ordered the Marine to put down his weapon. A short, intense confrontation occurred between Humphrey and the Marine. But good order and discipline prevailed and the Marine lowered his weapon. It turned out that the Japanese soldier’s surrender was genuine and he was taken safely to the rear. The prisoner even turned out to be of some intelligence value.

Humphrey thought little of the incident at the time. There was so much killing before the incident — and so much afterward. Yet nearly fifty years later, when asked to share his proudest achievement, he cited this incident. He said, “On Iwo Jima, it was life or death every minute of every day. There was unavoidable killing every day. When I saw that Japanese boy trying to surrender and understood that this was perhaps the only time that I didn’t have to kill, I took the opportunity. I believe that action saved my humanity.”

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (tzedek, tzedek tirdoph), “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue.” Only double justice will save humanity from itself. We protect the humanity of all people -- even our enemies, even those we’ve been taught to fear, even those we’ve been taught to hate.

Spiritual activists look for opportunities to practice double justice. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is a spirit of vengeance in our communities of faith. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is emptiness of spirit or bareness of soul among us. No spiritual activist can be comfortable as long as there is injustice and inequality in God’s world. No spiritual activist can be a worker for justice as long as one’s enemies are treated unfairly.

Make no mistake. God hates injustice and wants it to stop. The Church is invited to take part in God’s plan for bringing an end to injustice. And the work of justice can be achieved. But God’s justice is double justice -- a power for life, a power for salvation, a power for love, a power for peace

So when you see the hungry and the homeless, and those who give a cold shoulder instead of a warm meal, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When people are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their age, or their sexuality, or their religion, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When power is held by those who wage war instead of long-lasting peace, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When some care more about winning when the Savior cares about who is losing, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When there are people who suffer because of war, poverty, injustice, fear, hate, greed,
sickness, or oppression, when a child dies of hunger, when a woman is raped in war, when our brothers and sisters in Africa die from AIDS, when nations threaten each other with mutual annihilation, when our world is diminished the earth is mistreated for profit, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When both victims and victimizers dehumanize each other, justice, justice shall we pursue.

When we believe that God’s aims for the world have been compromised, justice, justice shall we pursue.

I often get overwhelmed by how huge and beyond reach the world's problems are. I can't save the world. I shouldn’t. It can only be done as we come together as individuals who each do what we can to make the world a fairer, more compassionate, more just place. Look around you. Listen to all the wonderful people in this room. Think about how gifted and skilled we are. Imagine what we can do, each one of us in own way, in different places, doing different things, but with the same goal in mind. We stand together, united as one, fighting for human rights, and for justice -- God’s double justice.

Hirschfield, Brad (2007-12-31). You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (pp. 64-65, 68, 92). Harmony. Kindle Edition.

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