As I watched Melissa Harris Perry’s coverage of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, a former Bronx prosecutor lamented Trayvon Martin’s family’s statement that “they put their trust in God.” She interpreted this as a signal of hopelessness and giving up. But as I watched Trayvon Martin’s cousins standing outside of their missionary Baptist Church, I didn’t see resignation or hopelessness – but hope in something quite different. Yesterday morning, as all the news shows were debating the procedures, successes, and failures of our legal system, the Trayvon Martin family offered us a glimpse into what gives them hope – God. In Hebrews 11, we get the famous definition of faith as “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (11:1) In the context of justice, this requires the believer to take a long view of history, be patient, and be persistent….it also does not allow the believer to give up and resign herself to the brokenness of our world.
Hope in the face of injustice is a struggle. This past month, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on hope and justice. Every time I turn on the news, there is another blow. The Supreme Court strikes down a key element of the Voting Rights Act, almost as if declaring by judicial judgment “we’re past that,” in the face of strong evidence of patterned attempts to restrict voting in the last election. Furthermore, as if pouncing on the moment, multiple states began work on new Voter ID laws. As the Zimmerman jury deliberated, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed their ruling that women can be fired simply because their boss finds them attractive and therefore a temptation. After ten years of exemplary work, the dental hygienist in question was fired because she was just too attractive and therefore the dentist viewed her as a threat to his marriage. In the face of ample indisputable evidence that the United States Military structure is unwilling or unable to take seriously the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment of both men and women – the United States Congress decided NOT to remove decisions from the military chain of command (despite testimony after testimony of victims that the chain of command was an active part of the problem). And yet, I do believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, why? Because of my faith in God. Far from being a sign of resignation – that hope is what propels me to relentlessly pursue justice, name social sin, and go after its deep seeded roots.
In his essay “Justice in the Bible,” Fr. Richard Clifford, SJ identifies “three major “founding moments” in the Bible, for in them the standard of divine justice is especially clear: the origin of the world in Genesis 1-11, the origin of Israel in the Book of Exodus, and the origin of New Israel in the Gospels.”
In the Genesis narrative, God is revealed as both generous and just. These chapters show God “acting justly” or righteously, unlike other gods of the near east. Clifford challenges those who interpret Gen 1-11 pessimistically focusing on sin, “Jewish tradition can instruct us here, for it has generally focused on the transmission of the blessing in the face of human resistance to receiving it.” Ultimately, Clifford interprets the Genesis passages which state that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-7, 5:1, 9:6) as providing the foundation for social justice. All human persons are created in the image and likeness of God, a reverence that he notes was often only offered to kings.
The 2nd founding moment is the Exodus narrative:
“The Exodus is not only the “going out” from Egypt, but the whole narrative of the oppression of the Hebrews, God’s defeat of Pharaoh their oppressor, and the journey to Sinai, where they agree to be God’s people and accept his covenant and law.”
And here we find the crux of the hope in God in the face of injustice – throughout Scripture we are reminded that God hears the cries of the poor, the victim, the oppressed, the widows/orphans, the resident aliens mistreated. Where the human justice system is flawed, because it is created by and administered by fallible human persons, God’s justice ultimately prevails. So what do we learn about God’s justice from Exodus:
the misery of the poor Hebrews is expressed in terms of economic exploitation and social degradation (Dt 26). According to Exodus 1-6, it is system-related and produced by human malice. God addresses the evil in a new and unexpected way. Instead of alleviating the Hebrews’ distress through the time-honored means of giving to the poor, Israel’s God Yahweh removes the slaves from the impoverishing situation; he leads them out from the Egyptian system. God’s work here is a new creation.
What is created is a society having all the usual institutions of a nation of that time: a God (with a house), a leader, a land, and laws. But because Israel has been liberated from Pharaoh and led out from Egypt, it becomes, in the phrase of Lohfink, a “contrast-society.” Because it is different from the nations, it becomes something for them to watch–a model. The point is succinctly and memorably made in Exodus:”You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, / how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. / Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, / you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. / Yes, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be my priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:3-6).
Israel agrees and God forms their society. Israel, shaped by the just God, will show the nations God’s generosity and power. The holy community has a mediating role regarding divine justice.
And yet we know, the people mess up constantly. They break the covenant. They oppress the widows and orphans. They worship false idols. Despite all of that, God does not abandon the covenant. God remains faithful…calling them to repentance through sending the prophets. And, as we break the covenant, we oppress and worship false idols – we too face judgement and are called to repentance. In the face of social sin, are we listening to that call?
From creation and covenant, Clifford then moves the 3rd founding moment of justice in the Bible – Jesus. He beautifully summarizes:
Jesus’ work is the third of those founding moments when God’s justice is on clear and compelling display. That’s why Christians study the New Testament! There are many contemporary implications of the justice of the New Testament, but let me single out three points: (1) Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and his bringing those at the margin (including women) to new roles, especially in Luke (note that Jesus actually associates with poor people and does not simply talk about them!); (2) the New Testament underlines the eschatological dimension of justice, telling us that the work of justice one does in one’s lifetime is linked somehow to the just world that God will build in the future; (3) the most provocative legacy, however, may be the powerful analogy it provides for interpreting our world: the just God liberates people from oppressors or false gods, and forms them into a just community.
And so we are called to be a just community. Fr. Bill Daley (Notre Dame), also a guest on MHP, lamented the vision of community and communion in which to go out one must strap on a concealed weapon. Acccording to Fr. Daley, here we see the fundamental brokenness revealed by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. It is a community of fear and suspicion. It is not the community of the Good Samaritan from Sunday’s Gospel. Building this community, the demand is clear:
“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
This is the call, the challenge. As a social ethicist, I love the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and of course Amos. The prophets are all human – they struggle with their calling, they don’t want to be prophets. Acutely aware of their own unworthiness, but ultimately, they cannot run from who they are….created by a God who is committed to history and to justice. In discipleship, however, we are all called to be prophets laboring for justice. Like the Samaritan stopping to aid an injured man, this comes with risk – we must make ourselves vulnerable and we must see our neighbor as first and foremost another equal human person. Fences and walls are easier – they give the illusion of protection. What they cannot give us is a just community.
Achieving the just community requires constant labor and vigilance – as the recent VRA decision reminds us. In the face of deep injustice and structural violence, this labor is sustained by our hope not in the civil justice system by itself but in God’s justice as the ultimate horizon. And it is in that hope, the hope of the Martin family, I do not hear resignation to injustice but a foundation from which, in the face of tragedy and injustice, to “live justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)
*this post can also be found over at Millennial Journal.