The Justice of God – a talk given in the Week of Prayer for Unity
I am a child of the Sixties – that wonderful decade when we thought we could reinvent the world. Justice, freedom, peace were the battle cries of the day. I grew up in what was then Rhodesia and we protested against our racist government. I was very proud once as a student to be bitten by a police dog! Later I worked on missions and here we got caught up in the struggle against Ian Smith’s Government. This turned increasingly violent. For me as an Anglican it was a source of inspiration to have Catholic missionaries working on a mission nearby. It was one of the many occasions when the fight for justice brought us together from different denominations. It was the same story in South Africa under apartheid a few years later. Churches stood together. I once sat in court and watched a magistrate convict 30 clergy of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterean traditions on a charge of “riotous assembly”. They had previously spent a night together in police cells.
Well, those battles were fought and won. Legalised apartheid was disposed of in both countries. Today everyone there has the vote, at least in theory, and the governments reflect the colour of the people. Unfortunately, injustice has not gone away. Today in much of Africa the divisions are simply between the rich and the poor. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The rich are obscenely rich, much richer than their white predecessors ever were. The country is looted by the rich. They flaunt their wealth in ways that Isaiah and Micah would recognise only too well. Does injustice never go away? Is it as firmly rooted in humanity as sin? As you abolish one cause of injustice does another pop up? Do our attempts to establish justice only make the situation worse? If you fight against the devil, the devil fights back and you have a destructive war on your hands. It is easy to get cynical and give up this fight. It is important that we don’t.
For a start, I think we have to accept that injustice is part of the human condition, since it is a result of sin. Whoever wrote the laws of Deuteronomy 600 years before Christ knew that injustice against the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger was rampant in Israel and was not pleasing to God. Jesus knew this also and highlighted the place of the poor at the centre of the Gospel. Only the poor can receive the Kingdom of heaven. That is one reason why we must continue to fight against injustice. It brings us into contact with the poor. If we also want to inherit the Kingdom of heaven we shall have to learn how to do it from the poor. Pope Francis said in his first encyclical to the world that we must let the poor envangelise us. That’s a surprising idea, isn’t it? We think we must evangelise the poor. They are on the edge of society, or hidden in the bleak estates of our cities. Or perhaps they are refugees, asylum seekers who may not even be Christian. We must evangelise them. But no, they must evangelise us and they cannot evangelise us if we keep them at a distance. If we take up their cause they will change us. Every good missionary knows that the first person he must convert is himself, or herself; and not just once but over and over again. If we take up the cause of justice we shall have to get close to the poor, or the abandoned, or the imprisoned and see what their situation is really like. We must see their courage, their hope, their despair, their pain and their joy. That is where we ourselves will find God. The great Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once said that liberation theology did not begin with theological analysis; ‘it begins with a deep encounter with the Lord in the face of a poor person’. It is partly for our own sake that we must seek out and help the victims of injustice. That way we give God a chance to speak to us.
Then of course we have to think of God. Our God is a God of justice. Justice is embedded in his nature. We know also that his justice is different from our legality. Legal systems always favour the people who make the laws and that usually means the rich and the powerful. We must not be surprised therefore when we find God is concerned first for the poor. He is not concerned only for the poor. He is equally concerned for everyone – rich, poor, powerful, weak, asylum seeker, or xenophobic campaigner. The trouble is that the rich and the powerful and the xenophobes are usually well defended against God. Also, they have the law on their side so they don’t think they need justice from God. In fact they find God’s justice, as it is revealed in Scripture, distinctly unfair to them so they reject it. But God cares for the poor because they are the victims of injustice.
In the dark days of apartheid in South Africa most of the African political leaders were locked up or in exile. Only the Church could speak. So church leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu became spokesmen for the people. Many white people accused them of being political priests, but they were not political. Their message was that all people are God’s children. God hates to see his children suffering, whatever their colour, whatever their faith. When we Christians cause anyone to suffer we are offending against God. This is sin. And it is blasphemy to say that this system of injustice is one that God approves of. That is why we have to be so careful as Christians living in English society today. We vote the government into power. We choose our MPs. We decide as a nation to vote for Brexit. We accept the decisions that parliament makes. But do we consider the justice of God, a justice which is concerned first for the poor and the weak? In the end, we have to answer to God for the laws we have in our country.
Can we succeed in this battle for justice? In one sense, no. Injustice is part of sin and sin, I am afraid, is with us as long as we live. But in another sense, Yes. We do win. Injustice is not just a single beast that can be shot and buried and put away from us. Injustice is about people. It is about people who are hurt, people who are suffering, people who are forgotten. When we do small things to help them – like create a food bank, or process an application, or write to our MP we are winning a small part of the fight against injustice. When we manage to persuade our MPs to change the laws so that hundreds or even thousands of poor people get a better deal, then we have pushed back injustice a bit further, and we have completely changed some people’s lives.
Zimbabwe at the moment is full of injustice, and as we saw last weak, if you protest against the injustice hundreds of people get badly hurt, or killed. There are some battles you mustn’t fight until the time is right. But many, many people are fighting the battles there at grassroots, helping people survive, getting kids back into school, providing funding for people to grow food, protecting the poor. Every child helped back into school, every poor person given a way to earn a living, every change for the better in the lives of the people is a victory against an unjust government. And Christ is there in the victory.