Photo credit: Nick Fewings
Readings: Psalm 89: 1-4, 14-18, John 16:4-15, True Christianity 95, Heaven and Hell 523 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Today I would like to have a conversation about the concept of justice, and our responsibility towards creating a just world, as a way to hold space for the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which was this past Tuesday.
Sometimes it is difficult to have these conversations in church, ones that connect to social justice and political topics because some folks say that politics don’t belong in church, or that we shouldn’t be talking about politics in church. And I do agree with that, in the sense that we shouldn’t be doing *partisan* politics in church, absolutely. But in a more philosophical sense, politics is simply the communal project of figuring out how we all are to live together as a society, and to work together for the common good. And how can that type of communal project not be in conversation with religion? That is exactly the kind of thing that religion is working on figuring out as well, just from a slightly different point of view, especially for a tradition like ours whose favorite quote is “All religion is of life, and the life of religion is to do good.”
So, I offer these reflections as a kind of resource and context in which we can all do our own thinking about the communal project of politics, shared systems, and institutions.
This past Tuesday was the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Last month, the police officer who killed him by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, was found guilty of all three charges against him: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. While this outcome was greeted as a relief to many people, including the Floyd family, and the black community and its allies, many of them also pointed out that the verdict represented accountability but not necessarily justice, or that it was a first step on a long journey. Justice would have been George Floyd not being killed in the first place.
And what these statements do is broaden out, widen out, the concept of justice, so that it might be considered on a communal level. Justice certainly is something that can be found on an individual level, often through the courts, or some kind of intentional mediation, but it is also important to recognize that justice on an individual level is deeply affected by the systems that govern justice on a communal level. The statements were calling attention to the fact that we can’t call this one verdict “justice” and then be done with it, because that wouldn’t remedy the underlying systemic problems that led to Floyd’s death in the first place.
When I consider these statements, I can’t help but think of a particular quote in the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 6:13-14. Jeremiah is a firebrand, constantly criticizing the nation of Israel for forgetting its covenant with the Lord and taking up the worship of idols. In chapter six he says:
13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
Jeremiah is trying to get his people to understand that they should pay attention to the systemic injustice, the habitual marginalization that is occurring within their society. Yet he declares that what he is seeing instead is powerful people trying to cover over the wound of marginalized people and say that everything is fine. And likewise the statements that I referred to earlier about accountability vs justice are trying to say the same thing: that we can’t simply move on now that one person has been held accountable, we can’t dress the wound of systemic injustice as though it were not serious, saying phew it’s all good now just because we wish it were. Instead, these statements are trying to focus our attention towards, rather than justice in one specific case, instead what a just society would look like, how we can help to bring that into being
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that “justice” is not so much a transaction - getting a just outcome in response to a transgression - as it is about being in line with the divine design. *Supporting* justice means bringing back into the divine design things that have fallen away from the design. This way of looking at justice naturally resonates with the statements that we have been referencing. It is a holistic perspective; it inherently begs the question of why and how something has fallen out of the divine design, and additionally, what is required to bring it back into the design, for good and not just for a time.
Now, one basic aspect of the divine design is that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, with a will and an intellect that is capable of receiving love and wisdom from the Lord. This fact elevates all people into intentional divine belovedness, giving them an inherent and inviolable worthiness that mandates respect and dignity. There is nothing anyone can do to erase that mandate. It is part the divine design. Now, behaviors of all kinds might require certain boundaries and outcomes of differing severity, but the divine design will always also require these be enacted with respect and dignity. There can be no human system of policing or law that does away with basic human rights, that we also can call just, or in alignment with the divine design.
And the question before us all, given that we are all a part of society and can affect its formation, is what do we do when various systems or institutions are clearly out of alignment with the divine design. What can we do to bring them back? This is the communal project that we are faced with one year later. And when systemic racism is embedded deeply in culture, organizations and institutions, it can take a lot of time and persistence to remake these things in a different way. And the point I would like to make today, is that it is really important not to give up. Long-term difficult projects are rarely the kind of project that our ego prefers - not even a tiny bit of instant gratification in sight. The work of racial justice is long journey. Which us back around to our gospel reading.
Jesus was talking to his disciples about what would happen once he went away, once the disciples would be left, as are we, trying to figure out how to live life in a way that ushers in the Lord’s kingdom, that makes space for it, that honors it. That is no small task, especially as time marches on, and the world we live in looks less and less like the world that Jesus lived in. Jesus knew that the disciples, and us, would have many challenges ahead of them, including what to do when they felt confused, abandoned and exhausted. But what Jesus tells them is that the Holy Spirit will be with them. The word he uses, in the Greek paraclete, sometimes translated as Advocate, means literally to come alongside. As we consider all these difficult questions, how to approach this communal project called civilized society, how to approach a commitment to helping the world to become more just and inclusive, to conform to the basic tenets of the divine design, we can know that the Holy Spirit will come alongside, will be with us if we are open to it. From our reading:
13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
What is key here, is that we cannot be looking to ourselves and our own gain and comfort if we wish to know the truth. Part of being guided into the truth is a willingness to let go of what glorifies us and commit to seeing what glorifies God. In our Pentecost reading last week, we heard about the Holy Spirit coming on a great wind, and what an appropriate metaphor, as time and time again, in our process of regeneration, we must let the spirit of truth sweep away our prejudices, our misconceptions, our stubbornness and our fear.
The truth embodied in God’s divine design will always challenge us because the selfishness of the human ego always leads us away from the divine design, whether that is embodied in our attempts to dominate others, our attempts to ransack the earth’s natural resources, our attempts to accumulate power and wealth and prestige. We have a promise though, that an inexhaustible source of spirit and truth and love will always come alongside us. There is long way to go before we can reach true justice for George Floyd. But the spirit of truth is guiding us along the way.
Psalm 89:1-4, 14-18
1 I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. 2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. 3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4 ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’ ”
14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. 15 Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, LORD. 16 They rejoice in your name all day long; they celebrate your righteousness. 17 For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn. 18 Indeed, our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.
4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who
sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
True Christianity 95
Justice is following the divine design in all that one does, and bringing back into the divine design things that have fallen away from that design. Justice is the divine design itself.
Heaven and Hell 523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us…
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.