Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On the wearisome theme of "justice"

In addition to his royal obligations back home, the other reason Archbishop Justin Welby was unable to stick around for last week's GAFCON gathering in Nairobi was a previous commitment to attend the Porvoo Primates' Meeting in Iceland. The sermon he delivered at that gathering has now been posted, along with a press release, at the Archbishop's official website.

Predictably, Welby's address, based on Luke 18:1-8, is typical of the innocuous little homiletical doilies spun by church leaders in such settings. There is nothing particularly objectionable, but nothing particularly remarkable. In the grand tradition of Harry Emerson Fosdick, however, he resorts to the tried and true hermeneutical trick of reading his predetermined point back into the biblical text. That predetermined point is also typical and unremarkable.
The widow is caught up in her desire for justice. For her the cause is clear and she will not give in.

Justice is something we seek when it is not against us. The heritage of church abuse and patriarchy reminds us that the church follows the world in its injustice and too often combines its misuse of power with the blasphemy of theological justification. But the widow cries out, and in one of the very rare occasions where Luke explains the parable, we are told that it is to stop people giving up in prayer.

That is the first lesson. As Pope Francis said, the church is not called to be a Christian NGO. One of my churchwardens said something similar many years ago when I was leading a parish: 'We are not the Rotary with a pointy roof.' When we lose sight of prayer and the reading of the scriptures, both as individuals and Christian communities, we lose the road we are to travel. Prayer for justice seems vain when compared to action. But Jesus is speaking out of the tradition of the psalms, where the psalmist calls to God to wake up. Prayer for justice, and a church that prays for justice, should be blunt and clear.

We need to find together in the Porvoo churches a regular renewal of our prayer and the forms with which to celebrate, to protest and and to lament. The widow is caught up with the judge. Are we truly caught up with God? Is his life what calls us together, or merely agreement, habit and obligation? In each other do we see the face of Christ and hear the call to follow together the Lord of justice, to encourage each other so that when the Lord comes he finds faith on the earth? Being caught up with God means that faith is found, not organisation, and faith is the assurance of things unseen.

We are all living in societies that change radically amongst Christian communities that are divided in their response, a reality studied amongst us. We will only find renewal and common purpose in the service of proclaiming the news of the Kingdom, and in making new Disciples, when we are together caught up in the prayer and worship of God.

But there is more. God is a God of justice, and the widow finds her answer. Any serious view of the nature of human beings, any proper theological anthropology, tells us that without the action of God the can be no true justice, and that the church is there to be the widow, to cry out and claim and struggle. That must involve action, which may be slight or grand.
The emphasis on this rather vapid concept called justice has become more wearisome to the beleaguered faithful longing for pure spiritual food than even the widow to the unjust judge.

One wonders if Welby and others who emphasize this theme have seriously thought out the implications of the God of justice motif. As the Archbishop's predecessor at Durham, N.T. Wright, points out in his commentary on Luke, the parable of the persistent widow should not be read in isolation from the immediately following parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Both parables pretty much tell the same story from different perspectives. There is nothing to suggest that the widow was any more deserving of a hearing before the judge than the tax collector was worthy to enter the Temple to pray. Nevertheless, as the tax collector "went down to his house justified" for no other reason than the mercy of God upon a penitent sinner, the widow receives a judgment in her favor simply because the judge is worn down by her persistence. In other words, the focus of both parables is not justice in the vague social liberal sense, but justification as the gift of God's grace and mercy. Ironically, the very people who most often scream about justice are the very ones who would benefit least if justice, apart from mercy, was the sum of God's purposes. A God of justice does not hesitate to cast all sinners (that means all of us) into the lake of fire. A God of mercy saves sinners from such a fate through the blood of his Son Jesus Christ, whose death satisfies the justice required under the law.