March 16th, 2017
For obvious reasons every 4th of July in New York Harbor they light up the sky around the Statue of Liberty; a celebration of freedom’s victory over tyranny makes it only fitting you locate the festivities near the one that’s come to be known as Lady Liberty.
We use words like liberty and freedom interchangeably. But implicit within the idea of a land of the free is the idea of a land where justice reigns. For a land is only free insofar as it also guarantees justice to preserve that freedom. And this country has sought to guarantee such freedom by enshrining in law, rather that in the will of a king, policies that ensure justice.
That’s why there’s celebratory fireworks near Lady Liberty on the 4th of July.
But for some the fireworks are, metaphorically speaking, something of a dud.
Yes, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, who will quote a Unitarian Minister named Theodore Parker who famously said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But it will be someone like James Baldwin, another black man of the 1960s and a former Pentecostal preacher, who said once rather acidly, “For Black Americans the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.”
In other words, the ideas about “all men being created equal,” repeated and recited every 4th of July, were at some level at best tongue-and-cheek. The principle of freedom would be enshrined in law, but it would not be for some time, and after incalculable cost, that certain fundamental freedoms would be in fact for all the people.
It’s folks like Baldwin (and countless others) who would ask us to reassess the so-called bend in the arc of history. Are we sure it bends somehow inevitably toward justice?
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes has, even just a few weeks into our consideration of him, forced us to reconsider certain presuppositions about life. He has asked us hard questions we might prefer to gloss over. He has offered sometimes ambiguous but never oversimplified answers to life’s perennial perplexities.
This Sunday we’re going to listen to his take on the matter of justice. But, no surprise to one who’s becoming familiar with his jaundiced tone, the Preacher will give his greater attention to the prevalence and persistence of injustice. (Having almost finished Bryan Stevenson’s (remember him?) Just Mercy, surely the Preacher speaks of what is neither new nor, sadly, diminished.)
In order to set up Sunday’s sermon on that internal struggle in him (which lives in us, too) to reconcile our desire for justice in a world where it’s too often squelched, we’re going to appeal to a conversation that happened late in 2015. (We heard about it from Michael Wear, a member of President Obama’s faith outreach staff, in his recent book Reclaiming Hope.)
Thabiti Anyabwile is pastor of Anacostia River Church in south D.C. (We’ve heard from him before). Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic and author of, most notably, his memoir to his son about growing up as an African-American in an anything but “post-racial” nation, Between the World and Me. (We’ve appealed to him before, too).
Coates does not share the faith of Thabiti, but the two sat down recently as two black men who, even without a common worldview, share a common lament over the incidence of incarceration of black men in America.
The fifteen minutes given for the segment made it almost too brief to matter. But I encourage you to listen as these two men act with great civility toward one another despite their drastically different outlooks. Listen for how this conversation is less about policy that might rectify profound imbalances in the application of justice, and more about the hope that fuels their respective efforts to be a force that might do even a little to confront that imbalance.
Then when you’re done listening to two humble, wise men speak of the need for hope in the cause of justice, have a look at another recent production–this time about a fellow PCA pastor in east St. Louis, the Rev. Mike Higgins (whose daughter we heard from a while back). He’s profiled in a documentary that entered and won an award for editing and cinematography in the St. Louis Film Festival. Like Anyabwile and Coates, Higgins, too, sees some of the grievous ways the judicial system functions in America, and has sought to bring his faith in the reality of an eternal justice to work for its application here “under the sun.” But as you’ll see, the piece is about more than working for justice in a society; its about how the church can reflect justice in the form of vivid respect for all peoples.
With whom do you think the Preacher might most find common cause? With Thabiti and Mike, or with Ta-Nehisi?
How does the mercy and justice wrought in and through Jesus answer the pessimism (or is it just realism?) the Preacher has for the possibility of justice in this world?
We’ll ask some of those questions–hopefully finding a couple answers, too.
See you Sunday.
Human systems of justice are crucial to the functioning of society, but they can only do so much. Human justice cannot make right what was wrong.
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion