Sunday, 20 October 2013

Praying for Justice

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
20th October 2013 11.00am

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.'  4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,  5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'"  6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says.  7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Genesis 32:22-31   The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."  28 Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."  29 Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.  30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5   But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,  15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.  NRS 2 Timothy 4:1 ¶ In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you:  2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.  5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

This week, a group of us from Xchange,
            the young adults group here at Bloomsbury,
joined with a couple of hundred other people
            for a preview screening of a new film, called The UK Gold.

The Guardian review of the film describes it as
            ‘the kind of film to get the blood boiling and the steam hissing out of your ears’.[1]
It continues,
            ‘With the assistance of a string of well-informed talking heads,
            [this] film points out the major features of the tax avoidance landscape:
                        tax havens, brass plates, capital flight, crown dependencies, and the like.
            It soon becomes clear that the avoiders' best weapon is silence
                        – the list of those who refused to talk to the film-makers,
                        helpfully appended to the closing credits, speaks volumes.’

The film is being promoted by Christian Aid, ActionAid, and Oxfam,
            and it raises uncomfortable questions
                        of some practices prevalent in the finance industry,
                        and particularly the city of London.

It will also elicit different responses from those who watch it.
            Some, like Andrew Pulver of the Guardian,
                        will be left with their blood boiling.
            Others, like myself, will be left with a string of questions
                        and wanting to know more.
            Some may be left with a sense that the film has overly-simplified the issue
                        and misrepresented the nuances of the finance industry.

All of these are good responses.
            What would count, in my book, as a bad response,
                        would be indifference.
If we are indifferent to the way in which the powerful institutions of our society behave,
            we create a culture of indifference
which in turn allows those institutions to become indifferent in their turn
            to the effect that their actions have on others.

And in many ways this is the point of the film
            – to challenge our indifference
                        to the ways in which money, and especially taxation,
                        are handled at a national and international level.
Whether, in the final analysis,
            we agree or disagree with its conclusions
            is less important than that we ask the question.

Something that interested me about the film
            was the way in which it juxtaposed fairly hard-headed information
                        on the way in which UK crown dependencies and overseas territories
                                    such as the Cayman Islands
                        offer effective tax havens for multinational businesses,
            with the personal stories of those at the bottom end of the social scale
                        who are facing cuts to their benefits as a result of austerity measures.

We saw how companies operating in the developing world
                        in industries such as mineral extraction
            were able to avoid paying tax in those countries
                        by registering within one of the UK tax havens,
and then alongside this we also saw
            the catastrophic effects that such tax avoidance measures have
                        on those living and working in those countries.

The film’s technique was to highlight the plight of the poor,
            in order to highlight the indifference of big institutions to their suffering,
                        in order to put pressure on those institutions to change.

All of which starts to sound quite a lot
            like our parable for this morning from Luke’s gospel,
where a poor widow’s plight is pitted against the indifference
            of a powerful representative of a powerful institution.
But more of that in a minute…

In the question-and-answer session after the screening of The UK Gold,
            the panel included the Reverend William Taylor,
                        a vicar from East London who features in the film
                        trying to challenge city institutions.
Someone from the audience asked him
            what would be the one thing he would want to say to Christians,
                        to inspire and encourage them to campaign against injustice
                                    in the way that he has.
And without missing a beat, he simply replied,
            ‘Read the Bible’.

Well, he got a round of applause from me at least, on that one.
            You see, I think that when we read the Bible,
                        when we struggle with the Bible,
                        when we try faithfully to hold the stories of our faith
                                    against the realities of our world and experiences,
            we open ourselves up to challenge and change,
                        as the narrative of scripture
                                    engages and transforms the ways in which
                                    we live and think and act.

Our reading this morning from 2 Timothy
            contains that famous passage on the purpose of scripture,
            which I’m sure is familiar to many of us:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof,
            for correction, and for training in righteousness, 
17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
            equipped for every good work. 

But did you notice what comes shortly after it?
            The letter goes on:

I solemnly urge you:  2 proclaim the message;
            be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable;
                        convince, rebuke, and encourage,
                        with the utmost patience in teaching.

You see, scripture isn’t something
            that readily or easily yields its most precious treasures.
They come slowly, and often after a struggle,
            as our preconceptions and prejudices
            are slowly and painfully brought into the light for transformation,
and as our indifference is challenged
            to the point where we can remain indifferent no more.

Reverend William Taylor was right in what he said
            – the one thing Christians can do,
                        to become inspired to get involved
                        in working to transform the world,
            is to read the Bible,
                        to read it persistently, to read it urgently,
                        to read it with patience, to wrestle with it,
            as its uncomfortable and challenging message
                        leaves us nowhere to hide.

As Jacob discovered in his night of wrestling with God,
            there is no blessing without struggle.
He emerged limping and bruised,
            but having discovered the blessings of the covenant in the process.

And those of us who are the heirs of the covenant
            need to hear that the Christian life is no easy ride.
It isn’t a seamless wave of blessings
            received with little effort on our part.
Oppression isn’t transformed into justice
            because someone decides one day to claim the victory of God.
Rather, the devilish systems of our world are challenged
            when those of us who live by the story of Jesus
                        bring that story to bear faithfully, persistently, and tirelessly in our own lives,
                        for the transformation of the world.

And so we find ourselves back
            at Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, as it is often called.
                    
This is a simple parable, with only two characters,
            there is the widow,
                        who we are told is a victim of injustice,
            and there is the judge,
                        who we are told neither feared God nor had respect for people.

The judge is a representative of the Jewish legal system,
            which was specifically charged under the Hebrew Bible’s law code,
                        with the care of the vulnerable within Jewish society,
                        including widows and orphans (cf. Deut 10.18; 14.29 etc).
And it quickly becomes clear
            that he is not exercising his power and responsibility as he should.

There are two schools of thought in interpreting this parable,
            which tend to occupy the pens of the various commentators on it.

One school of thought says that this judge
            is to be seen as a kind of inverted representation of God.
And whilst we might not see God as capricious or indifferent,
            nonetheless, the point is made that if we persist in prayer as the widow did,
            surely eventually God will hear us and answer our prayers.

Needless to say, this is a problematic reading,
            because it raises for us all sorts of questions as to why it might be
                        that God would answer our prayers on the tenth, or hundredth, time of asking,
                                    but not on the first.
            What is it that has changed in the intervening time?
                        Is it that God needs badgering into action?
            Is it possible that God is in fact far more unpredictable or fickle
                        than many of us would like to believe?

And then there is a second school of thought about this parable,
            which draws attention to the Jewish rhetorical technique
            of arguing from the lesser to the greater.
Such arguments were common within Judaism,
            and can be found in many other places elsewhere in the Bible,
                        (cf. Mt 7.11; 10.25; 12.12; Lk 12.24, 28; Rom 11.12, 24; 2 Cor 3.8; Heb 9.14)
            usually introduced by the phrase ‘how much more’.
So, for example,
Matthew 7:11  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

By this reading of the parable, the unjust judge isn’t God,
            or even an inverted representation of God,
Rather, the point is made by suggesting an argument from the lesser to the greater:
            If even an unjust judge grants justice eventually,
                        how much more does God long to grant the prayers
                        of those who cry to him day and night.

But the lesson remains uncomfortably similar to the first reading,
            which is that we should continue to persist in prayer
                        and God will eventually get round to answering us,
            even if at the moment he seems to be ignoring us.
After all, surely he is much more motivated to do so than the unjust judge,

But, you know, I find this second reading almost as problematic as the first,
            because it still takes us no closer to an understanding
            of why it might be that God, who of course is nothing like the judge,
            is still doing such a good impression of him by ignoring our prayers!

So, I want to suggest a different way of reading this parable,
            and I think it’s a way of approaching it which might get us a bit closer
            to the persistent and faithful struggle embodied by the widow,
                        to see the world transformed
                        in the name of the in-breaking kingdom of heaven.

The way I read this parable, the unjust judge is not God
            he’s not even an inverted pastiche of God.
Rather, he represents the satanic forces of power at work in the world.

The unjust judge, who has no fear of God nor respect for anyone,
            represents those systems and structures
                        which have lost sight of their God-given intent,
            and have become instead indifferent
                        to the plight of the poor and the vulnerable.

These structures could be governments,
            indifferent to the plight of those at the bottom end of society,
                        seeking to restrict benefits and cut services
                        in the interest of political expediency or ideological pragmatism.

They could be businesses or international financial markets,
            indifferent to the exploitative or oppressive effects
                        that their endless quest for profit has
                        upon those who find themselves standing in the way of the bottom line.

They could be those systems specifically charged with protecting the vulnerable
                        such as the police, the army, or the justice systems,
            when those systems become indifferent to the causes
                        that they have been established to champion.
            From institutional racism to military dictatorships,
                        it is all too easy for power to breed corruption.
And this, of course, is why Jesus used the image of a judge
            - he is the one profession who should have stood up for the impoverished widow.

But beyond these large institutions and their tendency to systemic indifference,
            the unjust judge could be you, and he could be me,
This is especially true those of us who have money and power.
            Because we too face choices as to what we will do with that which is ours to hold.
                        We too must make choices about who to vote for,
                                    or where to invest our money:
                                    which pension scheme or hedge fund to endorse.
            Will we make our choices based on what’s best for us and ours?
                        Or will we hear the voice of the widow at the door,
                        crying out for justice, crying to us for righteousness?

In Jesus’ parable, the widow’s continual
            and perseverant approach to the indifferent judge
is effective in the end,
            because her weakness vulnerability ultimately calls him to account
            and leaves him little option but to act to bring her justice.

It was the same story in the film, The UK Gold,
            where the personal stories of those affected by the avoidance of tax
                        were told in such a way as to call to account
            those in positions of power and influence
                        who would otherwise remain blind and indifferent
                        to the consequences of their actions and decisions.

In many ways this is the path of nonviolent resistance.
            It has echoes of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, of Rosa Parkes.
With the disempowered simply presenting themselves again and again,
            bearing testimony in their own bodies to the injustices they have suffered,
            holding the world to account that the world might be transformed.

Do you know the wonderful song ‘The Mothers of the Disappeared’
            by the Irish rock group U2, from their 1987 album The Joshua Tree?
It was inspired by lead singer Bono's experiences in Nicaragua and El Salvador
            and it gives voice to the pain of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo,
                        a group of women whose children had been "disappeared"
                        by the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships.
These women simply never stopped asking the authorities,
            what had happened to their children.
Through persistence and pain they eventually got some answers,
            with many of their children confirmed dead,
            but others found to have been adopted out or otherwise re-housed.
Some people have been brought to justice,
            and the mothers keep asking the questions.

And so we’re back to Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow,
            which, according to Luke’s introduction of it (v.1), is actually about two things.
Firstly, it is about the need to pray always,
            and secondly it is about not losing heart.

This parable is not just about praying for justice,
            or about interceding for the poor.
It’s about taking action,
            it’s about standing alongside the widow of Jesus’ story
and joining our voices with hers,
            in persistently challenging the forces that oppress and misuse power.

The lesson of this parable isn’t just that 'even a bad judge will give in occasionally'
            it's rather that 'even a poor widow can effectively challenge the powers that be
                        in the cause of justice and righteousness'

And it raises for us the uncomfortable question of whether, in fact,
            it may be that the only effective challenge to oppressive and exploitative powers
                        can come from the voice of the poor,
because it’s only when the powers are brought face-to-face
            with the dehumanising effects of their actions
            that they can be held to account and enabled to change.

Those of us who would challenge the powers-that-be in the name of justice
            but who would seek to do so from our own positions of comfort and security
                        may find that we are already colluding
                        with he very systems we are seeking to stand against.

This is why we who would see the world different
            need to find ways of embracing and including within our own communities
            those with whom we would challenge the satanic structures of the world
                        which keep all people, from the poorest to the most powerful,
                        hostages to fortune and authority.

We who would have compassion for the poor
            may find it helpful to remember that the word ‘compassion’
            is the bringing together of two Latin words:
                        com, meaning with, and pati, meaning suffer.
            Compassion for the poor involves suffering with the poor.
Any challenge to the indifferent powers of exploitation
            that does not include the voice of those who are being exploited
            will lack the power of the persistent widow.
But if our communities of transformation include those who are otherwise dis-voiced,
            then the cry we offer in challenge of power
            will be a voice of persistence informed by compassion.

It’s interesting to hear what the judge says as he grants the widow justice.

He says (v.5),
yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,
so that she may not wear me out by continually coming

The Greek word here for ‘wear me out’ is a word that actually means
            to beat black-and-blue, a bit like a boxer at the end of a long round,
and it carries a connotation of ‘shame’ not just exhaustion.

As a defeated boxer might be said to have been shamed by his opponent,
            so the judge is ‘shamed’ by the widow.

When we join our voices with the voices of the oppressed,
            when we learn the language of the poor
            and speak with them against the oppressive powers of indifference,
then God is active in the shaming of the powers that be
            into taking actions that bring justice and blessing to those in need.

In our wrestling with God in scripture,
            the stories of our faith can become for us the persistent widow,
shaming us with their honesty,
            and persisting in their challenge that we should be different.
As Jacob was left beaten and limping by his encounter,
            so we too may find ourselves black and blue after a night with the word of God.
But from the encounter comes the blessing,
            as we are enabled by the persistence of God
                        to disentangle ourselves from the seductions of complacency
                        and the temptations of indifference.

Sometimes I despair at the intransigence
            of the powers-that-be which rule our world.
Can they ever be brought to account?
            Can they ever  be changed?

Yes, says Jesus, they can,
            and it begins with those who have compassion,
            it begins with those who are downtrodden and beaten up.

It is an upside down revolution,
            where the world is changed not through popular uprising
but through the telling, and living, of the stories of oppression:
            repeatedly, continually, faithfully.

It is a revolution which begins when people wrestle with God and with scripture,
            bringing the darkness into the light, even at great cost to themselves.

It is the church in solidarity with the poor
            against the indifference of the machine.

It is the faithful few who will not be told to be silent.

And so Jesus ends with a question:
            ‘And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

This is a hard task, it is a task that it would be easy to talk away from,
            especially when faced with the indifference and hostility
                        of the powers of oppression.
And yet, and yet…
            we are called to keep the faith.

When I was a student at Bristol Baptist College,
            Brian Haymes was the college Principal,
and every Friday, as he sent us out to preach
            in the small churches and chapels of the villages of the west of England,
he would offer the same words of blessing:
            ‘Preach well, and keep the faith’.

And it seems to me that these are fitting words for us today also.

We have heard the sermon,
            let us now keep the faith.





[1] http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/26/the-uk-gold-review

1 comment:

Geoff Streeter said...

Prayer is the search for inspiration.
Prayer grows out of frustration.
Frustration grows out of involvement.

Too often we treat prayer as an abdication: You deal with it, god, because it is beyond me. For example, the prayer for an individual already abandoned to the ministrations of the medics.

Prayer shows in the persistence in being frustrated, in the inadequacy of the inspiration so far received.