January 14, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
The prophet Micah responds to one of the great questions in Scripture that people of faith have wondered about for centuries,saying, “ what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6) As we listen to our readings today, drawn from Scripture as well as from more recent spiritual leaders; we hear the words of those who, inspired by their faith, decided to translate their best understanding of their faith into action for justice on behalf of the oppressed. We also think of the legacy of Martin Luther King, who himself was inspired by the Bible and became an inspiration for those who followed him during his work for civil rights, peace, economic justice and other important causes of his day. Let us pray, O God of mercy and justice, open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking, new ways of living out our commitment to faith in response to your call for justice in our world. Amen.
In recent months, I have had conversations with people from our church who are interested in coming together to explore ways they might prayerfully engage in work for social justice. Later in January, two groups will begin meeting on a monthly basis for prayer, reflection and action. As part of our discussions, several people invited me to share with our wider church some of the history of a faith based approach to social justice. It’s a large topic and much has been written, but I am hoping that today I might share a brief overview of some of the important highlights and then return to it in the months ahead. As many of you know, it is something that has guided my own life and continues to inspire and challenge me as a person of faith, as a Christian, and as a member of our global community. If this is of interest to you, there is much that has been written on this topic, so may this be a start.
When I worked in Boston, I had the privilege of meeting a woman named Kip Tiernan. She was an amazing person, and by the time I met her, she was perhaps in her 60’s or 70’s, but early in her career, she had worked as a successful advertising executive. At one point, she had the opportunity to hear a talk by an inspiring priest at that time in Boston, and that, along with a visit to Dorothy Day and experiencing her ministry with the poor in New York, changed her life. She ended up leaving her fairly affluent life, moving into an urban ministry center in Roxbury, one of the poorest areas of Boston. She then spent the rest of her life as a tireless advocate for the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick and those in prison, and she always wore a cross around her neck, because she understood that standing with the suffering had been the work of Christ in his ministry. She founded Rosie’s Place, the first homeless shelter for women in the United States. Her work was both direct service, accompanied by her personal connections of love and comfort, and it was the work of advocacy, tirelessly striving for social change, imagining a community where all would be treated with dignity and respect. When she died in 2011, Tom Menino, the mayor of Boston said, “Every day of her life she lived for social justice, and the lives she saved were untold. She always said that someday we will stamp out homelessness, but until that day we have to make sure everyone understands that a homeless person could be one of us.”
When we think about a faith based approach to justice, we need look no further than the Bible to discover over 2000 references to justice in scripture. We hear the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures speak again and again of God’s hope for our world, that we are to be righteous people, that we are to be concerned for the widow and the poor, for the hungry and those on the margins. Martin Luther King quoted the prophet Amos in his I Have a Dream speech when he said, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Throughout the New Testament, Jesus also chastises those who do not act justly; he shares many parables about those who chose not to share their food, or hoarded their grain while others went hungry. Most of you recall the important passage from Matthew 25 where he lays out the important criteria for the final judgement, ‘whenever you did it to the least of our brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’
We know that the people or Israel were themselves enslaved in Egypt and the important work of Moses, who led them to freedom in Exodus, was often cited and brought comfort to those who were later brought to our own nation as slaves and for the Abolitionists who were often led by their faith to act to change the laws that they understood as unjust and certainly in violation of God’s will.
More than 100 years ago, people began to speak of what they called the Social Gospel, which was embraced as a model for many Christians in our country in the late 19th and early 20th century who were seeking to work for a more just and inclusive society that was concerned about the needs of those who were living in poverty. Many of you probably have heard of the Lutheran minister and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who during the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s bravely spoke out against what he knew to be wrong. He spoke out as a minister and as a person of faith about the structures that were allowing his brothers and sisters to be oppressed, and eventually sent to concentration camps. He and other people of faith living at that time asked the important questions: what does our faith mean in the face of this suffering? What are we to do as people of faith? Bonhoeffer was arrested after he attempted to help German Jews flee to Switzerland. In a letter from prison, he wrote, “There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.” (Letters from Prison, p.16) He later was sent to a concentration camp and was executed in 1945.
Countless men and women in history from all of the major religious traditions have written about, been inspired by, and lived out their commitment to social justice. We know that Mahatma Gandhi in his important work in India drew upon his own faith and his understanding of civil disobedience to bring about social change there. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would later speak about the model of Gandhi as he, along with other Christian leaders, worked tirelessly on behalf of civil rights and economic justice in our country. King often quoted scripture to implore people to follow a path of righteousness and to invite his followers to embrace a non-violent approach to protest.
Often, people, and surely many ministers and faith leaders focus on the idea of personal sin, or personal salvation. It’s not something we speak often about in this church, but we understand that sin is whatever gets in the way of what we call right relationship with God, others, and all of creation. Over the years, I have come to understand the equally important concept of social sin which speaks about the ways in which we participate in social structures that serve to oppress others, or the ways in which we tolerate structures that clearly keep some people from living lives of dignity while allowing others to live with far more than they need. Dom Helder Camara, served as a Bishop in Brazil from the 1960’s to the 1980’s and was a proponent of Liberation theology, wherein people of faith were working to address the great disparity of wealth in many countries throughout Latin America, once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” I myself have been deeply inspired by the amazing witnesses of people of faith who have cast their lot with the poorest of the poor, with women, with the sick and the outcasts, with any communities of people who have found themselves on the margins of society. And, I do believe that we have a responsibility to both feed those who are impoverished and to ask why the conditions exist that allow people to live without enough to eat while others have more than enough. In the obituary for Kip Tiernan that ran in the Boston Globe, they wrote about her decades of incredible and heroic work for social justice and standing with those who were suffering. She once said that, the range of suffering was such that “sometimes you think there aren’t any tears left, “and you find yourself sobbing.’’ Strong words were her response more often than tears, however. Drawn by faith to her calling, she brought unconditional love to each encounter with the homeless, and she didn’t hesitate to criticize the powerful if they backed what she believed were unfair policies or tried to slide by with words of pity. Several times, Kip came to speak to some of our student leaders of community service trips at Boston College and to offer some insight into their important work. Like so many of us, she understood that people can become overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems, but she said, “we don’t have the luxury of becoming overwhelmed when our brothers and sisters are suffering. We have to do something. We can’t do everything, but we can do something.”
This weekend, as we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, we are invited to consider the ways in which our local and global community still does not reflect the Kingdom, the beloved community, as King called it, where all are welcome to the table, where all may live with dignity and respect, where the powerful message of justice that has echoed throughout all of the books of the Bible, has still not been fulfilled. We can’t do everything, but yes, we can do something. And we must do something, if we take our faith seriously.