The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
During this series of sermons on 'Signs of the Kingdom of God' I shall be talking today about Justice. At the beginning of this month I talked about Love, and last Sunday I spoke about Compassion. In contrast to compassion as an emotion, justice is very much an action, and I think it's fair to say that while compassion motivates the work of the kingdom, justice is the work that is accomplished in the kingdom.
Last year I was invited to Israel to participate in talks concerning faith and justice in the Holy land. This involved meetings with the Druze communities on the Syrian/ Israeli border, meetings with the Israeli government in Jerusalem, principally with Mark Regev, meetings with the PLO at their headquarters hidden in the back streets of Ramallah, and meetings with senior guards controlling operations on the Israeli side of the border with Palestine. Each group passionately believes they are fighting to uphold justice and order, and each appeals to religion to consolidate their position. Although this part of the world is incredibly complex, there's no doubt that the catastrophe facing the Palestinian people is a defining global justice issue for our age.
During my time in Jerusalem I worshipped with my Christian colleagues in St George's cathedral, and I distinctly remember reflecting there on a verse from psalms 97: "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne." These words highlight two simple but vitally important messages: firstly that justice is a fundamental attribute of God, and secondly that social justice has remained a real and live issue for society since pre Christian times.
One evening, from my hotel balcony beside the Dead Sea, I counted sixty six Israeli jet fighter bombers flying on exercise towards Palestine. One came over my head every 90 seconds. A few months later, news broke of the heavy attack on Palestine.
However we define justice, however it is understood within this highly sensitive region, it remains a tragedy that people in Gaza and Israel live in constant fear of bombardments, incursions and rocket attacks, for violence clothed as justice causes long-term damage to both physical and psychological health as well as homes and communities.
When we associate justice with the Kingdom of God, it's sometimes helpful to think both vertically and horizontally. Vertical in the sense of our relationship with God, and horizontal in the sense of our relationships with others. In the vertical dimension, we discern justification through faith; in the horizontal dimension we're called and challenged to care for others. And yet, even at this fundamental level, we don't have to look widely to see that many people, even Christians, disagree about what social justice entails.
This raises some primary questions: Is the Christian vision distinct from non-Christian visions of social justice? Should we support tax policies that effectively require wealthy individuals to fund initiatives that benefit the poor? Does justice require that we acknowledge and address the inequalities borne out of histories of gender and ethnic exclusivity? Many disagree over answers to these questions. In other words, we agree that justice is important but sometimes disagree about what a commitment to justice means.
So why does God care about justice and the marginalised? If we go back to the Old Testament we see in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, there are laws that protect orphans, widows, aliens and others. In the Prophets, God judges the nation of Israel for not having been compassionate. Throughout the New Testament Jesus directs his teaching and parables to an audience that is primarily poor. He's not against the rich because he is speaking to the poor, but he is against the rich who are not generous or compassionate.
It's interesting to note that in St Luke's gospel (4.18-19) Jesus' first words at the beginning of his ministry, are a quotation from Isaiah (61.1) "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." Christ calls us to help make this Kingdom a reality here and now and to strive in our relationships for justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and equity. He follows the well-worn path of the Jewish faith - that shapes our public link with human rights.
As members of the church we have a distinct call to speak out against injustice and for the oppressed. It's from within this framework that the church is able to speak truth to power, not trying to throw our weight around with regard to 'rights' for ourselves, but in throwing our weight behind those who struggle for justice. Such engagement includes listening to and learning from other views and recognising that at times the church has had to be challenged by secular understandings of human rights in order better to love our neighbours. It's for the human rights of the most vulnerable and oppressed that we are called to use our God given voice and action.
This isn't simply a bias for the poor, but genuinely rooted in a Divine desire for all to flourish, a Godly prayer for a society where equality is a reality and not just a dream. As the church we have a moral obligation to continue to keep issues of social justice in the public square and mind. But we must also recognise that we don't have the only word of truth in this sphere: our words add to a symphony of sound for social justice. Others hear our voice most authenticity when the church itself is rooted in the gospel imperatives of hospitality, justice, respect and love; relationships built on justice love.
In one sense the problems of justice and human rights in the Middle East are symptomatic of issues that exist in communities around the world. In another, and highly personal sense, issues of international justice are interpreted and ultimately shaped by the health of individual hearts. When it comes to discerning justice and the Kingdom of God it's worth reflecting on a couple of fundamental questions: Firstly, do you understand that where people lack power, poverty almost always prevails, and so are you willing to support work that empowers individuals and communities? And secondly are you prepared to fight injustice and inequality with courage, hope and determination, challenging the structures and systems that prevent people escaping discrimination?