Written by Pastor Ed
Freedom Bound: The Path of Justice
Advent 1 – November 29, 2015
Jer. 33: 14-16
Luke 21: 25-36
“It’s a long road to freedom
A winding steep and high
But when you walk in love
With the wind on your wing
And cover the earth with the songs you sing
The miles fly by
I walked one morning by the sea,
And all the waves reached out to me.
I took their tears,
Then let them be.
I walked one morning with a friend,
And prayed the day would never end,
The years have flown – so why pretend.
I walked one morning with my King,
And all my winters turned to spring.
Yet every moment held its sting.”
That song by The Medical Mission Sisters, (1966) captures, at least for me, some of the theme that the writers of this year’s Advent worship material saw in the scriptures for this year. They have entitled the theme, “Freedom Bound” and each week we will explore one of the avenues to freedom. But we recognize that the road to freedom is not always an easy one, and every moment has its sting as well as its joy.
Freedom can have many different aspects, whether we are talking about an oppressed people being freed or whether we are talking about our own personal freedom from whatever it is that binds us. While we may not consider ourselves enslaved, and certainly are not overtly bound here in Canada, we cannot always claim that we are totally free in every sense of the word. And as someone once said, “We cannot truly know freedom until everyone is free.”
Our focus for today is on the theme of justice. The prophet Jeremiah, along with others, declares that the coming one, the righteous branch from David, will execute “justice and righteousness” in the land. Justice, it’s a word that gets thrown around a lot it seems. People demand that criminals be brought to justice. We have a whole branch of government called the justice department and we speak about justice as being handed out by the courts. On a broader scale, minority groups often speak about the need for justice in how they are treated. And the scriptures certainly speak of justice as one of the signs of the kingdom. So what can we say about justice?
We should be clear that justice is not the same as equality. I ran across this illustration comparing equality and justice.
Justice recognizes that we are not all equal and therefore to say that everyone should be treated equally does not lead to justice. In every society there is a dominant group that enjoys the privileges of their position. Most of us here this morning are part of that dominant culture here in North America, and as such we often fail to recognize the privilege that affords us, often referred to as “white privilege.” Being a white male who speaks English as my first language gives me access to resources in ways that others can’t. And I don’t notice because I simply take it for granted.
I rarely have to show my ID. I am seldom questioned as to motives or reasons for doing something. I am not followed in stores to make sure I’m not doing something wrong. And if I really want access, I can always put Rev. in front of my name which gives me even more privileges. I don’t do that very often, but on occasion it has come in handy. Justice requires that we recognize that not everyone has the same privileges or advantages that many of us take for granted. And that means they can’t just “do like we did.” Justice requires more than that.
So how shall we talk about a justice that sets us, or anyone, free? Many have suggested that the system we call justice, really isn’t. Clarence Darrow, the famous U.S. lawyer once said, “There is no such thing as justice – in or out of court.” Another judge once said to a defendant, “This is a court of law, not a court of justice.” While many victims think that getting a verdict in a trial will set them free, my experience has been that it often only ties the person more closely to the offender and does little to set victims free. Certainly the justice we talk about in the courts is not what Jeremiah had in mind.
Thankfully, I believe, more and more people are talking about restorative justice as an alternative to the criminal justice system. I think I even heard the new Justice Minister use the term recently in an interview. And in many ways the church, the Mennonite church in particular, has been in the forefront of this movement. Many years ago we attended a gathering in Montreal of people from around the world involved in mediation and other forms of restorative justice, and when I would identify myself as a Mennonite, I was amazed at the recognition we had in that field.
The Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) was begun in Ontario when two Mennonites, one a parole officer and the other an MCC director, wondered what would happen if they could get victims and offenders to sit down together and try to come to a resolution of the issues. Amazingly, or perhaps not, it worked, and the rest is, as they say, history and the principles of VORP have been used in all kinds of cases, including murder.
One of the principles of restorative justice is this. “Justice requires that we work to restore those who have been injured.” But what does that take? Well, in the workshops I lead on clergy misconduct, we talk about 7 elements for justice to be done, a list developed by the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle, and in many ways I think they apply to many situations, and indeed are requirements to set us, or anyone, free when we feel bound by injustice.
The first element for justice is truth-telling. We can only be set free from past hurts and justice can only prevail when we are faced with the truth. Perhaps the most important part of the Truth and Reconciliation process that Canada has been involved with over the past years related to the legacy of the residential schools, was simply that people could tell and hear the truth of what that legacy was. The truth is often hard for us to hear, and to tell, but is essential if there is to be justice or freedom. As Jesus said in John 8, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” That is true both for those who experience injustice as well as those who violate justice.
The second element for justice is acknowledging the violation. Far too often, even when we hear the truth, we want to make excuses or try to pass it off as not that bad. Even worse, at times we blame the victim for what has happened and try to explain away the violation. Freedom for victims of any kind can only come when someone says to them, “this should not have happened.” I recall a conversation with a woman in my office probably 10 or 12 years ago who shared some of her pain at a violation by a person in authority. At some point in the conversation I acknowledged that this was clearly a violation and should not have happened. It was a natural thing for me to do. Surprisingly, just a few weeks ago I received an email from her, telling me that some remarks she heard from Pope Francis had reminded her of that conversation and thanking me for my words which she said were important on her road to healing.
Justice requires compassion, the third of the elements; compassion for those who experience injustice, as well as those who offend and all who are impacted by injustice. We have no better model of compassion than the one who we believe ushered in that kingdom of justice, namely Jesus himself. Again and again we are told that Jesus had compassion on those around him, not only the sick and oppressed, but on those who were most opposed to his message. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” he cried. While we may not understand all the motives or the hurts that people experience, we can walk with them in their pain.
Compassion also requires that we protect those who are most vulnerable, the fourth element. It is important, as I suggested earlier, that we recognize that the playing field is not level. Whether it is a factor of circumstance, or birth, or whatever, there are those who find themselves vulnerable to oppression, abuse, or injustice of any kind. And we need to speak up on their behalf. Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Justice also requires that those who misuse their positions are held accountable. This is not about punishment, but about accountability. Recognizing the responsibility we have to not misuse our positions of power. One of the more poignant memories I have from a workshop I attended was a session led by Chilton Knutson, later to become an Episcopal bishop. Someone in the audience related an account of an abuse that had happened years before and the offender was now elderly and not in good health. “Should that person really be confronted with what they had done years before?” came the question. To which Chilton replied, “Do you want to give that person a chance to repent?”
With accountability also comes a need for restitution. Sometimes that takes the form of something material, but not always. Sometimes all that is needed is an acknowledgment. But injustice almost always involves a cost in one form or another, and so justice requires a righting of that wrong. And again, punishment is not restitution. While sometimes nothing can replace what has been lost, even a symbolic restitution can go a long ways towards a feeling of justice.
And finally, justice requires vindication. That’s not the same as vindictiveness, rather it’s a word that means setting free, releasing of the hurt. And if the former elements are taken seriously, then indeed freedom can come. Forgiveness, I have learned, is not only about freeing the other person from the consequences of their actions, but also freeing oneself from the grip that offense can have on one’s person. And we could spend a long time talking about that one, but maybe that’s another sermon.
While there is injustice in the world, none of us can be totally free from its grip. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We only have to look around us to recognize the truth of that statement. It was Pope Paul VI who said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
It’s a long road to freedom, and along the way there will be many pitfalls and many times when we will have difficulty either in letting go of our own feeling of injustice, or of those things where we are complicit in maintaining injustice. But if we follow the one whom Jeremiah proclaimed was coming to bring justice and righteousness, then we must follow that road, no matter the cost.
Today, as we participate in the covenant renewal around the Lord’s Table, may we commit ourselves to the path of justice and thus further the cause of freedom both for ourselves as well as for those around us.
The writing team has provided us with a prayer of liberation and I invite you to pray along with me.
“Liberating God, set us free. As we walk this road of freedom, give us more love, more hope, more peace, and more joy.”
There is more love, somewhere….