Those of us who have been in retreat here this weekend have
been pondering the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow. Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of
the widow who kept bugging the judge until she got justice as a demonstration
of the importance of being persistent in prayer. But it is also a reminder of
the importance of being persistent in seeking justice. Our readings this
morning are in commemoration of Martin Luther King, a man of God who was
persistent in seeking justice. I want to highlight two aspects of his approach
to justice-seeking this morning. First, he recognized that oppressions
intersect by which I mean that you cannot see any one area of human oppression
in isolation. Human trafficking is not a completely separate problem from
hunger. Sweat shops are not a completely different problem from soil depletion.
Secondly he realized that we cannot fight violence with violence.
In the last couple of years I have come to see non-violence
as a vital part of our Christian faith.
We have become used to thinking that Jesus died on the cross
to appease God, that somehow God’s sense of justice demanded death, a death
that Jesus died for us. Yet when we take the long view of Christian history we
can see that this is a relatively new idea. It wasn’t articulated until the
eleventh century, so for half of the life of the Church that was not the
prevalent understanding of Jesus’ liberating work for us. I have long been
uneasy with the idea of a loving God who demands the death of his Son, or of
anyone else’s son. Scholars have suggested several other ways that w can read
the cross. It makes most sense to me to say that Jesus’ death was the logical
outcome of his living a life of non-violence and holiness in a world that was
entrenched with sin and darkness.
Jesus, Like Dr King, was not afraid to speak out against the
injustices of his world. He was not afraid to point to the hypocrisies of the
Jewish religious and legal system. He opened up the vision of the reign of God where
there is not injustice and no oppression, and had the audacity to declare that
this wasn’t some pie in the sky when you die, but here and now, inside each
person. Jesus was giving ordinary people the tools and the motivation to resist
Roman rule. It’s not surprising that the authorities were after him.
He was tempted to respond to violence with violence. On the
evening that he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus asked his disciples how many
swords they had. He knew what was coming and he was tempted to fight back. But
in the event he didn’t give in to that temptation. When Peter cut of the
servant’s ear, Jesus healed it right away. Violence was not the answer.
Violence always escalates. If Jesus had responded with
violence he would have lost the battle against the sin matrix which is by its
very nature violent. Jesus was the Lamb of God – the one who was innocent, the
one who did not use violence in any way and so he was killed. Violence had done
But he rose again! Sin and violence were conquered. The
system of sin and violence was exposed as powerless. And that is what we are
here t o celebrate this morning. The Eucharist is not just a wonderful gift
that enables us to connect with God and with one another. It is not just our
becoming part of the Body of Christ, becoming one with each other and with
Jesus – it is also a celebration that sin and violence have been conquered. We
no longer need to fear because the worst that can happen to us is that we are
tortured and we die. Jesus has already been there, done that, and risen again.
And we know that we who are enrolled in the reign of God, we too will be raised
with him. And so we are gathered this morning to give thanks to celebrate the
great victory of our God and to look forward to the day when all oppression
will cease, when the reign of God is actualized, and sin and misery will be no
So, if we see the saving work of Jesus being based in his
non-violence resistance to sin, violence and injustice, in his refusal to play
the game of returning violence with violence, then as his followers, we too are
called to live lives of non-violence. But not lives of non-violent submission
but non-violent resistance. We are called to resist violence in all its forms.
That is the context for today’s gospel reading. Bible scholar Walter Wink has
given us a new understanding of “turning the other cheek.” It is not an
injunction to be loving and gentle. It is actually instruction for non-violence
resistance. In the culture of the time, striking someone with the back of the
hand was a way to assert dominance and authority. If they turned the other
cheek then it invited an open handed blow, but this would be seen as a
statement of equality. So by turning the other cheek the oppressed person was
demanding equality. Similarly, giving your shirt would leave you naked, and
nakedness was seen as bringing shame on the viewer as well as the one without
So our calling as Jesus’ disciples is not only to work for
justice but also to resist violence in all its forms. To be merciful is to be
non-violent. When we see people suffering around us, to show mercy is to
respond with love. It is easy to go through our day with only peripheral vision
for those who are around us. Loving mercy looks carefully at them and sees them
as individuals whether they are our equals, our bosses or our subordinates.
Loving mercy knows the name of the janitor and waves to the trash collector.
But it Is not OK for us to only give charity when it is
justice that is needed. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters are important work,
but they are providing charity when what is really needed is a change in the
system that creates homelessness and allows hunger to continue. Justice means
working to change the system. It is much more difficult than giving charity.
Following Jesus means doing everything we can to unhook
ourselves from the system of oppression and violence in which we live. In an
interconnected and interdependent world that is almost impossible. The food we
eat is produced in ways which include violence to animals, often oppress farm
workers, pour methane gas into the atmosphere and deplete the soil. The only
way to avoid any oppression in the food you eat is to grow it all yourself. But
short of that there are steps you can take – you can buy organic, you can
reduce your consumption of animal products and only eat sustainable fish. The
clothes we wear are manufactured as inexpensively as possible because we don’t
want to spend a lot of money on clothes – and so they come from places like
Bangladesh where factory workers work long hours for little money in unsafe
conditions. This is not a challenge I have yet taken on for myself, but it is
possible to find clothing that has not been made in sweat shops.
These are some ways that you can non-violently resist the
system of violence, oppression and coercion that we live in. It is important
that we take positions of resistance in our lives, but it is just as important
that we take positions of resistance in our minds. Refusing to get involved in
scapegoating is an important part of this. Our political system is built on
defining who is in and who is out. In the reign of God everyone is in. Building
communities where everyone is in and where we are able not just to accept, not
just to tolerate but to welcome, to like and to celebrate those who are
different from us is the work of non-violence.
The work of Integrity in the Episcopal Church in the last
forty years has been to make the church fully inclusive of gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender persons. To put an end to us and them. That work is
far from over. Most gay and transgender people still do not think that they are
welcome in church. There is much to be done before LGBT people feel as
comfortable and as confident among the children of God as their straight
brethren. But even when the church is fully inclusive, if we stop there then we
will have failed, because there are still hate crimes. It is still ok for
nations to decide that being gay is reason to be imprisoned or even executed.
If we stop there we will have failed, because the Church is not here for our
benefit; the church is here to serve the world. As long as there are young
people being thrown out of their homes because they are gay, as long as there
are people unable to get work because there are not enough jobs, as long as
there are people homeless because they are mentally ill, as long as we continue
to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our work is not done.
No-one can do it all. But I encourage you to follow the
example of Martin Luther King - find that place where the cry of the world
connects most deeply with your soul and work there for justice and an end to
violence. I encourage you to find ways in your life to unhook yourself from the
system of violence and end the cycle of judgmental violence in your own mind.
Whenever you find yourself judging and criticizing others remember that they
too are the beloved of God and turn your judgment into a prayer that they may
know God’s peace. And be persistent.
Don’t give up.
Because in Jesus the cycle of violence is already broken and
the reign of God has begun. Alleluia!