The answer to injustice isn’t more justice, it’s…


Last year, when Trayvon Martin was killed, I put on my clerical collar and joined a march in New Haven, Connecticut, protesting the shooting and the apparent inaction of authorities in arresting the shooter, George Zimmerman. Our claim was one of justice—the shooting was an injustice and it needed to be remedied. “No justice, no peace,” we chanted. The speakers that day called for the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman. That is, they wanted to remedy the injustice of the death by applying justice to the situation. We call our courts the “justice system” after all.

We got what we wanted. Zimmerman was arrested, tried, and, as we all know by now, acquitted. No one seems satisfied with the outcome. Our desire for more justice has not remedied the injustice of the situation.

There are many ways to think about this verdict—for instance, there may be unjust laws that, when applied in the context of the justice system, produce unjust results—but I am struck by this disjunction: as protestors, we got what we wanted—but no one is now satisfied.

The Christian faith recognizes the reality of injustice in the world—how could it not?—but the answer the Christian faith gives to injustice is not more justice. The answer Christians give is grace, above all the grace expressed in forgiveness.

Jesus once told a story (Luke 15:11-32) about a son who (justly) demands his half of his inheritance early. The father (justly) gives it to him. But then the son squanders it and comes home. The elder son (justly) says the younger son has no claim on anyone. But the father runs out to meet his younger son and showers him with forgiveness. You can hear the father saying, “Forget justice; forgiveness brings my son back.”

Forgiveness does not stand alone, however. It is closely linked to another idea Jesus taught—repentance. The younger son had to acknowledge he was wrong, turn again (the literal meaning of the word “repent”), and come home to know his father’s forgiving love.

The tragic truth is that nothing will bring Trayvon Martin back in this life. Lamenting his loss and mourning his death are important tasks and we should not move quickly past them. But I have been wondering what role forgiveness and repentance plays in all this. Can we repent of the way racism infects our daily interactions? Can we see the new possibilities that God is opening up for us? Can we forgive George Zimmerman and pray he sees his way to a grace-filled future?

I hope so. It’s the direction the Gospel is always calling us to go.

(My thinking in this post is influenced by the wonderful piece Samuel Wells wrote for The Christian Century some months back and a post from seminary colleague Josh Rodriguez.)

What about when we don’t “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”?

A particular verse from the prophet Micah—chapter 6, verse 8—has long been a favourite of many Christians. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It even got a shout-out from Episcopal priest Luis Leon in his benediction at President Obama’s inauguration. It seems to summarize what many people believe about the life of faith.

The trouble is, of course, that there are many parts of the world where justice, kindness, and humility—along with a lot of other wonderful virtues—are not in great abundance.

One of these places is Sri Lanka. Since the end of its civil war in 2009, a single family of brothers has managed to consolidate its grasp on the levers of state power. Recently, the chief justice was impeached and removed from office. So much for justice, when it’s clear that the courts are firmly under the thumb of the president. A friend of mine involved in the church in Sri Lanka e-mailed to say, “Our situation is quite tense just now as people live in fear and anger and the Regime grows more suspicious and unpredictable. We need the prayers of all.” The church has been actively involved in this situation, in part by opposing the impeachment.

But I was struck by the recent pastoral letter of the Bishop of Colombo. In it, he denounces the current situation and writes, “We no longer appear to be a constitutional democracy.” But the action he calls for is not what you might expect. He calls for the church to repent:

This is a time for us as a Church to take an honest look at ourselves, where we have shamelessly compromised our loyalty to God. We need to repent of ways in which we, as individuals as well as collectively, have;

  • been silent when we should have spoken
  • allowed ourselves (thoughtlessly or out of fear) to be used by those in authority to speak lies or commit wrong and unjust acts
  • consciously received benefits for ourselves through acts of injustice committed against others

I as your Bishop, call the Church to a period of lament together for the terrible state of our nation today, and repentance for our failing as a Church to “love mercy, to seek justice and to walk humbly with the Lord” (Micah 6:8).

While reading this letter, I was reminded how Jesus’ ministry began with the call to repentance. It is very easy to long for change in the world and to demand that other people change. But that is not what Jesus begins with. Jesus begins with our own transformation. The message of the Gospel seems to be, “Change is going to come. Let it begin with me.”

I’m all for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. But I also know that simply stating that again and again won’t make it happen. What will make it happen, though, is turning again (the meaning of the word “repent”) in our weakness and imperfection to the overflowing love of God in Christ and allowing ourselves to be transformed in that encounter to be agents of the new reality God longs for us to live in.

The Bishop of Colombo has called for this Sunday, 3 February, to be a Day of Lament in the churches of the diocese. Perhaps we can join our sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka in prayer that day, as we pray for transformation in that country, but most of all within ourselves.