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.)

Tenebrae in Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tonight at our weekly community chapel service, we read these words for Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking in his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” he says:

So they have something to say to us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism…. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about WHO murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which PRODUCED the murderers…. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.

As we heard these words, this is the picture that was projected on a screen at the front of the chapel.

It was one of the many powerful combinations of word and image we had in this evening’s service of Tenebrae at Berkeley Divinity School. Tenebrae is one of those rare gems of in the Episcopal (and other) liturgical tradition—the service of “shadows” that marks the Wednesday of Holy Week, the moment before the holiest three days of the Christian year begins. It’s a non-Eucharistic service that allows the congregation to dwell in the readings and psalmody and let the force of the coming events wash over us.

This year, the Wednesday of Holy Week (the so-called “Spy Wednesday”), falls on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was 44 years ago today that he was killed on a balcony in Memphis, preparing to mark with striking sanitation workers.

We meshed the two together—a Tenebrae in Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. We situated the events of this week and the killing of Martin alongside more recent crucifixions that have occurred and continue to take place every day in this world—rampant sexual violence in the eastern Congo; a history of lynchings in this country; protestors dying in Syria; and, of course, too much else to name or number even in one service. We read some of the Scripture readings appointed for the service but also listened to words from Martin and others. In lieu of a single icon in the chapel, we used an electronic iconostasis, projecting images during the readings.

I’m on the team that prepares worship at Berkeley so during most of evening services I’m a bundle of excess energy trying to make sure that everything is going to go just right. But tonight I sat down and let things wash over me. And it was simply incredible. Just as the one crucifixion two thousand years ago convicts me of my sin and imperfection—I was the one who went from shouting “Hosanna” to crying “Crucify”; I was the apostle that abandoned Jesus in his hour of need—the ongoing crucifixion in this world convicts me of my own disgraceful ignorance, apathy, and self-deceit.

But here is the good news, and it is news that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel: the story doesn’t end tonight. Holy Week doesn’t end on Friday on the cross. It ends with an earthquake and an empty tomb on Sunday morning.

As we left the chapel in silence, there was one final candle burning, the light that has kept people moving at even the darkest hours, the promise that new birth can—and will—come from even the darkest and deadest of situations.