Why do the wicked prosper?
Why do the treacherous thrive?
These questions of Jeremiah are still our questions today. Merchants of arms and drugs and pornography always seem to thrive. Slum landlords vacation in the Caribbean and lobbyists for tobacco seem to always be able to protect the interests of their employer. I believe Anita Hill--yet Clarence Thomas is a Supreme Court Justice.
We are failing, even more so with the recently enacted far-reaching and enormous reductions in welfare and food stamp benefits, to fulfill the ancient prophetic imperative, "Care for the widow and the orphan." We prop up oppressive governments in Central and South America that protect the wealthy few from the many poor in the name of the public good. Here in the land where money is too often our highest value we ignore the plight of children laboring in Pakistan for the sake of a better price on the carpet we want for our den.
But, yet, even though it's easy to point out what's still wrong there is much that was wrong yesterday that is right today. Slavery, with the exception of one or two countries in Africa, doesn't exist. Child labor has been eliminated in many countries. In our country, women and racial minorities can vote. It is illegal to discriminate because of race and religion in most areas of our public life. A wall patrolled by guards with orders to shoot to kill no longer divides Berlin. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are free of foreign rule. The policy of Apartheid is over.
What made the difference? Some would say God, working through people, made the difference. That is what Jeremiah believed, that's the story of the Jewish people and their exodus from slavery in Egypt. But, in these post-enlightenment days, most of us are suspicious of that answer. Indeed, some of us even believe that in many instances depending on God to make things right is part of what kept things wrong for so long.
God has been replaced, for many of us, with other, non-theistic equivalents. The notion of progress is one such equivalent. Just as the people of ancient Israel had faith in God, so the people of the Enlightenment had faith in the power of education and reason and freedom to usher in a golden age. But the descent of Germany, the most cultured and educated Western nation, into the evils of war and genocide has shaken our faith in the myth of progress.
Some would put their faith in the invisible hand of the market. They believe that most of the social ills we are prone to would disappear if we only had enough jobs and the only way to create these jobs is by removing the burden of excessive regulation and taxes. In the best of faith, they tell us,"Trust in the market and we will grow our way out of injustice."
I don't believe in or hope for supernatural interventions by God. But I also don't believe in progress or the wisdom of the market's vaunted invisible hand. I do believe, though, that goodness will prevail. I do believe that the wicked and the treacherous will suffer. I have confidence in the moral coherence of the world. I believe that goodness cannot be forever mocked. I believe that there is a moral order that will inevitably crush all tyrannies, punish all oppressors.
I often find it difficult to sustain my faith in the moral coherence of the world. It often seems that the forces of hate and greed are winning and that they have always won. It too often seems that might makes right, that brutality and intimidation and calculated self-interest and corruption have the upper hand in public life.
At such times, though, I need to remind myself that goodness and justice have prevailed and won against evil. The question, then, is not will justice prevail, but what can I do now to make that day come sooner?
God is a mystery to me. I have never experienced a burning bush or other sign. I reject the classical God of Deuteronomy that intervenes in history. But yet, I feel that I am part of something larger than myself, a system of which I am but a part, a process of creation in which I am included.
At times I feel called, as it were, by something or by someone to do justice. I am
willing to be practical, to be tactical, to build coalitions, lobby politicians but at
some point I feel compelled to say to those in power,
One of the difficulties we face in confronting racism is our tendency to deny the racism that others report. Indeed, one of the constants of human nature seems to be our tendency to deny or minimize the injustice that other's report. To recognize another's pain makes us uncomfortable. To recognize injustice might require us to do justice.
Unfortunately, Unitarian Universalists are no more immune to this than any other group. In a Unitarian Universalist discussion forum, a Unitarian Universalist who is African-American complained of an instance where she had felt discriminated against. Most of her fellow UU's responded with silence. Some denied that discrimination had occurred. Still others allowed that maybe she had been discriminated against but it wasn't really all that bad--maybe she was over-reacting? A few even wondered if she had brought it on herself. Can you see the pattern? Denial, minimization, and blaming the victim. It's classic.
Perhaps the most radical and subversive thing we can do is to dare to hear one another's pain. If we can learn to identify and resist the urge to make it go away by denying it happened, minimizing its effect, or blaming the victim, we will have taken an absolutely essential step. We will have changed a private grievance into a publicly recognized injustice. We will have overcome the isolation that makes us weak.
We tend to think that our most important freedom in our democracy is that of the press. But an even more essential freedom is that of assembly. Many countries allow freedom of the press but not of assembly. If people experience their pain privately and in isolation from one another they are powerless. But if they gather and discover that they are not alone in their pain they may become angry and to demand justice.
Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that no group ever gives up power and privilege willingly. That is why the first step toward justice must begin with the demand of those who are oppressed. The public processing of pain is what Walter Brueggemann calls this step in his seminal book Hope Within History. 1
That is why is it so important we resist our temptation to deny or minimize other's pain. The first step toward justice is to be willing to bear the discomfort of acknowledging anothers pain. It is easy, even enjoyable to hear another's pain when you have a solution for their pain. However, it is unpleasant to hear anothers pain when you have nothing to share but your indignation or sympathy. It unsettles and upsets us. It robs us of our peace. How can we enjoy our rug when we understand and know the suffering of the child who made it?
Religion has a crucial role to play in public life. It is the role of the church to question the prevailing conventional wisdom, to say that the emperor has no clothes. It is the role of the church to provide a public forum for the public processing of pain: to give voice to the victims of injustice, to provide a place for us to meet and share our grievances. It is the role of the church to call for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.2
We are people of faith. Our faith is not in any particular theology or creed but it is nonetheless a faith. We place our faith in the power of justice, the righteousness of compassion, and the power of love. Our faith is in our human capacity to create institutions that are just and compassionate. Our faith is that we can create a society of justice, equity, and compassion. A world without war. A world where every child has enough to eat. A society where we dont practice the cruel and unusual punishment of execution, no matter whether its by crucifixion or lethal injection. A society where we are hired and promoted on the basis of our ability and performance instead of our race or class.
Let us, then, both in our individual lives and in our corporate life open our ears and hearts to all our brothers and sisters even if their stories make us ache. Let us, then, learn to see through the self-serving propaganda and justifications of the too comfortable so as not to be taken in and confused by their screens of smoke. Let us, then, practice a faith that not only comforts us in our hour of need but also provokes us to proclaim--It is not enough!
1 Israel's Articulation of Faith Development. Hope Within History. Walter
Brueggemann. John Knox Press. 1987
Religion and the Public Life