Make Space for Justice

October 20, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 18.1-8, at Eucharist on Sunday 20th October 2019, Trinity 18.

Among the many stories in the news, one story epitomes the value of true justice, about the parents of Harry Dunn, devastated after their 19-year-old son was killed in a car crash by someone driving on the wrong side of the road. As we know, the driver, the wife of an American diplomat, fled to the States, and from that place of immunity expressed her sorrow for Harry’s parents’ terrible loss.

Despite being ready to offer her sympathies in person, even at a meeting engineered by Donald Trump, Harry’s parents, steadfastly refused to meet her, claiming that they had been ambushed by the President. Their wish was that this woman, a mother herself, should return to the UK to face justice.

There’s a world of different between an admission of guilt, even with genuine regret, and the execution of justice. Justice begins when wrongs are redressed and, consequently, relationships can be restored.

The life of Erwin James is a good example of justice hard at work. Erwin James spoke in Winchester College earlier this month at a fundraiser for the Footprints Project, a charity supporting ex-offenders through mentoring.

Erwin James is ‘a lifer’ who served 20 of his 40-year minimum sentence before being released in 2004. While still inside, he became a Guardian journalist and he now earns his living as a freelance writer, while supporting many charitable causes such as prison reform, rehabilitating ex-offenders and helping those at risk of offending to learn to basic skills like reading.

Erwin James said several times that he deserved to go to prison because of his crimes, whatever the conditions he faced there. He acknowledged a rough and disruptive childhood, but made no excuses because of it. He was modest about his achievements, both in and after prison, while often expressing his admiration for the journalist who was interviewing him, Kate Adie. Justice had been served; it had led to his redemption as a flourishing and upright member of society.

Justice has many faces, but the most profound has to do with restoration. As a surgeon plies the steel in order to restore radically sick people to health, so a judge or magistrate wields the sword of justice in order to bring healing to society, to those who have been wronged and, even, restoration to the offender. And those of us not charged to dispense justice also seek to do justice daily in the way we approach problems, situations and relationships.

Jesus tells a parable which challenges our approach to gaining justice, and the first thing to notice about it is the banging. Someone’s mounting a campaign, making a racket. It’s a woman who simply won’t go away, who keeps coming back, demanding justice. In the vernacular, she’s being a bloody nuisance, but from her perspective she is pressing her cause.

We don’t have to look any further than the tops of aeroplanes or tube trains to see people like this who brazenly flout social niceties and conventions, even the rule of law, in order to protest for and demand justice; or further afield we see it on the streets of Barcelona and Hong Kong.

Jesus is taking a perfectly ordinary state of affairs, of people pressing their cause by fair means or foul, but the shock of Jesus’s story is in the scandalous way in which justice is achieved. The judge neither feared God nor respected people. The widow was only heard because she was being a nuisance to him. His decision to uphold her complaint was based entirely upon his own self-interest.

We’re not told whether the widow’s cause was just, though Luke is generally keen on people at the margins of society, widows included – let’s assume she had good cause for complaint. The parable, then, accepts that in this world good things sometimes result from processes which are far from ideal, which itself is a heartening message for all watchers of Parliament.

However, the real hope in this parable lies elsewhere, in the contrast between the judge and God, the judge who cares for no-one but himself and God who’s made a covenant with his people and who listens to their cries 24/7. The judge in the story and God in reality are about as far apart in their motivations as it’s possible to be.

And if a rotten judge can be pestered into action, how much more will a God who cares for his chosen people leap to their defence. God can be trusted. His promise to raise up the humble and meek comes good, sometimes scandalously, suddenly and unexpectedly.

However, trusting God is not easy.  There’s the issue, which Jesus immediately recognises, of delay. Delay is the killer of trust. It understandable that avoiding delay beyond 31st October has become for our Prime Minister THE issue of trust for his premiership and party. ‘Getting it done’ has become, at the very least, as important as whatever ‘it’ may be, and whatever justice ‘it’ affords to citizens.

This sits uneasily with the timescale for salvation. How long has God taken to get salvation done? Luke’s gospel takes us back from Jesus through a genealogy of 75 generations to Adam, son of God. However, tired we may be, delay is not a reason to abandon trust in God, because over the whole sweep of history he has acted consistently for the good of his people.

Parliament aren’t seeking to save on that scale, but a delay for the sake of a more assured justice for the environment, for workers’ rights, for unity across the UK, this may be worth our patience yet.

Enough of politics, I want to offer a direct way to encourage justice – the redress of wrongs so that relationships can be restored and flourish – which can happen whatever may transpire at Westminster. Jesus’ parable, in the strongest possible terms, contrasts the short-term and self-centred perspectives of its protagonists with the transcendent perspective and altruistic power of God.

When we come to worship we confess our sins, and it’s easy to think of this in trivial terms, of us saying sorry to God for things we’re not proud of. But confession is a God-given chance to decentre, to admit that we put ourselves, our demands, hopes and perspectives at the heart of our judgements. We rarely accuse ourselves, but rather blame others.

The human heart is a tangled thing, full of self-deception and deceit. The Book of Common Payer is much better at facing this than our modern worship. But honest confession of our sins will lead us to trust more in God’s salvation, because we come to know and believe at the core of our being that there is ‘no power of ourselves to help ourselves’.

With humility comes the capacity to make more space around us for others and their claims, which allows community to flourish. Humility leads us to believe that our timescales, plans and priorities may not be God’s, and that trusting Him is the way through even the darkest of times.

You’ll remember that when King George VI addressed the nation 80 years ago, as it faced the deep uncertainty of war, he reached for a verse beloved of his wife by Minnie Louise Haskins:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Delay is not a reason to abandon trust in God; it is exactly the space where we learn to exercise trust, to abandon narrow, self-interested thought, to make way for God’s justice to be done for the many.