Injustice Anywhere

The Hebrew Scriptures, include stories and whole books about people known as prophets. You have heard some of their names: Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah. Today the word prophet has a rather appealing sense to it. We may think of prophets as heroes of their nations – great men and women who led their people in the right direction. Prophet! A wise one who is respected and honoured by the people. Flawless, morally pure and incorruptible. 

And this image of the prophet could not be further from the truth. Prophets were ignored at best and more often reviled. They were the people who spoke for the people with no voice, who spoke, as they understood it, for God. 

They railed against injustice: The poor wandering the streets as the wealthy live in luxury; The plight of the widow and the orphan. It is wrong, they cried out, their words ignored by the unhearing ears of the rich and powerful. 

They could hardly have found a calling that would have made them any less popular. No one reacts well to be asked to give up some of their privilege, their wealth, and their comfort so that others can live with less suffering. 

Friday was the anniversary of the birth of a modern prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Today, most of us look back on King with fondness and admiration. His image has been tamed with the passage of time. During his life, it was not so. 

King was investigated by the FBI, castigated by leaders on the left and the right. He was criticized harshly for going too far and for not going far enough. He was hated by many whites and by many African Americans. I am saddened to remember my own liberal white community reacting with fear and disdain to King. 

Although his commitment was to non-violence, the reactions to his movement were often violent. He was imprisoned. He was threatened with death many times. He was eventually murdered for following what he understood as God’s will. 

King’s nonviolent approach may lull us into remembering him as toothless and non-threatening. But King was not asking for some tidy, effortless concept of equality. It was not just words and the end of degrading treatment. The equality King dreamed of would not be easy or painless to bring about. It would mean sharing privilege. It would mean sharing opportunities for employment and advancement. It would mean hardship for many whites who had never known anything other than a racist, segregated, way of life - a life that brought them advantages to which they felt entitled. 

And that’s just it. We all have a tendency to become blind to injustice. The few who have the vision to see more deeply into reality – to see with eyes that do not become accustomed to suffering – these are the ones we call prophets. 

I don’t want you to be prophets. It is dangerous and miserable. It means giving up your own life to serve others. Don’t do it. 

We are, however, called to look deeper. 

Injustice is a slippery serpent. It is rare that the face of injustice is visible and clear. When it has been, it has been easier to see and root out. No - most injustice is so intrinsic to the systems we take for granted that even detecting it is a struggle. 

There are no villains we can easily identify in most of the injustice around us. Injustice is institutionalized. It is woven into the fabric of our government, our economy, our culture, and our own lives. 

A class I was in at my seminary described injustice in western society using the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed.” It is not the rapist or the corrupt official who is identified as the oppressor, but rather, it is individuals with privilege. Individuals like me. While I protested the use of this term because it implies an intention and an attitude that I deny, it is a powerful word that forces us to think about reality in a particular way and to wrestle with our role in injustice

As the discussion progressed, we recognized that most of us have some kind of privilege in society. Whites have privilege over ethnic minorities. Heterosexuals have privilege over those of other sexual or affectional orientations. Men have privilege over women. The affluent have privilege over the poor. As we looked around the room, most of the group fell into at least one of the privileged categories. I began to squirm as I noticed that there were only a very few of us who were – like me – straight, white, affluent, men – privileged in virtually every way. 

As we meet together here, people in Haiti continue to die trapped under rubble and in, for the lucky ones, in poorly supplied tent hospitals. The wounded are dying from lack of treatment. The healthy find themselves without water to drink and without food to eat. Haiti has suffered a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. 

An earthquake is not an example of injustice or evil. But the effects are connected to our world’s inequality. 

Any given earthquake will kill 10 to 100 times more people in a developing country than in a developed one. That means that 90,000 or even 99,000 people did not need to die in Haiti. If money had been available to build to modern construction codes, we would see a very different picture there today. 

What can be our response to that? I think our natural tendency is to go to one of two extremes. Either we become so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem that we become despondent and feel helpless. Or, as a defense mechanism, we become apathetic. We must ignore the problem in order not to be so affected by it. 

Our duty here is to keep away from either of those extreme responses. It is for us to be aware and not to look away. It is for us to do what little we can do and to keep doing it without succumbing to hopelessness. We must keep the light shining on injustice and do what we can to bring about equality. 

And, we not only make a difference to the world by what we do directly for people suffering across the world, we make a difference by what we do right here. 

We are connected in a “single garment of destiny”. Martin Luther King spoke of fear and separation and the failure of communication as the causes of hate and injustice. He spoke of love as the cure. Learning to love – especially learning to love the stranger, the one who is different from us – is not a simple thing. It means work – deep spiritual practice. We must learn to practice compassion for those who suffer. We must learn to listen to others and have the patience and empathy to see the world through their eyes – however foreign that view may be. We must practice gratitude for the many gifts that all of us have received. We must be willing to be vulnerable enough to let others come close enough to us that we can realize the sacredness within them. 

It is hard, but look around, my friends. This is how it starts. People – different people – working and living together. Struggling with our differences – gay people and straight people, old people and young people, poor people and affluent people, white people and black people. Just people – learning to work together and live together – learning that difference can move us toward a greater wholeness just as a grain of sand can be the stimulus for the growth of a gleaming pearl. Our community is proof that we can learn to live amid all of our diversity in peace and love. 

May it be so.