“Pursuing Justice Persistently”

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And Jesus said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

An adage one learns in preacher’s school is that if you have to explain why you are using an illustration it probably isn’t a very good illustration. “The reason I am telling you this story is to point out…” That usually doesn’t work very well.

Well, evidently Luke missed that class because that’s what he does to introduce this parable. The reason Jesus is telling this parable, Luke says, is so you’ll learn to always pray and not lose heart. Thus, this parable about the persistent widow and the unjust judge is used to teach the lesson of persistent prayer – keep praying until you get an answer. God wants to know that you are really sincere in your request. Somehow God is like this unjust, disrespectful, God-ignoring judge who only gives in to the widow’s incessant complaining because he’s tired of hearing it day in and day out. And that somehow if you don’t pray persistently enough it just shows that you don’t have faith.

Now, certainly, through the centuries scholars have found all kinds of ways to make this parable make sense. But today I’m going to ignore all those scholars and venture a different take on this parable. But to do so I have to disagree with Luke. I don’t think this is a parable about persistent prayer. I think it is a parable about pursuing justice – pursuing justice persistently.

Look at what the widow does: Day after day after day she goes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice…” She isn’t praying for justice. She is pursuing justice by making her case day after day after day. Everyday she’s at the “halls of justice” pursuing justice.  She is pursuing justice persistently.

I recognize that Jesus then says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” Prayer does seem to be part of the equation. But I really think that prayer, in this case, serves the pursuit of justice. The widow pursues justice – persistently – and that is what Jesus commends. Indeed, that is what answers Jesus’ question at the end – “will he find faith on earth?” Is it about people who pray a lot or is it about people who work at seeing justice done; who truly, actively pursue justice persistently?

One of the more famous quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. used on more than one occasion is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He actually didn’t originate this saying. A Unitarian abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker, first conceived of it in 1857. But like any good preacher worth his salt Martin stole it and ran with it. In a speech Martin gave in Montgomery, Alabama right after the Selma march (March 1965) he raised the question of “how long?” Echoing Jesus’ words from this parable Martin’s answer was “not long.”

“I know you are asking today,” Martin said, “‘how long will it take?’…. Somebody’s asking, ‘When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to rise supreme among the children of men?’…. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And yet, is it inevitable? I’m afraid not. Justice is not inevitable. Indeed, though I believe God is profoundly engaged in seeing justice happen it is not inevitable, even if we pray for it. It takes human beings working for it, seeking it, pursuing it persistently. On another occasion Martin said:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

Martin said this in his “The Future of Integration” speech at Kansas State University in February 1968, two months before he was assassinated. Martin knew well the long, long struggle for justice. Yes, much had been accomplished. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was now law as was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yes, they had come a long, long way. But there was still a long, long way to go. And the Watts and Detroit riots the summer before made things worse. So he urged the people to not give up, to not quit. “This is not a time for apathy or complacency,” he extolled. “This is time for vigorous and positive action.”

This past Thursday, Congressman Elijah Cummings died, to the utter surprise of many. Tributes from around the country and around the world have poured in for he was truly a dedicated servant of hope and justice for his beleaguered city of Baltimore and for the nation. Echoing Martin’s talk of struggle and suffering and tireless exertion and passionate concern, Elijah once said: “My life is based on pain, passion, and purpose.” And, importantly, he was well aware of those who had gone before in the civil rights struggle, when he said: “Americans of our own time – minority and majority Americans alike – need the continued guidance that the Voting Rights Act provides. We have come a long way, but more needs to be done.”

Having grown up in the tumultuous 60’s I was quite aware of the change coming about in our country, particularly in regards to race relations and civil rights. The aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were huge. Along with these and other legislative acts, there were the unprecedented Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 60s, such as Brown v Board of Education, Hernandez v Texas (declaring all racial groups to have equal protection under the 14th Amendment), Boynton v Virginia (declaring all forms of racial discrimination on public transportation to be illegal), and Loving v Virginia (declaring laws that prohibited interracial marriage to also be illegal).

I and many others thought, maybe naively, that all of these profound legislations and court decisions meant that we had turned the corner on race relations in America. That in time those who held racial animus in their hearts, those obvious racists we saw on TV news reports, would get into the habit of treating people of all races more fairly. That if civility was enforced by law things would eventually get better, hearts would eventually be changed.

But, of late, I’ve come to the realization that for many in our country there was no change of heart. Rather they just suppressed their racial hatred and then groused about having to be too politically correct. They were just waiting for a time when they could truly express themselves again. And that time seems to be now. And we, who optimistically felt at one time that we were making progress now are wondering what happened. And thus we might echo Elijah’s sentiments, “We have come a long way, but more needs to be done.” Evidently a lot more needs to be done.

Imagine that poor old widow every day wearily making her way to the courthouse to bug that nasty judge. But wait! Justice will come. “How long? Not long! Because the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” said Martin.

A story of persistent justice seeking. After serving 38 years in prison, Malcolm Alexander was finally exonerated in 2018. In 1980 Malcolm was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to life without parole in Louisiana. Malcolm is African-American; the victim was a white woman. From the very beginning Malcolm maintained his innocence. He was arrested on a deeply flawed, unreliable identification procedure. His lawyer, who was later disbarred, put on a pretty much non-existent defense. Malcolm was found guilty by an all-white jury and he started serving time. From day one, Malcolm tirelessly pursued his case but it seemed nothing would ever come of his efforts.

Then, in 1996, the Innocence Project took up his case. This is the organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions using advancements in DNA testing. However, in Malcolm’s case they found out that all of the physical evidence evidently was destroyed four years after his conviction. But Malcolm and his attorneys keep pursuing the case. Eventually they discovered there still was some evidence at the sheriff’s department, three hairs recovered from the crime scene. Upon further analysis they were able to determine that the DNA did not match the victim nor Malcolm. Based on this new evidence the Jefferson Parish District Attorney moved to vacate the conviction and the court agreed. When Malcolm walked out of prison he was greeted by his son and grandson, both named Malcolm, and his mother and sister. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yet it is not inevitable. It takes human beings working for it, seeking it, pursuing it persistently.

Sometimes the pursuit of justice puts people in unimaginable circumstances. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2012, many documentaries have been made seeking to highlight the trauma and atrocities of that war. But none have touched on the personal cost and drama of fighting for justice like the film Linda and I saw this past Wednesday. Entitled For Sama, the film is the personal video recordings of a young citizen journalist, Waad al-Kataeb, during the siege of Aleppo. Starting with the optimistic Arab Spring in 2012, she began recording the events of what they thought would be the overthrow of the brutal and oppressive dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Yet, while the civil war rages on, Waad falls in love with a resistance doctor, Hamza, they get married and she gets pregnant, all while rockets from Russian planes bombard the city. In this traumatic setting Waad gives birth to a baby girl, named Sama, which means ‘sky’. Eventually they are forced to leave their home and city but for five years her husband treated the wounded and she films it all. The resulting documentary is literally ‘for Sama’ and a testament to the ongoing struggle for justice in that part of the world. And as we know all too well, the war continues today maiming and killing men, women and, yes, children.

In a Q&A after the screening, Waad and Hamza talked about why they stayed in harm’s way throughout the siege with their little daughter, Sama.

I was very aware what the risk would be, if I went through this experience. But at the same time, I have that responsibility. We didn’t think that we would make it out of Aleppo safe. We must have survived for a reason. The reason is to tell this story. And the story is still happening. Other places have been besieged and people displaced. It’s unbelievable. The situation is still getting worse and worse. It is still happening…

Needless to say, I believe this is a must-see film, despite how difficult it is too watch. It’s coming out in theaters in November and will be shown eventually on Frontline on PBS. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yet it is not inevitable. It takes human beings working for it, seeking it, pursuing it persistently.

My prayer for us all is that we won’t give up, never give up! That we’ll be like that persistent widow and keep at it day after day after day. And that we’ll pray – pray that God’s justice will prevail even as we work really hard to make it happen. And, in Luke’s words, that we won’t lose heart.

Martin concluded his 1965 Montgomery speech with the lyrics of a song, a song of judgment really but also, for those engaged in the struggle for justice, a song of hope. I think it fitting to end this sermon with the same. The title of his speech was “Our God Is Marching On.”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.

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