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Peace and Justice

In Isaiah 61, Isaiah proclaims that he has been anointed by Yahweh to bring good news to the poor, to heal broken hearts and to proclaim a year of God’s favor. Isaiah spoke these words to the exiled people of Israel living in Babylon, promising deliverance, justice and comfort. The words brought hope for a year of blessings and prosperity.

Jesus later spoke these same words to the Isralites in his time who were under the mighty thumb of the Romans and again suffering from poverty, high taxes, and oppression. In Jesus’ mouth the words brought hope of a Messiah who would lead them out of those dark times.

What wouldn’t we give to have a modern-day prophet proclaim to us that good news was finally coming to the poor and down-trodden, the unemployed, the suffering, the hopeless, the grieving? What wouldn’t we give to have a year of God’s favor, hopefully devoid of pandemics, division, mourning, illness, poverty and homelessness? What wouldn’t we give to have a world of peace?

Peace is an interesting word and concept. It is much more than simply no war. Peace requires compassion, respect and understanding. But peace also requires justice. We cannot truly have peace until there is equality, health care for all, enough to eat for all, living wages for all. We cannot have peace until we have a fair justice system concerned with rehabilitation and reconciliation.  We cannot have peace until our environment is not under attack and we treat this beautiful planet as a living system deeply entwined with our lives. And the list goes on.

In the book To Do Justice, the authors remind us that it isn’t someone else’s job to deal with these issues. It is our job as Christians, and especially as progressive Christians, to recognize the difference between the way the world is, and the way that it could be, were all people recognized as sacred persons of God. It’s our job to not only be aware of the unjust and corrupt systems of this world, but to speak out against them, even while helping the people who are suffering from them. We are now called to be the scratchy prophetic voices working for healing, restoration, and reconciliation.

I know that sounds intimidating given the vast number of things wrong with this world, but if each of us speaks out about one thing, going against the grain of acquiescence and silence, trusting in the Spirit to be with us in our endeavors for peace and justice, who knows what might happen, who might be touched, what might be changed.

Marjorie Suchocki had just been appointed Dean of Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, when the faculty voted to march against the South African embassy to protest apartheid. Marjorie had prayed a great deal for an end to apartheid, but she had never participated in a protest rally and didn’t really want to start now.

Nevertheless, she went with the rest of the faculty and sang protest songs at the embassy. Because they were trespassing, they were arrested, taken to police headquarters, fingerprinted, and held for a short time.

When they were released, Marjorie heaved a sigh of relief and went home. She had done her duty.

It was a full four months later when the letter arrived. It was from a pastor in South Africa who had seen a small newspaper article about the march. “You don’t know how your demonstration helped us,” he wrote. “To know that there are Christians in the U.S. who are protesting on our behalf gives us the courage to go on.” With tears streaming down her cheeks, Marjorie thanked God for the privilege of sharing in God’s work in the world.

I imagine many of us are like Marjorie, we’re not sure we want to get involved, we’re sure we don’t want to be arrested, and we’re not convinced anything we do can make a difference. But we need to try. Nowhere in our Christian scriptures are we called to complacency. We don’t always hear the effects of our efforts like Marjorie did. She was lucky, and I imagine that letter changed her perspective forever on the merits of marching and speaking out.

It was 1992 in Lima, Peru and the country was in the middle of an unconventional war between the Shining Path, a group given to terrorist tactics, and the de facto government dictatorship with death squads. The people talked about being caught between “two devils.” By the end of the war, each side would have killed around thirty thousand people.

During that year there was a pervasive sense of desperation over whether the violence would ever end. There were daily stories of brutality by both the military and the Shining Path. In the midst of it all, despite death threats and assassinations, many community leaders in the poorest barrios, especially the women, carried on with efforts to improve the lives of their neighbors. One of these women, Maria Elena Moyano, led an association of communal kitchens where people could gather to get a nutritious meal and children could get milk. These kitchens were sometimes the target of terrorist bombings and Maria Elena criticized the hypocrisy of the Shining Path’s alleged People’s revolution. On February 15, 1992, Maria Elena herself was assassinated by the Shining Path, her body blown to bits by dynamite.

What happened next was a breakthrough of hope in the midst of darkness. At Maria Elena’s open-air funeral mass in her poverty-stricken part of town, there was great tension – soldiers ringed the area. Everyone feared reprisal from the Shining Path for what was seen as an act of defiance. AS a result, many of the few hundred people present were human rights and aid workers from outside the barrio.

It was said at the Mass that they tried to scatter her remains to the four winds with explosives, but instead they sowed seeds of life.

When the funeral procession began the two-mile or so march by foot to the local cemetery it passed homes and side streets, and people began to pour out and swell its ranks until the time it arrived at the burial spot it numbers some thirty thousand people and stretched as far down the road as one could see. Courage was being shown to the rest of Peruvian society by the marchers, mostly people without means and vulnerable in plain sight to the “thousand eyes” with which the Shining Path claimed to menacingly watch.

A public outcry followed in Peru that had not been heard in all those years. The news media invited community leaders, especially the women from the barrio organizations, as guests and interviewees on many of its programs. It was a rare moment in which the secular media seemed to have become the voice of the voiceless. It was as if middle- and upper-class Peruvians had perhaps begun to learn wisdom from those never considered important. Maybe the strength that kept the country from dissolving into chaos was found in the previously ignored efforts in poor communities to sustain life.

Within the same year the leader of the Shining Path was arrested and his cult-like revolutionary organization fell apart. The government minister responsible for the death squads joined him in prison some years later.

Maria's story teaches us that giving up and giving in are not options. And we should never underestimate the effect of even our smallest efforts to make the world a better place for those less fortunate. 

So, I encourage, no... challenge each one of us to find one thing we can do to stand on the side of justice this season. Support a justice organization financially, or an organization that advocates for something you feel strongly about. Sign a petition. Write to a congress person. Find a way to help the earth – make plans to start a garden, plant a tree, start composting, recycle more. Adopt an animal. At the very least be a positive influence for as many people as possible every day.

Be the scratchy voice, be a bearer of light in this dark world, trust that God goes with us, and works through us.

Love & Light!