Just Gardens or Justice? (begins at 33:27)

October 13, 2019

Series: October 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

1These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

4Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

 Just Gardens or Justice?

          Is life about cultivating the ability to find peace and joy, if not happiness, in the midst of chaos, unfairness, and suffering, in essence making the best of a bad situation?  Or, is it about changing the circumstances that breed chaos, unfairness, and suffering?  This is a fundamental question, is it not?  A similar question was posed in a graduate ethics course I took, and to the professor’s surprise, most of us answered that life was really about being able to find peace in any circumstance.  The question was not framed in terms of justice, but rather vocation and personal happiness.  We argued that it shouldn’t matter what one did in life because the goal should be able to find peace anywhere and everywhere.  The professor pushed back.  “Wouldn’t you rather find somewhere where you can dance?”  he asked.  Why, insofar as you have choices, choose something you have to work so hard to endure, especially if there are options where your gifts and passions can more naturally be expressed?

          Who was right?  Is the goal to learn how to endure suffering or avert it for yourself and others?  There are merits to both sides.  On the one hand, no matter what you do, how much success you have, how much money you get, you will never fully escape suffering.  Be very wary of anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.  We do have to learn to exist in the midst of circumstances we would not choose.  As Viktor Frankl once famously said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”[1]  That is the classic extreme example, for Frankl knew about having everything taken from him.  He survived Auschwitz and three other Nazi camps.  Though hopefully to lesser degrees, we all have opportunities to choose the attitude we bring to a circumstance we wouldn’t choose.

          On the other hand, we also have opportunities, and some would say an obligation, to challenge and change the very circumstances that bring about suffering.  There’s the old parable of a village that sits aside a river.  One day, a woman notices a baby floating down stream.  She rushes out to save the baby.  However, another one appears, and then another.  In a few days it’s taking everyone in the village just to pull these babies to safety.  Finally, someone suggests going upstream to see what’s causing the babies to be thrown into the river in the first place.  The goal—to address the problem at its source, change the circumstances.[2]

          These two themes flow right through our two readings.  In Jeremiah there is this beautiful, if painful, challenge to the people who live as exiles, refugees in a foreign land.  Make the best of it.  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce,” have families, keeping your people alive.  However, it’s not just about your people, “seek the welfare of the city…for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:5-7).  Be a blessing to the community around you, the community you didn’t choose.  It is an acknowledgment that some circumstances won’t change as quickly as we would like.  In the meantime, we are called to learn to put down roots and bear fruit.  In lingua Frankl, when your external choices have been taken from you, choose your attitude. 

Psalm 66, on the other hand, celebrates God for changing the circumstances of a people.  “How awesome are your deeds!  Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you…Come and see what God has done…God turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot,” recalling the Exodus from slavery to freedom (v.3, 5-6).  The presumption is that is faithful to cry to have one’s circumstances changed, and that God sometimes does precisely that.  Does this mean it is only God who can change circumstances and we should always leave the systemic change up to God?  Hardly, for we can find countless passages where commandments are given to people to change the plight of others.  Seeking justice is part of faith.  Remember in Isaiah, where God scoffs at religious rituals such as fasting saying, “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Jesus, too, breaks religious law to feed people, violates all manner of custom to make people well and restored to the community.  He deals not only with the interpersonal but is finally executed precisely because he questions the religious and political structures of his day.

An example from today, one that I have been avoiding because it’s difficult, raises some of these questions and more.  Botham Jean was shot and killed in his own apartment by Amber Guyger who claimed she mistook his apartment for her own and therefore him for an intruder.  Botham was black and Amber is white and a police officer.  We know all too well the fault lines this exposes in our society.  If you have followed the story, you know that a rather extraordinary thing happened at Guyger’s sentencing after she was convicted of the murder.  Botham’s brother Brandt forgave Guyger and moreover asked the judge if he could give her a hug.

What’s so complicated?  This is a moving display of forgiveness, one that conjures memory of the Amish school shooting of some years ago and that community’s radical commitment to forgiveness.  As I started to read African Americans’ response to the forgiveness scene, I quickly realized that many weren’t having it.  They had grown weary of the narrative that black peoples’ role was to be violated and be forgiving about it.  What about the too infrequently untold story of the systemic violation along lines of race.  It turns out, Guyger sent racist text messages just days before she killed Botham.[3]  What about the obligation to go upstream to try and stop the killing.

To complicate it even further, other African Americans I read, because of course there are diverse African American perspectives, were saying, wait a minute, you want to talk about disempowering a black man, then decide for him how he should respond!  If he wants to forgive, that’s his choice.  You take away his agency by deciding for him what he should do or not do.

Other voices still said, well Brandt, Botham’s brother, can forgive for himself, but the real victim, Botham, is dead and he doesn’t get that choice. 

Do you see how difficult this is, how complicated?  That doesn’t excuse us from exercising moral responsibility.  We have to wade into the stream because people are dying.  

So, do we forgive, do we keep our heads down and carry on until something changes? (Or) Do we work to make things change?  Do we grow gardens?  (Or) Do seek justice?  Yes.  Of course, the answer is yes to both.  Botham’s brother’s act of forgiveness might look like simply making the best of a bad situation, letting the air out of a tense situation, planting a garden rather than waging a fight in a hostile territory.  You could also say his act of forgiveness was one way of working to change the circumstances because of the transformative power of forgiveness.  I have to admit, I didn’t want to watch the courtroom hug, having such a bad taste in my mouth after all the reading I’d done.  I didn’t have the desire to see this killer held in the arms not just of the victim’s brother but later by the judge herself.  How many African American killers are hugged by their judges?  Then I saw it, and its power was undeniable to me.  The moment just knocked me over, him holding her, and her crumpling in his arms.  Forgiveness can be powerful, if chosen, not forced, and it’s hard to believe it has no wider effect.

And yes, we have to recognize that things need to change on a systemic level.  The track record is too long, the unequal treatment given people of different races is well-documented.  Some on our Outreach Commission have been reading Michelle Allexander’s book The New Jim Crow.  They’ll be offering some discussion opportunities I hope you’ll take advantage of them.  It’s an eye-opening work.  It’s simply not good enough to laud sympathetic and forgiving victims.  We are called to be in the business of making fewer of them. 

Many people tend to lean one way or the other—heavy on justice or heavy on quietly making the best of things.  Both have righteous faithful qualities.  One invitation is for us to be spiritually ambidextrous, wise about which is in order in which moment.  When I practice soccer with my son, I say, “If you really want to have an advantage over others, work on being good with both feet.” The same is true here, let us cultivate both skill sets, to be able to tap into the peace that surpasses all understanding that we might endure, to live to fight another day, and the ability to be able to tap into a deeper sense of how things ought to be and work to help make them so now.  A second invitation recognizes the limits of the first.  No one person can manage this balance perfectly alone, so we are to be actively engaged as part of a community, knowing we will have differing strengths and orientations.  We balance one another out.  One says, “Hey, how can we plant gardens here rather than just brood and stew, protest and fight,” and the other says, “How lovely is this garden we’ve grown; let’s not spend all our time under the fruit tree in a hammock when our neighbors are suffering.” 

Just gardens or justice?  False choice.  The wise one knows how to choose both by knowing how and when to choose each.  Amen. 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/2782.Viktor_E_Frankl

[2] https://csl.ku.edu/sites/csl.ku.edu/files/docs/ECP_SavingBabies.pdf

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/10/02/amber-guyger-offensive-texts-botham-jean-murder/