One of my favorite memories of the holiday season when growing up was all the holiday treats my mother would make. She started with Thanksgiving and from there the flow of cookies and candies and pies never stopped until New Years’, buy which time everything had to be gone. Not that much had any hope of lingering that long. Those were the days when one batch of cookies was never enough. If she had any hope of taking something to a holiday party or sharing with neighbors, she knew to make at least three batches. The first two would inevitably be consumed by the three males in the family who possessed absolutely no self-control when it came to anything sweet.
As I’m writing this I’m sitting here choking down a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal. Why? Because I’m now diabetic and my sugar jumped 70 points overnight (too many carbs). Oatmeal is one of my safe foods, something I can eat in place of the sandwich and fries that I’m really wanting. If I’m going to keep my diabetes under control, this is one of the difficult things I have to do. I don’t like it, but it keeps me from dying.
I was filling out some paperwork this past week and there was a section on the form that asked the question: Do you have a disability? The form went on to list roughly 30 options. I not only had to check Diabetes, but I also had to mark Leukemia, Arthritis, and High blood pressure. I don’t see any of those as being a disability in the way that I define disability. None of them keep me from doing the things I need to do. Why? Because I’ve adjusted my environment, with Kat’s help, to keep all those things that could be disabling from getting in the way and preventing me from taking pictures and writing stories and playing with the dogs—the important stuff.
All of this speaks to environment, a special environment that is perhaps present all year long but gets emphasized during the holiday season and especially around the second Sunday of Advent: Justice. At least, that’s the turn it has taken in the past 150 years. Prior to that, interestingly enough, the emphasis was on something that, at least superficially, feels a lot different: Redemption. The scriptures don’t change. Isaiah 11, Psalm 72, Romans 15, and Matthew 3. What changes is how we use them to examine our lives and how we have altered our environment. Walk with me.
Isaiah is presumptively (though not necessarily authoritatively) speaking of a coming Messiah when he writes:
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
but he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
It is the presence of the word “justice” that gets modern Christians all excited. I think it may hold even greater influence for American Evangelicals. They love that word. You hear it coming from their mouths day and night. Justice demands… Justice requires… Justice! Justice! Justice!
Hold on, though. Isaiah’s not finished. For soon enough there he also says this:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
What in the world is this strange picture the prophet paints where mortal enemies, those whose nature it is for one to be prey to the other’s aggression, are living together, sharing food, playing side by side. What does this have to do with justice? At the very least, someone move that baby away from the cobra’s den!
What we’re missing is an understanding that for justice to occur, there has to be redemption. Isaiah understood that. Pretty much everyone prior to the 19th century understood that. Where there is conviction, there is also restoration. When those come together, there is no need to segregate. There is genuine peace when there is restorative justice, not the punitive justice we’ve accepted as the norm.
One of the things to come out of the pandemic is a greater interest in podcasts. I tend to listen to them early in the morning before anyone else is awake so that I can soak them in and appreciate what’s being said. One that hits my feed on Saturday mornings is On Being with Krista Tippet. This week she was speaking with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice at New York University School of Law. While the stated topic was “Love Is The Motive,” I heard in his words something that first struck a chord, and then sliced into a nerve.
He starts by saying that, “… each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done…” This is important in the context of his work advocating for people who are on death row. His argument is one of humanity, that we are more than just diabetic, or a liar, or a thief, or a killer. We are humans. It doesn’t take much of a bend to fit that into Isaiah’s concept of restorative justice. Yes, there is a recompense for the crime, but there is also redemption, a bringing back of that person into the community, where, “together their young shall rest.”
Stevenson immediately expands the statement beyond what’s personal: “… it’s also true, a nation that committed genocide against Indigenous people, a nation that enslaved Black people for two and a half centuries, a nation that tolerated mob lynchings for nearly a century, a nation that created apartheid and segregation laws throughout most of the twentieth century, can also be more than that racist history suggests.”
Hold your horses right there. Redemption for me and my egregious mistakes? Sure, I’m down for that. Redemption for all those people running around wearing red MAGA hats, spewing lies and hate and venom? I may have a problem.
Uhm, yeah, about that, Psalm 72 says,
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
We tend to read that passage with overwhelming doses of marginalization; “the poor,” “the afflicted,” “the lowly.” We look outside our stained glass windows at “those” people and under a pretext of compassion we do what we have no right to ever do: we judge. We like judging other people because it makes us feel superior, that even if we’ve made mistakes of our own, at least we’re not like “those people.” You know, those red-hat wearing, blue-line flag-waving, racist chant-spouting, anti-democratic border-line fascists who refuse to accept the fact that their candidate lost the election. Afflicted. Lowly. Poor.
I’m not liking this. I’m not liking this at all. I’ve spent too much time over the past four years building up disdain and repudiation for everything this president and his supporters stood for, and equal measures of consternation for the people voicing those opinions. Now, we get to this point in the year where those same people are not only discussing suspending the constitution and enacting martial law, but they’re also calling the coronavirus a hoax and refusing to take any vaccine when they’re available. They are interrupting my attempts at peace and goodwill with anger and vitriol. How am I supposed to accept them as anything more than racist, lying, homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, bigoted morons when they keep opening their mouths and spewing such garbage? I’m sensing a disconnect here.
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another
That would be Romans 5. Dagnabit. I don’t want to think in harmony with anyone who’s ever worn a red MAGA hat. Am I really supposed to find a way to be “in harmony” with those whose whole motivation over the past four-plus years has been to hurt others? Sorry, but that doesn’t compute at all. Some sins are unforgivable.
Wait, here comes Bryan Stevenson again, and this is the part that slices. He tells Ms. Tippet:
During the 1950s and ’60s, you had all of these people engaging in horrific criminal acts — the white men who killed Emmett Till, who killed the civil rights workers in Selma, who blew up the church. And twenty, thirty years later, we thought that the response to that should be: We should go prosecute those people. And then we had these prosecutions of older white men in ‘80s and ‘90s, who were Klan members, and we thought that if we convicted them that we could exonerate the society. And I’m not opposed to those convictions or to those prosecutions, but I think it’s a mistake to think that they acted in a setting where only they were culpable. It was the politicians who gave permission to people to talk and think and believe these thoughts. It’s the larger we who created an environment where we were saying, “Segregation forever.”
And just as then, we are now. When we give in to rhetoric and we start talking about using violence to silence those whose positions and opinions we disagree with, when we engage in rhetoric that tries to legitimate the conduct of people who are advancing ideologies that are destructive and violent and bigoted, we become complicit. And we have to understand that.
And it’s not just the people have power, the elected officials — it’s everybody else, because we give those people the power that they have. And in our museum, we really thought about this, because when I started talking about enslavement, the first thing you’d say is, “Well, my people never owned slaves,” as if somehow that exonerates them.
The political consequences of driving six million Black people out of the Deep South, into the margins of communities in the North and West, are evident in the political contours of our society today. The legacy of segregation. And we try to run from it: “I didn’t do that.” I can’t do that. I have to own that.
Sigh. Okay, we have to own that. We have to accept that we had something to do with creating this intolerable environment we live in. We fought against the marginalization of one group by completely disenfranchising another and the result is… this present misery. We can lay it at the feet of the president and his cronies all we want, and there’s no question that they’ve carried out deplorable deeds, but we helped make this mess.
Matthew 5, John the Baptist speaking, says:
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
There are two words whose meaning it is important to understand. Repentance is something I do for myself, on behalf of myself, acknowledging my own error. Redemption is what we are called to offer others as the result of Repentance—ours, not theirs—regardless of their error.
No, that doesn’t mean we look at the chronic abuser, wash our hands, and say, “There, all is forgiven.” Redemption isn’t foolish, nor does it neglect the important need for restitution. But redemption looks at a crime and says, “Okay, you messed up and you messed up in ways that really hurt people. So, you’re going to pay restitution in an appropriate manner and as you do so, we’re going to help you learn to love, really love, the people you hurt.”
That might mean that in place of a firing squad or life imprisonment, we look at any number of politicians and say, “What you did to immigrants was bad. But rather than putting you in a prison inherently more comfortable than the ICE cages, you’re going to spend the next ten or twenty years of your life helping to build homes for those immigrants, serving meals to those immigrants, living in the same conditions as those immigrants, and experiencing the same challenges as those immigrants in hopes that, through such acts of penance, you become more than those very bad things you did.”
Repentance, restitution, and redemption are all part of what justice means and without all of those in place, there is no justice, there is no Peace.
Advent is a time for us to gain the courage to move forward through the wisdom of looking back. I don’t want to offer this president or any of his followers a chance at Redemption. The thought right now feels like a cop-out, an abdication, vacating the sense of righteousness and fairness that has fueled the turning of my stomach every day of the past four years. Yet, if I dare cry for justice I must include that opportunity to become something better than the stinking filth the past four years have produced.
Granted, I may still cringe in making that option available. Extending unmerited favor does not mean that it will be accepted. Those whose love for themselves exceeds all else may not see themselves in need of the grace and redemption offered. That does not excuse us from the need to create the opportunity, change our environment away from the over-consumption of punitive action to the more challenging approach that looks to address our social disability. We must own what we have created.
May the Peace of Justice find us embracing repentance and redemption not only for ourselves but for those who we may not consider worthy. We are all more than the worst of our actions.