The Royal Theater in Danville has gotten a facelift this summer, which I was glad to see, having spent a good part of my childhood inside its storied walls watching the old Westerns, which is where I learned about justice, that the good guy always won, and the bad guys ended up dead. This bore little resemblance to real life, though I didn’t know that at the time. Consequently, I took great comfort in what I believed to be the inevitable triumph of justice, that good would always win the day, usually within an hour or two.
This came undone in 1972, when I went to the Royal Theater to see the John Wayne movie, The Cowboys, and watched, appalled, as John Wayne, the good guy, was killed at the end of the movie by Bruce Dern, the bad guy. It turned the moral universe upside down, and shortly afterward Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal and Americans became cynical and no longer trusted our leaders, which led to Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, and now here we are, all because John Wayne was killed in a movie.
Thus began my struggle with the elusive nature of justice. It is not my struggle alone. The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk famously asked God, “Why do you remain silent when the wicked devour the righteous?”
Perhaps you’ve wondered that too. I can’t begin to count the number of people I’ve met who don’t believe in God because of the absence of justice and the silence of God. Eager to solve this mystery, religions responded by creating an afterlife in which the scales of justice were finally brought level, where the righteous were rewarded and the wicked punished. Nice and tidy. Moral dilemma solved. Justice will triumph, maybe not today, but surely tomorrow.
We’ve been thinking about the nature of religion, how it can be a source of much good, but also much evil. Today, I invite us to think about religion’s passion for justice, which is a good thing. But religions are willing to see justice delayed, usually in a mythical afterlife, which always serves to erode the imperative for justice. For when we believe God will bring justice in the future, we are less inclined to bring justice now.
I was reminded of this recently while chatting with a history buff acquaintance of mine, who was regaling me with stories about George Washington, even though I hadn’t asked. He concluded his breathless remarks by telling me George Washington even freed his slaves after he died. I’ve been hearing people suggest our ancestors were paragons of moral rectitude for freeing their slaves when they died. This is a thing now, and I don’t get it. It only means they were willing all their lives to enrich themselves from the pain and suffering of others, only righting this grievous wrong when they could no longer extract the blood and labor of the enslaved. Where is the virtue in that?
The measure of our morality is our commitment to justice today, and not tomorrow. The moral imperative of now.
Why have religions been content to see justice delayed, constructing elaborate theologies about heaven and hell and reincarnation and paradise and fiery pits? I think part of the reason is an attempt to answer Habakkuk’s question, “Why does God remain silent while the wicked devour the righteous?” Religion has by and large answered that question by saying God isn’t standing idly by. God is taking notes. God is keeping track, and one day, someday, if not in this life, then the next, the scales of justice will be leveled, and everyone will get exactly what is coming to them. Theologians call that a theodicy–the vindication of divine goodness in view of the existence of evil.
But I also can’t help but wonder if our fondness for the afterlife is rooted in our willingness to see justice delayed. I’ve been reading Joseph Ellis’s wonderful book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an enslaver, who we now know regularly raped one of his enslaved women, Sally Hemmings. So here is Jefferson writing the soaring words of freedom in The Declaration of Independence, all while holding hundreds of people in cruel bondage. He was reported to despise slavery, yet persisted in it, believing the next generation would bring it to an end, another instance of putting off to our children the work that so rightly belongs to us.
Whenever and wherever injustice has persisted, it has done so because it benefited those who had the power to end it. But rather than end it, they made their peace with it, lay in bed with it whispering endearments. But the measure of our morality is our commitment to justice today, not tomorrow. We can not pass on to our children the work that is our duty to perform.
A religion passionate about justice is never content to postpone justice. It requires its members to reject any and all collusion with oppression. A religion passionate about justice is never content for its members to move blindly through life, ignorant of the indignities perpetrated upon the powerless. A religion passionate about justice wears no blinders, muffles no plea for help, nor pretends all is well when things are clearly not all well. In the face of oppression, a religion passionate about justice does not ask why God is silent. It asks why I am silent, why you are silent, and why we have conspired to be silent together.
It is tiring and even frightening, I know, to raise the voice, to lift the hand to help, day in and day out. Indeed, there is only one thing more exhausting, and that is to be the one upon whom injustice is visited day in and day out. It is wearying to the bone to fall into bed each night, beat up and beat down, wondering if the next day might finally bring your emancipation. Can we, the people of faith, finally say to them, “Today is your day.”
Can we say “today is your day” to the Haitians in Del Rio, Texas, beaten to their knees by men in our employ?
Can we say “today is your day” to those who languish in prison because white people in America get a justice system and Black people get an injustice system?
Can we say “today is your day” to those who labor in two or three jobs, and still wait in line at food banks?
Can we say “today is your day” to those cynically manipulated by soulless politicians who care only for themselves and never for others.
Can we, the people of faith, finally say to them, “Today is your day.”