By Matthew L. Skinner.
The system is rigged. It always has been.
Prosecutors manipulate grand juries. Rapists from elite families get special leniency. Laws that stipulate minimum sentences for certain crimes prey on people of color. Greedy bankers dupe their clients then detonate the economy for their own gain and hardly receive a slap on the wrist.
Sometimes a reason for hope breaks through. Sometimes a president commutes unfair prison sentences. Sometimes someone says “Enough!” regarding private prisons and their miserable track records. But most of the time, it’s the same system following the same old story.
Faith as Complaint
Injustice and human misery offend the conviction that God is merciful, loving, and powerful. For a long time, therefore, the patterns of systemic injustice have gnawed at people of faith (even as such people remain complicit in the systems). For example:
- “Justice never prevails,” the Prophet Habakkuk complained to God.
- Job lamented why God remained silent and apparently indifferent while he suffered: “I call aloud, but there is no justice.”
- Describing the abuses perpetrated by those who wield power, the Prophet Micah said, “Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice.”
People of faith are complainers. This is not because they are naturally grumpy. Rather, by complaining about injustice they demand a different world. They expect God to keep promises, and they ache to see God’s intentions for human flourishing become realities. So they continually do what they can to see those hopes become real.
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable about a complainer par excellence. She’s a widow who refuses to put up with a biased, unyielding system. She uses the weapons she has: tenacity and perhaps an unflinching willingness to use her low standing to humiliate an ironhearted scoundrel who refuses to apply the law fairly. Her continuous efforts to get the right outcome finally annoy an unjust judge so much that he yields, granting the justice she sought. Whatever it takes to get rid of her.
On a primary level, the parable has more to say about God (who is the object of faith) than about the nature of faith itself. The parable illustrates God’s reliability. It says that if even someone as slimy as a crooked judge can finally be goaded to enact a just ruling, how much more can we count on a loving and mindful God to respect our tireless pleas for justice.
At the same time, the parable also subtly characterizes God as a slow-to-respond authority figure, like the derelict judge who is the widow’s nemesis. The parable urges readers who are struck by what a mess things are to remain vigilant in praying “your kingdom come, your will be done.”
But there’s also another dimension to the parable: by commending the widow and depicting her unflagging efforts as an illustration of prayer, the parable construes her and her actions as expressions of Christian faith. She provides an embodied and active example of discipleship. Her faithfulness shines forth in her complaints as well as in her determination to see restoration become a reality. Her activism is prayer.
The faith she expresses, then, isn’t a passive wish that things may someday be better.
Advocacy as the Church’s Calling
Because the insistent widow illustrates faithfulness, her actions also characterize what Christians are called to do.
Christian faith is a restless faith. It always responds with frustration to the brokenness of our societies and our very selves, for it believes God has made a nonnegotiable commitment to bring better things into being. Christian faith channels that restlessness into prayer.
It also channels that restlessness into widow-like advocacy that demands a response from God, the wider society, and its leaders. Christians, as individuals and communities, are daily to demand justice from those who have the power to grant it. This advocacy uses whatever tools are available: sometimes wealth and political influence, sometimes political and moral arguments, sometimes persistence and annoyance, sometimes reckless love, sometimes a willingness to expose absurd and inhumane practices. Whatever it takes to get the system to change, even if only a little.
Advocacy on November 9 and Beyond
Christian churches should be complaining churches no matter who are the powerbrokers in a given moment. This is true whether the authorities are utterly unjust, like the parable’s judge, or relatively just and generous, like a president who shows a commitment to addressing racism and the need for criminal-justice reform.
Lobbying individual presidents, members of congress and governors is one thing, but people of faith should be keeping their eyes on a bigger thing, for they contend against a corrupted and unfair system.
People who demand justice from a system need to remain especially vigilant.
Certainly some of the vigilance expresses itself in elections and all the drama, debate, and platform-making that occurs prior to November 8. Elections are pivotal moments with far-reaching outcomes. For example, progress gained in recent years can find itself reversed in a flash when a nation’s leaders change.At the same time, elections and their accompanying hype have a way of distracting Christians from a more basic calling. Christians care about more than who does or does not get elected. In the American political context, Christians engage in advocacy to promote the well-being of their neighbors and all who find themselves denied justice. Advocacy seeks to keep elected officials accountable to a vision of justice and to put pressure on them to enact appropriate policies or reforms. This will be true on November 9, no matter who emerge as the winners of our elections. It will remain true when people assume political offices in January.
The advocacy looks different, depending on where one resides. Some churches will aggressively lobby elected officials, locally and nationally. In other faith communities advocacy occurs when people construct a slightly more just society on their own: they can redouble efforts to support the local food shelf or can enlist more volunteers to staff the tutoring program for local students whose schools have been stripped of necessary resources. A number of churches will commit themselves to assisting in the resettlement of refugees. Many will take to the streets in bold activism or sit in quieter solidarity with people who, like Job, keep calling aloud but experience no justice.
There can be no joyful gloating or crippling despair in churches after the election. The people of God remain dedicated complainers in all seasons.
In those complaints, we see a sign of what “faith on earth” looks like.
Bible Study Questions:
- What, in your opinion, does vigilant and complaining faith look like? What makes it appropriate for believers to contend with God and other people for certain things?
- Consider a popular internet meme that seeks to illustrate the difference between equality and justice. How would you describe the difference between those two concepts? How is justice both like and unlike fairness?
- In what ways have you seen communities of faith make successful efforts to bring about greater justice? What kinds of resources or leverage do churches possess to help create and sustain a more just society?
For Further Reading:
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012).
Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (eds.), Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Random House, 2014).
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the free siteEnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book isThe Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.
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