A Quick Little Sermon on Social Justice

 

37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,

And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.

Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.

And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,

14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.


There has been much talk of late, in my social circles at least, about social justice and injustice, the sins of the fathers, the guilt that travels down unto the second and third and fourth generations…

The Lenten season, however, is a time in which we are to revisit our own sins.

If you’ve forgotten what yours are, someone is bound to remind you.

My son Peter and I, for example, got into a long conversation this week about my manifold failures as a mother. That was nice.

No, really.

It was nice: Peter wasn’t attacking me, or demanding reparation. He was sorting out his memories, thinking through his childhood experiences as a child, in preparation for, some day (soon?!) becoming a father.

I could make my contribution to this worthy effort not by wallowing in guilt but by listening to his account and confirming  the basic facts of his recollection: yes, that is what happened. And no, that wasn’t ideal. That certainly isn’t the way I would handle the same situation today, knowing what I know now and didn’t know then (even if, arguably, I should have).

This is, I think, the minimum each of us owes to our own, immediate past and the living, breathing persons with whom we shared it: not just apologies but an honest re-collection of the facts set in their context. It is a continuing project — as time goes on and folks mature, more facts are gathered, new sins identified, more apology and atonement and a long series of promises to improve, recommitments to love. These are the ways we might limit the scope of our sins to our own generation; prevent their consequences from leaping over the limit otherwise held by a human lifespan.

Our clever ancestors recognized that every human being will have sins to atone for. They created space within the calendar cycle for that to happen — for our Jewish brothers and sisters there are the days of Atonement and Yom Kippur, for Christians there is the season of repentance, Lent and, in between, should you need a quick moral spruce-up, confession and absolution. Note: it’s a good idea to keep current. Sins, like dirty dishes, do tend to stack up.

And let me emphasize once more that it is our own sins we are to confess to and apologize for. Should we be inclined, like Peter, to explore grievances held against others, we must accept that apology and recompense can only come from the individual who actually caused the harm.

This is important.

We are less than two weeks away from Good Friday, the annual recollection, told as if in the present tense, of the death of Jesus.

He was an individual human being betrayed by other individual human beings: Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, individual chief priests, the men and women of the mob. Each of them had a name, even if we don’t know what it was, and free will.

The story — told in the sepulchral gloom of a darkened sanctuary — is taken from the book of John and punctuated by that drum-beat repetition — the Jews the Jews the Jews.

Is it any wonder Good Friday services presaged pogroms, or that Easter weekend was a particularly dangerous time for the Jewish communities of Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and France? “The Jews killed Jesus,” sounded the cry, and mayhem followed.

Did the Jews kill Jesus?

Well, no. Technically the Romans killed Jesus, but under every oppressive regime there are collaborators. Had we been present at the time, we might have been able to pick out the Quislings. Of course these would have been Jewish because everyone was Jewish — Jesus, Mary, Judas Iscariot, Simon Peter, the priests and scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees…

But that isn’t what was meant when European gentiles  sounded the call “the Jews killed Jesus!” It wasn’t about the particular and long-dead human beings who made the choices they made for reasons that seemed important at the time.

It was an unanswerable accusation against everyone who belonged to the group called “Jews,” all Jews everywhere and for all time.

Attacking actual Jewish human beings was not considered sadism or thuggery. It was justice.

Hitler would later promote a secular version of the essential calumny, this time undergirded by science: the supposed fact of the immutable inequality of “races.”

National Socialism — Nazism — offered gentile Germans many rights, but not as individuals. Rather, theirs were the rights of members of a master race. Within that privileged group, moreover, individuals’ interests were subordinate to the collective interest of the Volksgemeinschaft, the “People’s Community.”

The Nazis described their ambitious program—the reordering Germany (and eventually Europe and, what the heck, maybe the world) into a racial hierarchy and the extermination of the Jews (the “eternal racial enemy”) as social justice.

If that makes you wince, join the club: it was a shock to see those words used in that context. But there it is: Social justice is, by definition, about groups, not persons. Social injustice was exemplified by American slavery and the Jim Crow laws that gave rights to groups (white, male, propertied, etc.) rather than to persons; social justice was what happened when those unjust laws were changed — by the 13th, 14th, and 19th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act.

Human beings have seldom understood justice to be anything other than social justice. Only after the Enlightenment — a mere few hundred years out of millennia of human history— was the same law understood to apply to commoner and King: it was a novel idea that it was the individual who was free and responsible for his or her own choices, the individual who must be punished or absolved.

I’ve noticed that we retain the impulse to condemn, excuse, or define individuals on the basis of their membership in a group, so perhaps that is more natural to human thinking. Groupishness might be our default mode.

If so, it is to be resisted. Over-identification with the happenstance of group gets in the way of human communion, diminishes the opportunities that our recent history as a nation has so dramatically expanded, wherein any of us might recognizes the human in another and grasp that there really is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.

Not too long ago, I found myself, for reasons I’ve forgotten, staying at the hotel adjacent to the Bangor Airport. Going down to the hotel bar for supper, I found it was was absolutely stuffed with stranded troops. Their plane to Iraq had developed engine trouble, and they were stranded. Squishing my way through the crowd — wall to wall Desert Camo — I found myself face to face with a very broad slab of chest. The name tape attached to it bore the name “Elkins.” Elkins was my grandmother’s maiden name, my daughter’s middle name, a family name!

“Hey!” I said, looking up. “We’re related!”

The owner of the chest and name tag looked down at me. He had a nice, friendly, African-American face. He laughed.

Well, we might have been related, mightn’t we? By any number of ways. Maybe his great, great uncle and mine knew each other somehow, and someone married someone else’s sister? Or…

…okay, maybe some cousin of my great-great grandfather’s moved down south and bought slaves?

Should I have bought this guy a beer?

There are those who would say that I owed Sergeant Elkins something. Not because he was heading off to fight on my behalf, nothing, indeed, to do with who he is and who I am, as individuals. But because I am white and he is black, and American history is what it is. Therefore our interactions can’t be a matter of ordinary, flawed humans being friendly and kind to one another; they are  inescapably about race, privilege, marginalization, oppression and… social justice.

You know, I think it’s possible that, even here and now — forget Nazi Germany — cries for “social justice,” can do more harm than good.

I think we should be sparing with them, cautious when we claim the right to reorder the world and determine cosmic guilt and innocence and appropriate recompense; we should be humble in the face of history’s complexity.

We are merely human.

Faced with a past filled to the brim with dry bones, it is hubris to imagine that we can do more than try to understand how the bones came to be where they are. We cannot lay sinews and bring up flesh upon them or cover them with skin; we can’t give them breath and life. All we can do is learn from them and recommit ourselves to love, so that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow better still.

Sergeant Elkins and I apparently forgot that our interaction that night in Bangor was about social justice.

He was, therefore, himself — a nice, young black Marine from Virginia — and I was myself — a middle aged white lady from Maine. He was a little worried about getting his Devil Dawgs properly deployed; I was a little worried about the class in Death Notification I was teaching the next day. He had three children (small), I had six (mostly grown). As it happened, he bought me a beer … because, as he explained it, he is a man and I am a woman.

In this Lenten season may we ponder again our own sins, our own mistakes; let’s correct our own faults and apologize to the individuals we have harmed.

I can’t apologize for all mothers from all times to all sons from all times. I can’t even ask forgiveness from the people in this room — the sons and daughters, all of you, of mothers who made mistakes — for what I’ve done to Peter.

I can only apologize to Peter and hope that — for all my maternal failures — I raised a generous and forgiving man.

There are 21 comments.

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  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Good stuff, thanks Kate!

    • #1
  2. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Thought-provoking and challenging, dear colleague and friend…Thank you! Family comes in all shapes and sizes, indeed.  “Social justice” makes me cringe, too…

    • #2
  3. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    There is a lot to ponder here. Families are complicated and could be less if they practiced what yours has. Years of hurt may not go away, but could be the beginning of forgiveness with an acknowledgement. Social justice seems to never be enough – there is always going to be something someone doesn’t like. You can’t change history, but you can apologize.  At some point you have to move on.

    • #3
  4. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    Social justice seems to never be enough – there is always going to be something someone doesn’t like.

    Christ said that the poor would always be with us.

    To me, social justice is some attempt to make that simple reality not so. In some respects, that is a noble ideal, but I can hear God’s terrible voice from heaven challenging our pre-concceptions – are we God that we can eliminate injustice the world over?

    Is this our current culture’s Tower of Babel?

    Does it help humankind to make this world more like heaven rather than prepare our hearts for heaven? We should do what we can to alleviate the struggles of those around us while constantly pointing to Christ’s throne in heaven. The troubles of this world are shortly lived but heaven and hell are eternity.

    • #4
  5. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    A really nice and thought provoking read.

    • #5
  6. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Faced with a past filled to the brim with dry bones, it is hubris to imagine that we can do more than try to understand how the bones came to be where they are. We cannot lay sinews and bring up flesh upon them or cover them with skin; we can’t give them breath and life. All we can do is learn from them and recommit ourselves to love, so that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow better still.

    I like your entire post, but I think this is a particularly excellent paragraph.

    I recommend Wilfred M. McClay’s essay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” in which he discusses “the rise of the extraordinary status of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world.”   He connects this with the almost intolerable sense of guilt one experiences in the West, and with the need to discharge this guilt in a post-Christian world.  He argues that “victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others,” which I think is a fine insight.

    • #6
  7. doulalady Member
    doulalady
    @doulalady

    Just before I clicked on the ricochet icon I was thinking about how a little socialism, of the innocent, youthful, manifestation which Churchill said demonstrated the heart, is necessary  to leven our tougher, mature, conservatism.

    I thought about how sad it is that people are now condemned as groups instead of discovered as individuals.

    My personal philosophy is that I do not care who or what you are, only what you do. By your fruits shall I know you.

    And then I find you have shared a little sermon along the same lines. One of the reasons that I love Ricochet, thank you Kate.

    • #7
  8. Sash Member
    Sash
    @Sash

    Forgive.

    Holding grudges doesn’t have an effect on the people you hold a grudge against, but it ruins your life.

    Don’t worry about what is just.  Forgive and let God provide what is just.

    We don’t’ atone for our own sins, Jesus Christ paid that price, we repent of our sins, and serve God.

    • #8
  9. DudleyDoright49 Inactive
    DudleyDoright49
    @DudleyDoright49

    @ Kate Braestrup: Bravo, bravo, bravo.  Wonderfully written witness.

    • #9
  10. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    The Buddha famously said of children: “Pity those who have them.  Pity those who don’t.”

    I met someone on a recent trip, a burly 70ish man, a career soldier, now an advisor to the Dept of Defense. Charming, self confident.  Forty minutes into lunch with us, complete strangers, he was relating that he and his brother had both served in Vietnam , in different units deployed to the same area.

    His brother was killed.

    When the family gathered for Christmas that year and thereafter, his mother blamed him for his brother’s death.

    “Why couldn’t it have been you?”

    My eyes misted over,  and I said, “If I were you, I’da  spent Christmas somewhere ELSE the next year!”

    Lord, I thank thee that I am not as that woman!

    But to your point:  let any one of us look back whence we came, at our trail through life, and she will behold it littered with human carnage.

    • #10
  11. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    While the style of the sermon is not what I would want exactly, in a church I mean, the meditation on Social Justice and what it means and how it interacts with and destroys personal relationships is wonderful.  Extremely well thought out and profoundly insightful.

    I am glad that I read it today and I hope many people read it and benefit from it.

    • #11
  12. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Thanks, Kate.  Obviously, your children raised you well.

    Much wisdom in this post.  Among it:

    “Sins, like dirty dishes, do tend to stack up.”

    I’d just add that they don’t wash themselves, and they don’t improve upon longer acquaintance, either (I know).

     

     

    • #12
  13. B. Hugh Mann Inactive
    B. Hugh Mann
    @BHughMann

    That your wonderful son doesn’t have children of his own yet is key. I found, to my surprise, that my many sins in mothering were completely covered once my kids began to have their own.  That none of these beautiful grandchildren of mine are teenagers yet… well we can wait and see on that. ?

    • #13
  14. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    Stina (View Comment):
    Is this our current culture’s Tower of Babel?

    Nail, meet hammer.

    • #14
  15. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    Kate Braestrup: I can only apologize to Peter and hope that — for all my maternal failures — I raised a generous and forgiving man.

    I have a son named Peter. Maybe we should have this talk. Yikes.

    • #15
  16. Typical Anomaly Inactive
    Typical Anomaly
    @TypicalAnomaly

    Thanks for covering a number of topics. The one with the most gravity for me was the social assignment of guilt and its remedy. Forgiveness and compensation will never be remedies in these social sins. As long as one member of each group (transgressor and victim) draws breath, the socialize problem remains. Forget that no living descendent of a U.S. slave has himself been in forced servitude, nor have the living descendants of slave holders owned another person. The socialized sin persists, plaguing future generations.

    But those sins I have committed, there is a remedy for them. How rarely it gets employed. Yet, the strength and beauty of a heartfelt apology are not diminished.

    • #16
  17. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Kate and Sandy,

    Sandy your reference to “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” is welcome; it is a great article. In the article, the author Mr. McClay suggests that our secular world has created a power in victim status that expiates one’s own guilt and gives one also a “victim prestige”.  Our secular world also blinds us to an understanding of forgiveness, in that because we are forgiven and loved sins and all, we are free to forgive. If we place God back into our understanding of our life and our suffering, then we must conclude that God intentionally has populated our world with our parents, friends, enemies, and that God has done so with a purpose, and that our struggles with those people have purpose.  Maybe our difficulties with those who occupy our lives help us learn how to reconcile with our neighbors, and that this reconciliation with other humans is part of reconciling with God.  We are also put in the situation that when we complain that our parents are flawed and we have be hurt, we are complaining to God that He should have given us better parents.  In this we are claiming that we could have picked better parents then God, and in a sense we would want to replace God.  When I look at my own complaints in a similar fashion, I can see how confused, I have been. I have often thought my life had purposeless struggles, and that I received the short end of the stick, and that it was not fair, I was wrong about this. If we are living in the presence of God and His work makes us more human, then my years of complaining are mistaken and our struggles have not been in vain.

     

    • #17
  18. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    I am reminded of a quote by Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

    • #18
  19. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Kate Braestrup: Social injustice was exemplified by American slavery and the Jim Crow laws that gave rights to groups (white, male, propertied, etc.) rather than to persons; social justice was what happened when those unjust laws were changed — by the 13th, 14th, and 19th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act.

    What did being male and propertied have to do with Jim Crow and what did being male have to do with slavery?

    • #19
  20. Julie Snapp Coolidge
    Julie Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    One thing I find with social justice “warriors” is that they are content to be ever-more consumed with hatred for all those they see as unjust or “privileged”. They don’t seem to understand that forgiveness is for oneself, if that word even appears in their vocabulary.

    I, myself, have figured out the hard way that holding a red-hot grudge against another person only serves to erode at your own morals, decency, and interpersonal relationships. It becomes evident that this is happening by the number of SJWs who become violent or abusive towards those they deem to be less moral. Even the ones who aren’t actively violent seem to pander to the groups whose sole mode of discourse is now violence and interrupting the lives of complete strangers while they go about on their morality-driven rampage against The System.

    For all those SJWs who might be reading this post, I dedicate this song to you:

    • #20
  21. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Kate Braestrup: Social injustice was exemplified by American slavery and the Jim Crow laws that gave rights to groups (white, male, propertied, etc.) rather than to persons; social justice was what happened when those unjust laws were changed — by the 13th, 14th, and 19th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act.

    What did being male and propertied have to do with Jim Crow and what did being male have to do with slavery?

    Hmmnnn… I could have phrased that better…? “American slavery, female disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws are examples of social injustice; social justice was what happened when those unjust laws were changed… (etc.)

    • #21

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