Tag Archives: justice

19 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part II

Second right in the bottom row: this could sum up the experience of the widow in Jesus’ parable that Sister Johanna is reflecting upon. ‘I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.’ Or further up: ‘I feel there is nothing to look forward to.’ It’s not something new to the Covid experience that makes people feel this way. 2,000 years ago, they must have said similar things to Jesus, and he put their experience into this parable, now opened anew for us by Sister Johanna.

We are looking at Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, from Luke 18:1- 8. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post to catch up with us. We’re looking at an unusually playful parable, starring a curmudgeonly judge, and we’re wondering what Jesus is really getting at by presenting his ideas in this way. We find out by listening to the lines he allows the judge-curmudgeon to say, ‘… I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person….’ This phrase comes twice in the short parable – the first time Jesus himself uses it to describe the judge, and the second time, he lets the judge say it to describe himself. Repetition is a device used to drive home a home truth. Jesus wants us to hear these words. What is the truth that they contain, then?

I think, first, the words tell us that Jesus understands what it is like for us to pray and not feel heard. He understands how, in our life with God, it sometimes feels as though God himself is the uncaring one, who delays and delays to help us, even though we ‘cry to him day and night.’ When we are going through such an experience, we feel alone, and it seems to us that no one in the history of the world has been through this kind of desolation except us. But in fact, Jesus knows that this is an archetypal experience. Jesus’ listeners at the time would have had it, we have it, all praying people in between us and them have had it. So we can nod our heads as Jesus’ first hearers must have done. Perhaps some in his audience will have begun to cry as Jesus’ words went home and exposed a deeply painful wound or a long-standing problem that felt overwhelming. Jesus is saying here, “I know. It sometimes feels like this when you pray to God for help. He seems unheeding. Here’s me, praying night and day, and nothing changes. Does God care?”

Second: Jesus in this parable is giving us permission to admit that we have these kinds of thoughts and feelings about God. Sometimes it is very difficult not to think of God as anything other than an extremely unjust judge. But why should Jesus encourage us to admit that we feel this way? Because faith is not about pretending to possess a level of ‘holiness’ that we do not really possess. We will return to the subject of faith at the end of our reflections tomorrow. For now, we can say that our faith in God is what allows us to tell God exactly how it feels to be me right now, and, as such, to tell him what we think of him. God knows this already, of course. But perhaps we don’t. Faith is sometimes about discovering who we are, as much as it is about discovering who God is. So, the Lord wants us to tell God all about it, with as much honesty as we can summon, while still hanging on to God for dear life.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are vital. In light of them, let’s look at the character of the widow in this parable. What role does she play? A widow, in biblical shorthand, represents those who are neediest in society, those who have few human resources, who are alone and must fight hard in order even to be noticed by the current power-base. In this parable we find just such a fighter – a woman in whom the curmudgeonly judge meets his match. Feisty and determined, and as crabby and calculating in her way as he was, she “…kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’” Do I detect a hint of falsetto in Jesus’ rendering of these words? Maybe we all know the type of character the widow represents. Possibly, if we know her well, we are a bit afraid of her. But, don’t we admire her when some film or television drama features a character like this, who refuses to be the victim of whatever or whoever is trying to make her one?

We’re going to pause again here and return tomorrow to continue our meditation.

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25 September, Season of Creation XXVI: the globalisation of indifference. Laudato Si’ X.

51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialised north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.

The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home. Generally, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”.

52. The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to “the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests”. We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference.

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21 September, Creation Season XXII: Laudato si’, VI: Water.

In 2017 Pope Francis had this fountain disconnected because of a water shortage in Rome. In this section of Laudato Si he tackles the problems of water poverty.

28. Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production.

29. One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls.

Detergents and chemical products continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.

30. In some places there is a growing tendency to privatise this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality.

31. Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.

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17 May: Stirring It Part I. (Shared Table XXVI)

A shared table awaits the guests

After Dr Johnson’s exploits yesterday, Sister Johanna has been considering another shared meal among, well, if not enemies, men who were uncomfortable in each other’s company. Unlike Sam Johnson, Jesus was not setting out to be polite in order to let the conversation flow smoothly.

Some gospel passages make me groan. They are the passages where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes, the “professional religious,” with their hypocrisy. Those passages worry me. As a nun, I’m a professional religious, too. I go around in special robes all the time. I’m greeted with respect when I go out – there are plenty of perks that come my way. People are generous and kind just because I claim to belong to God. Do I live up to their expectations? I wonder. So, I always feel implicated when Jesus details the aspects of the Pharisees’ behaviour that are at enmity with the worship of the true God, and with a life that is truly given to God.

At the same time, I groan over each occasion when the religious authorities in the gospels react with defensiveness to Jesus – defensiveness that builds and builds, until it becomes demonic, until it is beyond control, until it has become murderous. As I watch this well-known story play out day by day in my lectio divina, I sometimes wish Jesus had not been so inclined to “stir” the situation with the religious authorities. If the Pharisees often try to trick Jesus with ridiculous questions in order to force him to say something they could use against him, Jesus, too, at times seems to “bait” the Pharisees. One of those times is recorded in Luke 11: 37-38.

Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness.’

This was clearly a set up – by Jesus. Surely, Jesus was aware that in failing to wash before the meal he would be pushing the Pharisee’s buttons. I feel certain that Jesus was just waiting for the Pharisee to express his disapproval. And he does so, but he does it silently. We can say a great deal by body-language, as Jesus well knew. I imagine perhaps one eyebrow slightly raised as Jesus was “eyed” by the Pharisee. I suspect an awkward pause in conversation occurred when Jesus sat down at table, unwashed. Jesus is ready, and jumps in with his spoken criticism as soon as he sees the Pharisee’s unspoken one. Part of me wishes Jesus hadn’t. Jesus could have handled the situation differently from the start, done the done thing, washed his hands, sat down and told a set of inspiring stories, tried to win the Pharisee with a more honeyed approach.

But, Jesus wanted to “stir” it. He wanted to bring the bad feeling out in the open – lance the boil. And, superficially anyway, I’m not comfortable with any of it. Jesus was not an easy dinner-guest: no elephants were ignored in any living room Jesus ever visited. Why? As I ponder this question and reread the text, I gradually become more aware of Jesus’ side of things. I begin to see that for Jesus and his mission, so much was now at stake. I become more aware that Jesus’ hosts were not usually easy for Jesus to be with, either. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner was unwilling to see that the core of religious truth – ‘justice and the love of God’, as Jesus expresses it in this passage – was being eroded by the practices and attitudes the Pharisees espoused. A few minutes later in this scene, the lawyers will also begin to feel attacked, and they say so: ‘Master, when you speak like that you insult us, too’ (11:45). And, instead of backing off, Jesus uses even stronger language: ‘Alas for you lawyers as well, because you load on people burdens that are unendurable….’

This all could have been very different, though. And not primarily because Jesus might have tried to be nicer. No, despite my discomfort, I suddenly realise that I emphatically do not want a nice, compliant Jesus.

What do I want? Let’s ponder this question for a day. What do you want from Jesus? Tomorrow we’ll resume our reflection.

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3 February: ‘Choose the World You Want Festival’.

The Fairtrade festival is coming up this month:

Fairtrade, climate and you

Join our free virtual festival to hear why winning a fairer deal for farmers and workers is critical in tackling the climate crisis.

Throughout Fairtrade Fortnight (22 February to 7 March), the festival will feature:

  • • Farmers and workers from around the world explaining why they need to earn more to survive a climate crisis that is already hurting their communities
  • • Discussions between farmers, other experts and famous faces about what we need to do to choose a better future
  • • Music, art and entertainment, from all corner of our passionate and talented global Fairtrade community
  • • Fun interactive workshops on sustainable living here in the UK.

This Festival will be an exciting part of our Fairtrade Fortnight (22 February – 7 March) celebrations this year.

Sign-up for free today to get all the festival details

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16 December: Generous II

From Saiint Davids Cathedral

Part II of Sister Johanna’s reflection on our generous creator and father in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Thank you once again, Sister!

Yesterday we were looking at the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt.20:1-16), and we meditated on how God the Father, represented by the vineyard owner, searches for us ceaselessly. Today I would like to look at what happens when the time comes for the workers to be paid. .

Looking at this parable of Jesus strictly from the point of view of how to run a business, it is not a very cogent treatment of the subject, as yesterday’s post pointed out. Economics do not figure, for Jesus. Or rather, Jesus seems to be making the point that the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom are completely different from all others. Likewise, the justice of the Kingdom is emphatically not what we would expect. It was this latter point that always tripped me up when I was younger. The older I get, the less this trips me up, but let’s explore it anyway.

It used to be that when I read this parable, I would feel sorry for the workers hired in the morning, who worked hard all day long (as they are at pains to point out) ‘in all the heat’. Bad luck for them, I’d think, when the late-comers slouch in to receive their salary, and it comes out that the late ones are being paid as much as those hired early in the day. Because if the early group had known that this would happen, they could have slept late, and then strolled out to the marketplace for a few beers, and then pulled a pathetic face when the vineyard owner walked by, begged for a job, worked an hour and made a small bundle.

But I don’t think like that any longer. Age, life-experience, and self-knowledge have changed my perspective. My first thought now on reading the vineyard owner’s question, ‘Why are you envious because I am generous?’ is “Lord, I am not envious because you are generous. Relief is all I feel.” Many kinds of relief. Let’s start with the question of “when.” I learn here that the Lord ‘hires’ into the life of grace according to a timing that is entirely his own affair. This consoles me when I pray for people who do not seem to be in the Lord’s employ. I sometimes ponder the mystery of why some souls do not seem to know the Lord, or even want to know him, cannot seem to see that those who work in his vineyard are blessed beyond telling – the whole thing seems alien to them, even empty, delusional, ridiculous. But, in this parable I find that the question of when is simply not my problem, with regard to other souls. It is entirely the Lord’s prerogative to hire according to timing that only he understands, but is unquestionably right for those whom he hires. The thing to remember, the thing that gives me comfort here, is that he goes out and looks for us, as we saw in yesterday’s post. Repeatedly. Until the eleventh hour.

Then there is the matter of what this vineyard really stands for in the parable*. I like to think of the vineyard as heaven. In this interpretation, our Lord wants us to know that heaven is not a place where its inmates sit around and spend all their time singing alleluias: they work. St Therese used to say, ‘I’ll spend my heaven doing good on earth’. I think she would support this view of the vineyard. So, how wonderful that those who are ‘hired’ late in life, who late in life find the Lord and, late, learn to love him, may hope to be admitted as workers in the heavenly vineyard, along with those who received their working papers as young children. What a relief! I cannot be envious of the vineyard owner’s generosity here.

If the vineyard also stands for the life of grace on earth, which it probably does, well and good. To ‘work’ there is our joy, our greatest joy on earth. This is what makes the complaints of the workers in this parable so wrong-headed. For them, life in the vineyard is one big grind, evidently, its work something they want to do as little of as possible so that they can spend the rest of their time… doing what, exactly? Loafing about? (How boring). Living an exciting life of sin? (How addictive and miserable). Making money, becoming famous, and playing power games with people in order to get ahead? (Ditto). Doing what they want when they want? (Ok for a short time, but ultimately, no). What they don’t seem to get is that the life of grace is itself the ‘payment’. One of our deepest human and spiritual needs, after the need for love, is the need for meaning. A life in the Lord’s vineyard fulfils both needs, gives us both love and meaning. This is our payment – and this is why everyone who works for this vineyard owner receives the same payment.

Finally, there is a third reason why this parable no longer bothers me anymore. You might say that I am in the category of those who were hired early in the day. But how many of us from that category can claim, by the time we reach, let’s call it, a “mature” age, to have been faithful at every moment? Have we all worked straight through the day in all the heat? Really? Or did we occasionally lapse, flake out, slack off, waste time at the water cooler? Perhaps we are still there, in flake-out mode. Are we afraid to return to the vineyard, afraid of what the owner will say to us? This parable allows us to hope that the Lord may be generous with his mercy to us, also.

SJC.

Note:

*Scholarly treatments of this parable usually say that the vineyard stands for the covenant; those first called stand for the Jewish people, privileged since Abraham’s time. The Lord opens up the membership, invites the world in, offers them everything. The first called have no right to be jealous of this.

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16 September: Skeleton in the cupboard

The society is heavy with unconfessed sins; its mind is sore and silent with painful subjects; it has a constipation of conscience. There are many things it has done and allowed to be done which it does not really dare to think about; it calls them by other names and tries to talk itself into faith in a false past, as men make up the things they would have said in a quarrel. Of these sins one lies buried deepest but most noisome, and though it is stifled, stinks: the true story of the relations of the rich man and the poor in England. The half-starved English proletarian is not only nearly a skeleton but he is a skeleton in a cupboard.

From Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton

GKC was writing a century ago; he would surely have hoped, if not expected, that working – or willing to work – people would not have needed to use food banks to feed their families. One thing that concerns me about the Black Lives Matter campaign is its potential to divide people, poor people especially. When West Indians’ ancestors were slaves, some of mine were nominally free, but ground down by poverty, their land enclosed and stolen by the rich. Far better than being liable to be sold but definitely not to be spoken about in our constipated national condition. Things only changed through pressure and legislation such as the Factories Acts.

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15 September: After Slavery; what then?

Latest News from Fairtrade Foundation.
This post follows naturally from our series on Slavery: has abolition made everything right? No.
We are sharing a bulletin from the Fair Trade Foundation that explores this continuing injustice; the first paragraph follows, with a link to the main article.
For a long time, most sugar sold in the UK was grown using slave labour in British colonies. Direct action from enslaved people, determined campaigning and a mass consumer movement won historic changes in the 1800s, which mean, thankfully, this is no longer the case. But sugar – like many other Fairtrade staples – remains a multi-million pound industry. One that condemns too many farmers and workers in former colonies to extreme poverty.
READ DE-COLONISING TRADE

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10 September: Wesley on Slavery, X; legal arguments against slavery

Wesley turns to the scholar of English Common Law,    Sir William Blackstone.

I cannot place this in a clearer light than that great ornament of his profession, Judge Blackstone, has already done. Part of his words are as follows: —    “The three origins of the right of slavery assigned by Justinian, are all built upon false foundations:

(1.) Slavery is said to arise from captivity in war. The conqueror having a right to the life of his captives, if he spares that, has then a right to deal with them as he pleases. But this is untrue, if taken generally, — that, by the laws of nations, a man has a right to kill his enemy. He has only a right to kill him in particular cases, in cases of absolute necessity for self-defence. And it is plain, this absolute necessity did not subsist, since he did not kill him, but made him prisoner. War itself is justifiable only on principles of self-preservation: Therefore it gives us no right over prisoners, but to hinder their hurting us by confining them. Much less can it give a right to torture, or kill, or even to enslave an enemy when the war is over. Since therefore the right of making our prisoners slaves, depends on a supposed right of slaughter, that foundation failing, the consequence which is drawn from it must fail likewise.    “It is said, Secondly, slavery may begin by one man’s selling himself to another.

And it is true, a man may sell himself to work for another; but he cannot sell himself to be a slave, as above defined. Every sale implies an equivalent given to the seller, in lieu of what he transfers to the buyer. But what equivalent can be given for life or liberty? His property likewise, with the very price which he seems to receive, devolves ipso facto to his master, the instant he becomes his slave: In this case, therefore, the buyer gives nothing, and the seller receives nothing. Of what validity then can a sale be, which destroys the very principle upon which all sales are founded?   

“We are told, Thirdly, that men may be born slaves, by being the children of slaves. But this, being built upon the two former rights, must fall together with them. If neither captivity nor contract can, by the plain law of nature and reason, reduce the parent to a state of slavery, much less can they reduce the offspring.” It clearly follows, that all slavery is as irreconcilable to justice as to mercy.

That slave-holding is utterly inconsistent with mercy, is almost too plain to need a proof. Indeed, it is said, “that these Negroes being prisoners of war, our captains and factors buy them, merely to save them from being put to death. And is not this mercy?” I answer,

(1.) Did Sir John Hawkins, and many others, seize upon men, women, and children, who were at peace in their own fields or houses, merely to save them from death?

(2.) Was it to save them from death, that they knocked out the brains of those they could not bring away?

(3.) Who occasioned and fomented those wars, wherein these poor creatures were taken prisoners? Who excited them by money, by drink, by every possible means, to fall upon one another? Was it not themselves? They know in their own conscience it was, if they have any conscience left.

But, (4.) To bring the matter to a short issue, can they say before God, that they ever took a single voyage, or bought a single Negro, from this motive? They cannot; they well know, to get money, not to save lives, was the whole and sole spring of their motions.

Sir William Blackstone was a judge and scholar of English Common Law. Image in public domain, via Wikipedia.

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9 September: Wesley on Slavery IX:an Angolan has the same rights …

Slave ship from a XIX Century Methodist history

Wesley now appeals to the Natural Law, beloved of Catholic moral theology, as opposed to human law.

The grand plea is, “They are authorized by law.” But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, or evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still. There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy. So that I still ask, Who can reconcile this treatment of the Negroes, first and last, with either mercy or justice?

   Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong? of depriving those that never injured us in word or deed, of every comfort of life? of tearing them from their native country, and depriving them of liberty itself, to which an Angolan has the same natural right as an Englishman, and on which he sets as high a value? Yea, where is the justice of taking away the lives of innocent, inoffensive men; murdering thousands of them in their own land, by the hands of their own countrymen; many thousands, year after year, on shipboard, and then casting them like dung into the sea; and tens of thousands in that cruel slavery to which they are so unjustly reduced?

But waving, for the present, all other considerations, I strike at the root of this complicated villainy; I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.

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