By the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst | Collage by Jesse N. Love*
Note: This week, clergy and laity from the PNWUMC will be sharing letters in the style of Bishop Woodie White celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Each letter will express some of the ideas, frustrations, questions and hopes from representatives in the PNW. Follow these letters here at The PNW News Blog!
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;
–the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recently I watched the cell phone video of a white woman in Kentucky who spewed racist invective against two Latinas in front of her in a JCPenney line. Watching it left me frustrated and furious and I wanted to throw the blame for her behavior in every direction but my own. Worse, she seemed to believe that the silent whites surrounding her shared her point of view. It seemed in their silence that they did.
As I watched I wondered yet again how is it that we, the white moderate, have failed at restorative or prophetic justice so completely. It is as if there is something deep in the white brand that makes it all too easy for us to just stand by and watch.
There is a Jewish proverb that the angel of justice flies, but with just one wing. When I first read that, I thought it was a humorous way to name just how slow the process of justice can be. Yes, the proverb seems to suggest, God keeps God’s covenant—eventually.
A perfect example of this is the story of the Unjust Judge. In that story the widow who had been swindled of her estate shows up in the court room day after day to demand justice. She achieves justice eventually, but not on the merit of her case. She gains justice only because the unjust judge wants her to stop plaguing him. The judge is either incapable or unwilling to wring morality from the amoral system over which he presides. Her case has made the immoral law visible.
This widow is one of a number of figures in the Bible—including Jesus himself—who engage in what Dr. King might call ‘extremist’ nonviolent direct action. The drama of the widow’s cry of suffering day after day is extreme, perhaps, in that it causes others to be uncomfortable. Yet its effect, one would hope, is to make the injustice visible to even the dullest bystander.
However slowly, then, eventually, the angel of justice lands and there is peace.
The proverb changes its meaning when handled a little differently. In another interpretation, it is the angel of vengeance who flies with one wing. The explanation here by John Norris is that this angel flies slowly not because the angel is disobedient or lazy but because God is slow to carry out vengeance—slow to wrath—in order to give those involved every opportunity to repent and be saved.
As Erich Zenger would remind us, vengeance is not justice. Justice comes about through good and moral laws. Vengeance happens outside the law when the law has ceased to serve the moral good. A cry for Vengeance is the cry of suffering when oppression bubbles over to the point where God’s very self and covenant is drawn into question. The demand is for satisfaction, for release from suffering. Left with no hope for peace, the vengeful demand to know why justice itself has failed.
Justice failed in Kentucky as surely as it failed in Birmingham. Justice is in a state of abject failure all across our country. Our laws are not God’s laws. We fail to protect the alien, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or provide hospitality to the stranger. Mass incarceration, resource exploitation, and rampant corporate corruption is what the law protects instead of people, communities, and the precious gift of water.
And in the face of all of this we as moderate whites are in a state of paralysis that accuses us of a nicey-nice ineffectual faith that seems so afraid of failing that looking away is our next best option. Instead of being the obedient agents of God’s laws, we are instead a gaggle of bystanders content to simply watch and ignore while the drama and suffering of the widow plays out.
We have fully lost track of the proper course of moral law. We are content to believe that personal salvation exempts us from the guilt of our complicity in the collective trauma where our own communities and communities of color intersect.
Meanwhile the cry of the sufferer continues and the one-winged angel is on-coming.
Lord, avenging God— avenging God, show yourself! Rise up, judge of the earth! Pay back the arrogant exactly what they deserve! How long will the wicked—oh, Lord!—how long will the wicked win? They spew arrogant words;all the evildoers are bragging. They crush your own people, Lord! They abuse your very own possession. They kill widows and immigrants; they murder orphans, saying all the while, “The Lord can’t see it; Jacob’s God doesn’t know what’s going on!”
Dr. King, thank you for your letter. I write as a member of the white church and I confess you are right. Too often we are a “weak, ineffectual” church with an “uncertain sound.” I wish to reclaim a robust and moral faith. In so doing I must first ask myself what you once asked all of us, Who is your God?
The Rev. Richenda Fairhurst serves at Camas United Methodist Church.
*Collage images, courtesy of their respective authors: