Responding to injustice

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Here’s the reflection from today’s Communion service, focussing partly on our response to the shocking death of George Floyd. You can also see a personal video message from the Vice Chancellor with his own response here.

The reading was from the prophet Jeremiah:

To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed so that they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
But I am full of the anger of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in.

‘Pour it out on the children in the street and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it, and the old, those weighed down with years.
Their houses will be turned over to others, together with their fields and their wives,
when I stretch out my hand against those who live in the land,’ declares the Lord .
‘From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike, all practise deceit.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,’ says the Lord.

That reading from Jeremiah is angry. It can’t have been easy for people to hear his message. The people wanted a message of peace – but Jeremiah knew that because of the injustices in their society, there was no real peace.

When I first heard about the protests over the death of George Floyd I was saddened by what had happened, but also resistant to being drawn in emotionally. I’m not keen generally on joining in with the popular outpourings of anger and scorn about events in the US which people seem to delight in, and which seem beyond any possible influence from me.

And maybe I also don’t want my own peace to be disturbed by angry messages. I like my times of quiet. I’m trying to learn to be more calm. I like the lovely fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self control. Nothing to upset me there.

But as Paul reminds Timothy in his letter, God does not give us a Spirit of timidity. Throughout the bible we see a less gentle and restrained Spirit at work – speaking out through the words and actions of prophets like Jeremiah, and speaking out too in the life of Jesus. I have a collection of pictures of Jesus from different place – Jesus surrounded by birds and animals, Jesus on the cross, Jesus on a wanted poster, Jesus laughing… The one that no-one ever likes is ‘The Angry Christ’ – Jesus pointing in fury, brows furrowed, eyes bulging. Not so meek and mild. Quite unsettling – as it must have been when Jesus overturned the tables in the temple or confronted the hypocrites.

Maybe over the last few days amongst the protests and the comments we have been hearing the voice of this Spirit – furious about racist, passionate for justice, full of anguish about the situation. The brutal and shocking video footage of the killing of George Floyd has unlocked a deeply held sense of injustice and the need for change, for those who feel this most personally and for many others.

Maybe allowing ourselves to really hear those voices of protest can also open something up in us. It’s easy for layers of comfortable complacency and detached spirituality to build up around us without us realising. When these are cracked open a little, we are forced to confront the injustice and suffering that exists in the world, and the systems that allow this, to which we belong.

That uncomfortable awareness may draw us to engage more deeply in this particular issue, or it may remind us that Black Lives Matter because all lives matter – and we need to notice especially the lives which are given less value. These may be the lives of Afro American people in the US, or of black and ethnic minority people in this country, disproportionately affected by Covid 19, targeted by conscious or unconscious racism, or restricted by deeply embedded inequalities.

It might also make us think about the lives of rough sleepers, as councils plead with central government for more money to stop them being turned out of their temporary lockdown accommodation and back onto the street.  Or it might make us think about the lives of millions of children in parts of the world at risk from preventable diseases now because of the pausing of vaccination programmes during the pandemic. Or it might make us think about many others dying in parts of the world that are less like our country and so less reported, either from the virus or through other disease, hunger or poverty.

Many of this morning’s front pages focus on just one life – the tragic case of Madeleine McCann. The devastation felt by her parents, the determination to find the truth, the longing for justice – these are appropriate for every single person who dies as a result of wrongdoing, whether it is by one person, or through the failure of countries like ours and people like us to take action when we have the resources to do so.

If we have allowed the tragedy and injustice and anger get to us, then what do we do with it? Rage at the TV? Pour out our feelings on social media? Join a demonstration?

There is a place for protest and for lament. But it may be that we are being called to stay in this uncomfortable place for a while and simply listen. Hear the hurt and the anger. Let the comfortable layers round us be cracked up. Allow our hearts to be deeply moved. And listen to the Spirit. The Spirit not just of gentle breath but of fire and wind. Where is our passion being engaged? What are we being blown towards? What might God be calling us to do?

It will be different for each of us – and it may begin where we are. Jesus didn’t rail against the Roman Empire, but he did challenge, with his words and actions, the powerful religious vested interests that were oppressing people in the place where he lived.

I have a small suggestion. Tonight at 8pm we would usually have been clapping for our carers – but it was suggested that last week should be the last time. So maybe at 8pm instead we could keep a few minutes silence, and sit quietly, and allow ourselves to be open to the reality of injustice and suffering in the world, and listen for God’s call to us to work with him for justice and for peace. And pray for the Spirit to show us how he is calling each of us to respond.

So let us bring this to God now, in our prayers:

  • God of justice, your overflowing love for each person is deeply wounded when we treat some lives as if they matter less. May the outpouring of anger over the death of George Floyd lead to real change in America, through the wider recognition of racism and injustice, and new and lasting steps towards their abolition.
  • God of love, you suffer with the suffering. As we think of the many millions suffering in our world, and of those known to us, we pray for your spirit of healing and compassion to be at work through human lives that are open to you. May we not turn away from the need we see, or be overwhelmed by it, but be led into ways that we can respond, with your help.
  • Passionate God, keep our hearts open to your longing care for all people. Open the ears of our hearts, that we may hear your call in our lives and lead us by your Spirit so that we may see your kingdom of love grow among us and through us.

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