A Jig of Justice

Preached on Sunday, July 21, 2013 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

Readings for the 6th and 15th Sundays after Pentecost:
Amos 8:1-12: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds
Luke 16:1-13: You cannot serve God and wealth
The Mundaka Upanishad 2:2-4: All separateness will fall away

Our first song went to number one on the U.S. Hot Soul Singles in 1973 for singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder. Higher Ground appeared on his album Innerversions. Let’s try it:

People keep on learnin’
Soldiers keep on warrin’
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long
Powers keep on lyin’
While your people keep on dyin’
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long

[Chorus] I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach the highest ground

“This is where he will die.”

This is what the older, haggard looking white woman said as she caressed the stainless steel of the table where the man who killed her son would soon be put to death.

“This is where he will die.” Her voice was eerily flat, but also full of passionate anticipation and yearning. She passed her hands over the table several times taking in the smooth chill of the stainless steel and looking at it lovingly and longingly as she repeated these words: “This is where he will die.”

I saw this mother stroke the table where her son’s killer would be put to death as I watched a special many years ago on HBO. The show followed the family of the victim as their family member’s murderer inched closer to his date with death. She got to see the death chamber the day before the scheduled execution as part of a tour the prison officials gave to the family.

Watching this woman ruminate with a mixture of satisfaction and bloodlust sent a chill up my spine. On one hand, I can understand her thirst for vengeance. If someone I loved was taken from me in cold blood, I could be that woman, lovingly running my hands over the very spot where that sorry sack of flesh would breathe his last breath.

I would probably be quoting God’s words spoken by the prophet Amos who saw so much injustice and criminal activity being committed by the people of Israel: “I will never forget any of their deeds … I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”

Oh, and make no mistake, this was a bitter day for this woman as she mourned her only son. Again, some part of me, probably a pretty big part of me, not only sympathizes, but empathizes. We are a bloodthirsty lot, we human beings. No matter how evolved we like to think we are, sometimes an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth sounds exactly like the justice we want – even if everyone is left toothless and blind.

On the other hand, I was horrified by this woman, especially later in the show as they head out to witness the execution. They get caught up in a traffic jam caused by construction on the highway. In that moment, the woman loses her mind because she fears she may be late and miss seeing this man die.

Let that sink in for just a moment. She was beside herself in that moment when she believed that she might miss the chance to see another human being die. My question in that moment was this: What makes her any better than her son’s killer – who may have also relished seeing her son take his last breath?

Teachers keep on teachin’
Preachers keep on preachin’
World keep on turnin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long
Lovers keep on lovin’
Believers keep on believin’
Sleepers just stop sleepin’
‘Cause it won’t be too long

[Chorus] I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach my highest ground
Till I reach my highest ground
No one’s gonna bring me down
Oh no
Till I reach my highest ground
Don’t you let nobody bring you down

That woman and her family, if they had the chance, would probably dance on the grave of that man who robbed them of their son – and they would believe it to be a jig of justice. Of course, there’s another family involved in this whole tragedy – the family that was about to lose their son to a form of legalized murder sanctioned and carried out by the state and federal government. This newly bereaved family would not recognize this dance as a jig of justice – but instead would most likely seek mercy for their son – hoping that might bring real justice to a tragic situation.

Despite the tragedy swirling around them, both sides were seeking that higher ground – that ground of justice where they could feel that their needs had been addressed, that their grief had been acknowledged, and perhaps they could finally find some closure and release from the nightmare that both sides were living through.

But, justice looked very different for each family – and it’s something the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos understood. When we see others committing a wrong act – a sin, if you will – we feel justified meting out punishment, or seeing punishment meted out to that person.

In most of the book of Amos, the prophet lists the crimes of Israel’s enemies – the atrocities and injustices that had been committed against God’s chosen people. Amos also outlined the jig of justice they could do when God brought his wrath down on these horrible sinners. Hearing about how God would take vengeance on their enemies made the Israelites happy. If they could have caressed the place where their enemies would meet their final fate, they probably would have jumped at the chance, just as this mother had done.

But, Amos isn’t finished with his oracle from God. After lashing Israel’s enemies, he turns on Israel itself.

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” Amos begins, and his listeners realize, the prophet isn’t talking about their enemies anymore, he’s talking about them – how they cheat one another, how they lie and steal from one another, how they allow their own greed for wealth and power lead them to treat one another the same or worse than their enemies would ever dream.

Their punishment will be great, he says: famine, thirst, mourning, wandering. They will seek for justice, but they will not find it – because just like this woman caressing the death table in the prison – they have lost their sense of justice.

They think justice means vengeance. They think justice means getting even. They think justice is taking joy in the misfortune, and even the death of your enemy – and all the better if you get a front row seat to watch them as they die.

What Amos is telling ancient Israel, and tells us still today, is this: we’re all guilty. Not one of us truly understands what justice is all about anymore. Whenever we can take joy in the death of anyone – even if they have taken someone as precious as a son from us – we have missed the point – we have failed to reach that higher ground. We may want to dance a jig – but it won’t be one of justice. It will be one of revenge.

We may not experience a literal famine or drought in the land for our sins – but there will be a famine and drought in our own souls as our hatred and thirst for revenge consumes us from the inside out. Even as a society we see this famine and drought already taking hold and destroying us as a nation as we harden our hearts to one another and identify with our tribes of right and left or conservative and liberal.

The good news is this: God always lets us try again to get this jig of justice right. No matter how many lives of sin we may live – the opportunity is always there to make it right – to dance not just a jig of justice, but the foxtrot of forgiveness.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from our favorite Georgia duo, the Indigo Girls. Moment of Forgiveness is the first track on their 2002 album Become You. Let’s try it:

Well I guess that I was lonely
That’s why I called you on the phone
Cause in a moment of forgiveness
I didn’t want to be alone
And I guess that I was willing
More than I ever was before
Cause in a moment of forgiveness
I come a knockin at your door

[Chorus] Baby I woke up crying last night
Just to realize that you were gone
Has it been two long years without you
Tell me now when are you gonna come home

In 1993, Mary Johnson’s 20-year-old son was shot and killed at a party in Minneapolis. He got into a fight with a drug dealer and gang member Oshea Israel, who went to prison for the crime. One of Israel’s visitors while he was in prison was Mary Johnson.

Johnson told Israel that when she visited she “wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of that I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you.” But, she told him, he was not that 16-year-old that killed her son. Instead, she said, “you were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”

In that sharing, Israel said, her son became human to him, and before Johnson left the prison, she hugged Israel. In that instant, she said, she forgave Israel for taking her son. Now, Israel lives right next door to Johnson, and has become like a son to her. She tells him she wants to see him graduate college and get married, since she can’t see her own son do that.

Her faith in him, Israel says, makes him want to reach those goals as well.

This is the heart of our Jesus story, which features one of the most convoluted parables – that of the unjust manager. This manager had been charged with mismanaging a rich man’s money and is fired – but now he’s in a quandary. He’s acted as this rich guy’s manager, so he hasn’t won many friends among the workers. Now that he’s on their level, he has to come up with a way to get on good terms with them, or face their wrath. So, one by one, he asks them what they owe and then reduces their debt.

Now, they’re thinking this manager is a great and magnanimous guy – but when the master gets wind of his fired manager doing something he’s not authorized to do – it’s his turn to make a decision. Will he now go back to these workers and make them pay the remaining debt, or will he honor his fired manager’s new deals?

At the heart of this story is forgiveness. The manager actually forgave the debts of the rich man’s debtors – something he had no right to do. The question was, would the master back him up and also be forgiving?

This mother, really, did not have the right to forgive her son’s killer. Only her son had the power do that – but since, like the rich landowner, he’s not here to act on his own behalf, his mother feels that she’s doing the right thing by taking this duty upon herself. She has a choice – she can continue to want to hurt the man who took her son away – or she can forgive. Either way, the outcome is the same – she remains without her son.

But, Mary Johnson believes that she has the blessing of her son to extend this kind of selflessness and forgiveness to a man she sees as someone who made a mistake while caught up in a life of drugs and gangs. She has seen her forgiveness help to transform this man’s life.

We don’t know how to react to this kind of forgiveness, because we can hardly fathom doing it if we were in Mary Johnson’s shoes. Israel can hardly believe it either.

“Sometimes I still don’t know how to take it,” he says, “because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet.”

No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells his audience. We can’t serve the master of revenge while we seek to do a jig of justice. Breathe deeply.

Guess that I was hoping
That you’d finally understand
And in a moment of forgiveness
You’d reach out and take my hand
Now baby I know,
You’re not one for bearing witness
And you told me that
One wrong move is going to sell you out
And I see that you kept your word
And made it harder than it had to be
Wish I could save you the trouble baby
Give you a little piece of mind

What Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel are doing is something called “restorative justice.” It’s a form of justice where both the victim and their offender work together to come to some point of restoration and wholeness for both of them.

Will this form of justice undo what’s been done? Right a wrong or bring back a dead family member? No, of course not. The murder, the theft, the assault, whatever the crime is, cannot be undone. But, by coming together in dialogue, the offender begins to understand the harm he has caused, while the victim, and the community or family hurt by the crime, can come to a point of closure, healing or at least understanding.

Not all cases end like Johnson’s, where a killer is welcomed like a family member, but studies have shown that it can reduce fear and anger on both sides of the offense. Instead of caressing the table where an offender will die, perhaps this first mother, given a chance to experience restorative justice, would fight to prevent the execution of her son’s killer – because she would realize that watching this man die will not ultimately bring justice – or give her a final sense of peace.

Like the manager and the master both discovered, true peace – true justice – only comes through forgiveness – even when that forgiveness is unmerited – and even if we don’t really have the authority to bestow it. Because, what this parable teaches us is this: when we forgive, we are forgiven.

The master – if he, indeed, represents God in this parable – backs us up when we forgive others. Remember, Jesus taught us to pray for God to forgive our debts, as we forgive the debts of others. We cannot be truly forgiven unless we make that first move and forgive others. In that moment of forgiveness, as the Upanishads tell us, “all separateness will fall away,” because in forgiving we realize we are all one – all contained in that Self of the Holy. We all exist as part of the same ground of being, and forgiveness is how we heal our broken relationships to one another.

Forgiveness, though, isn’t easy – even if the crime committed against us isn’t as horrible as a murder. We often find it hard to forgive even the smallest transgression against us. But, as this parable tells us – forgiveness really isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. We have to be able to live peaceably in this world – and we can only do it through true justice – through forgiveness.

Holding on to our feelings of vengeance and refusing to forgive, however, is like caressing the table on death row – we make it all harder than it has to be. Hoping to see those who have offended us get their comeuppance is like taking rat poison and hoping the rat dies. That’s not justice – that’s vengeance, and it never really hurts anyone but ourselves.

There’s not one of us here who does not need to do some forgiving. There’s not one of us here who does not need a little forgiveness. We are all longing for the courage to forgive those who have hurt us and truly let go of our anger and thirst for vengeance. We are all also longing for someone to reach out and take our hand in a moment of forgiveness.

And when those hands are extended across the divide of offense, that’s when we reach that higher ground and come together to dance a true jig of justice.

[Chorus] Baby I woke up crying last night
Just to realize that you were gone
It’s been two long years without you
When are you gonna come home
Guess that I was hopin
That you’d finally understand
And in a moment of forgiveness
You’d reach out and take my hand
And in a moment of forgiveness
You’d reach out and take my hand

Oh, Yeah!