“Alright, Then, I’ll Go To Hell”

“Alright, Then, I’ll Go To Hell”

Glynn Cardy 23rd October 2022

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, with I suspect more faith than certainty, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I wonder if he was alive today, and seeing the incarceration of so many black men, and the police shooting of so many black people, and the backward laws of so many states making it harder for black Americans to vote, whether he’d still have that sense of optimism.  I suspect so.

Justice is like the word love.  It can be defined in all sorts of ways.  Catching the ‘bad guy’ and locking him up can be seen as justice.  Legislation to build bigger prisons can be seen as justice.  Laws to right past wrongs can be seen as justice.  There is retributive justice, procedural justice, and restorative justice.  There are institutions of justice, and the dreams of justice.

King’s dream of justice, being shaped by both the reading of the Bible and the racism of America, I suspect was similar to the redistributive idea of justice we find in the Scriptures.  Isaiah 58: ‘Is this not what I choose (says God) to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?”

Which is all to say that justice is more than looking on your neighbour kindly, or ridding your country of ‘whites only’ restaurants and restrooms (whether they have a sign up or not), or having schools and hospitals that serve everyone in the community.  It is about breaking the ‘yokes’ that shackle people of colour, women, and minorities into dependency or low paying jobs, poor food and health, poor housing, poor options, generation after generation.  Justice is about politics, the economy, the way power is shared (or not), and the way privilege is shared (or not).  It’s no wonder that King’s critics labelled him with that favourite of American insults: ‘communist’.  

The difference between John Baptist and Jesus was about how they understood justice.  John looked around him and saw what the Romans were doing.  He looked at the violence, and the taxation, and systems of oppression – including poverty – that were imposed on non-Romans.  And so, he began a movement where people came to the Jordan River, went through a baptismal rite of commitment, and then waited for an apocalyptic Messiah to come ‘down’ from God to destroy the Romans and liberate Israel/Palestine.  Justice involved retribution (killing Romans and their lackeys), then restoration (Jewish communities again determining and controlling their own lives), to be led by this off-the-planet fiery, purging and burning, Messiah.  John’s followers would look on and applaud.

But this John the Baptist justice never came.  Sure, some would-be Messiah’s in the 1st century took up the sword, including Judas of Galilee, Theudas, Simon of Peraea, and Athronges.  All of whom were short-lived.

For Jesus the justice of God had already arrived.  His optimism was much greater than Martin Luther King’s!  Justice was here in our midst but hard to see.  To illustrate this, he told the Parable of the Mustard Seed where the sower chooses to plant this tiny little, and potentially dangerous, seed.  The sower is planting justice.  Justice that is hard to control for those who like things the way they are.

The metaphor works when you know something about mustard shrubs.  They were considered noxious in the ancient world.  A nuisance.  Usually windblown, they would arrive in your field or garden and you would have a devil of a job trying to get rid of them.  If you wanted to plant mustard (as in the parable) you would plant in a carefully controlled environment like a pot.  Even then your neighbours would blame you if the wind picked up the seeds and mustard was transplanted into their gardens.

The other thing about the mustard shrub is that it doesn’t grow into a mighty looking tree with large branches.  This part of the parable is deliberately mixing the mustard metaphor with the great cedars of Lebanon metaphor – the cedars being long used in Hebrew literature to symbolize strength, resilience, and success.  By mixing mustard and cedar Jesus is trying to upend what we think of as strength, resilience, and success.  Maybe its what we see as a tiny nuisance that should have these accolades.

So, justice is here, says Jesus.  It’s tiny.  It’s not what you expect.  It’s a nuisance.  And we participate in its planting.  We collaborate with God to make it come about.   As Dom Crossan says, John the Baptist understood God’s justice as an intrusion for which humans could hope, but not participate in except by acceptance.  But for Jesus God’s justice involved human and divine collaboration.

And justice, in the Jesus way, was, like planting, a normal, familiar, everyday process that didn’t involve a parting of the clouds, a blinding light, or a heavenly voice.  Like with planting, watering, and tending a shrub, we cooperated with a force beyond our own strengths and abilities, to bring about justice’s growth.

I met a woman the other day at the shops who I’ve known for many years.  She’s headed up significant charitable organisations and given her time generously to many, including her local parish church.  I asked about her minister.  “He’s Māori, full-blooded,” she said.  “But he’s a very nice man.”

Leaving aside the assumptions about culture and DNA, and the antiquated painful way some Pākehā use terms like “full-blooded”, it was the ‘But’ that hit me.  ‘He’s Māori… but he’s nice.’  As if being Māori and being nice don’t belong together.

Now some friends, using the current idiom, might say ‘Call her out Glynn’.  Which means stop right there and confront her with her words.  Of course, she might say, ‘Oh, that’s not what I meant’.  But that is how the injustice of racism works.  It lingers below the surface, and then seeps or peeps out, often without us meaning it to.  For a person to address and try to change what’s under the surface takes deliberate conscious effort.  And help.

The confronting approach has its uses but I suspect it does more for the one confronting than the one being confronted.  In the confronted it can produce wariness, or resentment, or a resistance to change.  And change – change that’s embraced and then celebrated and then collaborated with – is what justice wants. 

So, I approach this like a gardener with a mustard seed.  How do I create the conditions, prepare the soil, and choose the time, to drop a little seed into her consciousness, that has a chance of being accepted, and chance that others might join in watering and nurturing?  That day, at that time, at those shops, was not planting time.  I think seeing the stunned look on my face might have been enough.

Every day, I, and I suspect most of you, are preparing, planting, and nurturing these seeds of wild justice.  In the little things we say.  In the encouragements we give.  In commending the actions and understandings of others.  To confront racism effectively takes effort from us all collectively.

And the Church, generally and historically speaking, hasn’t done well when it comes to growing justice.  Too often we have sided with the power, whether political or fiscal, that wants things to remain the same.  That is with insiders in and outsiders out.  Too often we have overlooked that the person at the gate asking to be included is of a race or culture other than our own.  He or she is not like us, and must have got the wrong address or wants something from us.  Too often we conduct our business, make our rules, draft our theology, and proclaim our ethics in the language and ways of our dominant culture, and in the gendered ways of our culture.

Our first reading today is an extract from Mark Twain’s 1876 novel Huckleberry Finn.  Twain, a Presbyterian, was born and raised in Missouri, the setting of this novel, and a Southern Confederate state. 

In this extract where Huck is weighing in his conscience whether to hand over to the authorities the runaway slave Jim, there are two voices he hears.  One is the voice of what his world calls justice.  And the Church at that time called justice.  To obey the law.  To obey his Sunday School teacher.  To not sin.  To want people, respected adults, to think well of him.  To not be consigned to the everlasting fire of Hell which he believed in.  And that voice says, ‘Dob him in’.

Then there is the other voice.  The voice of good memories, the voice of kindnesses, the voice of gratitude.  All of which he’d experienced from and with Jim.  With Jim the black runaway slave.

When you think of the strength of the first voice (upbringing, authorities, God, pleasing adults, the threat of hell) it’s a miracle he listened to the deep rhythm within him and chose the latter.  “He ripped up the letter” and in a brilliant theological statement of faith said, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

Twain is sowing in this book seeds of a subversive hope, in particular that the de-humanizing and heretical institution of slavery might come to an end.  Because it is what feels right in the heart.  Twain is collaborating with justice.

We try to be just.  To find a medium of experience and have the courage of Twain.  We sometimes succeed, and oftentimes fail.  We listen for that song calling us to justice’s vision, and that knock on the door offering justice’s practicalities. 

So, we try.  We join together and try.  We pick each other up when we fail, and then we try again.  And we block out old theologies and knock out new ones.  We discard the God of privilege and ‘chosen’ peoples and pictures of a white Jesus and ‘always obey the law’ mantras.  We ‘go to hell’ in some people’s eyes, as we try to earth a little of heaven’s justice.

But, you know, let’s not be too hard on ourselves.  Let’s have the confidence of King and Jesus that the arc of the universe bends towards justice.  That there’s a wind that picks up those seeds from shrubs we have helped plant, and blows them where it will.  Hundreds, thousands, millions of little subversive seeds singing a song of justice, and making it real.  And we join with that song in that mighty chorus, and we join in making justice real.