The transcendent image of a resurrected Christ shines with liberation, even from death, with a promise of life everlasting. This audacious promise is the heart of our faith. It is also the heart of our mission of justice and equity for all, because life everlasting begins not after death but in this life on earth.
Justice and witness ministry is a ministry of liberation: to free the oppressed, to use power and wealth on behalf of the powerless and poor, and to act boldly for justice. This ministry carries our Christian faith into the world through action, amply supported by scripture and the ages-long actions of our UCC forebears.
This ministry, however, contains within it the seeds of its own undoing. As we work to free the oppressed, we may assume we are free and they are not. As we give and ask nothing in return, we may flaunt our power, separating us, the powerful, from them, the weak and oppressed. As we fight for justice, we may focus on a furious fight against injustice, on oppression rather than liberation, and take our eyes off the prize.
A few months ago, I came across a quotation that rings true to me for justice ministry. It is often attributed to Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder and activist, speaking to a missionary:
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
“Your liberation is bound up in mine.” What a marvelous phrase. In a few simple words, the arrogant assumption of being free, the inequitable separation from the other, and the furious focus on oppression, are all replaced by a call to work together for liberation.
In our justice ministry we are clearly not free. In the Rev. Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, he writes “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We work for freedom in a mutual mission of liberation, with a handshake, not a handout.
“Bound up…” A profound intimacy pervades those words, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are not separate from each other, any more than the body of Christ is dismembered. A Jew, Martin Buber, expresses this best for me. His “I-Thou” relationship is warmly intimate, as is the Bible. Today, we see the Biblical use of “thou” as formal and stiff, but in the England of King James “thou” was a term used for friends and relatives, bound by kinship and friendship.
This intimacy is empowered in forgiveness. The oppressed, and those fighting oppression, are often angry, outraged. The justness of the cause becomes a justification for anger that can blind us to each other. Forgive us our rages, as we forgive those who rage against us. Liberate us to love one another.
“Let us work together.” We work together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with our eyes firmly on the prize: liberation. Of course we fight oppression, but as a gardener fights weeds, as a part of growing a finer garden. Gardeners of justice work together not for a final prize but for a recurring cycle of sweet, savory prizes that nourish and grow through constant, careful tending.
Christ did not die for our sins; he rose from death for our salvation. He came because his liberation is bound up in ours. As we work together for justice, may we follow Christ.
Will Fuller – Kairos-Milwaukie UCC