A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
January 23, 2020
In his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. cites a legal maxim to his clergy colleagues who claim to be in favor of justice but are unwilling to agitate for it just now. “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We are witnessing a fierce battle about the speed of justice in the Senate trial of President Trump. A speedy trial that lacks transparency or thoroughness is as much of an injustice as is undue delay.
Both sorts of injustice – undue haste and undue delay – fill the pages of Bryan Stevenson’s powerful memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. As a young lawyer newly graduated from Harvard in the 1980s, Stevenson dedicated his life to assisting death row inmates in Alabama who demonstrably had not committed the crimes for which they were scheduled to die. He discovered numerous cases of wrongful conviction through hasty racism-laden trials, followed by the wheels of appeals processes being so bogged down and rigged against the convicted that they never worked. Prior to the launch of his “Equal Justice Initiative,” no death row inmate had ever been exonerated in Alabama.
In the words of reviewer Nicholas Kristof, Stevenson’s book is “searing, moving, and infuriating.” Perpetuation of injustice through infinite procedural delays in the appeals of the wrongly-convicted is far too prevalent in the criminal justice system, not just in Alabama. The only thing that breaks the system’s back in Stevenson’s story is his infinite patience and persistence, something luminously portrayed by actor Michael B. Jordan who plays Stevenson in the movie currently in theaters, “Just Mercy.” Everyone should see this movie. Then, read the book.
Patient persistence. Never taking no as the final answer. Jesus commends such a posture before God. Keep on asking, keep pressing in, never give up. He illustrates the point with a story of a woman, denied what is rightly hers, who refuses to quit harassing the judge until she gets justice. (Luke 18:1-8) This is not just counsel for how to conduct ourselves in the prayer closet – it is also a template for enacted prayer in the world. And that is exactly what fighting for justice is: Enacted prayer.
Obedience to God, according to Micah 6:8, is demonstrated in three actions: doing, loving, and walking. The first is doing. Specifically, “doing justice.” Dr. King called out his fellow religious leaders for talking justice but hesitating to do what justice requires. By doing nothing, they were delaying justice, and thus effectively denying it. Jesus didn’t just call out the hypocrisy of religious leaders bending money rules to their own advantage – he overturned their profiteering money exchange tables. He didn’t just say something, he did something.
Second, loving. Specifically, “loving kindness.” Dr. King’s work was distinguished by his unbending commitment to speaking the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16) Kindness doesn’t mean giving in to those who flout justice, but maintaining a steadfast posture of engagement with those with whom we differ, rather than seeking their humiliation or annihilation. Bryan Stevenson’s singular achievement is that he remains kind in the face of the most blatant bigotry and denials of justice imaginable. How can he maintain such kindness in the face of such corrupt individuals and systems? It has to be an act of persistent agape, of seeking the best for them as well as for those they have subjugated. Nothing less.
Third, walking. Specifically, “walking humbly with God.” It is no accident that Dr. King’s work was marked by walking as much as by speaking, marching with his colleagues in protest against unjust policies and systems. We cannot remain stuck in our current place and be walking at the same time. Justice demands that we move beyond our comfort zones. In becoming a people of the walk, we join Jesus himself, who was constantly on the move. The earliest Christian community was called “The Way,” a people on a journey following Jesus. And we must walk this way humbly. There is no room for swagger. We are not the pathway’s navigators; we are navigated. We go where Jesus leads, not where we itch to go.
Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community where every human being is equally welcome and esteemed is still a dream. The promised land that he claimed he could see is still a distant prospect. The reforms for which he called have been delayed, at best.
Still, people infected with Dr. King’s dream press on. People such as Bryan Stevenson. Patient persistence will have its way in the end. With patient persistence we still dare to dream of the beloved community where race and class and sex and age and differing abilities no longer separate and stratify us. After all, it’s not just Dr. King’s dream; it is God’s promise in the new heaven and the new earth. “Thy Kingdom come!”
Persisting with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister