SEEING GOD AND FACING EMPIRE
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
Justice Is A Verb!
April 21, 2017
When I was a child, our family practiced the ritual of saying grace before each meal. After Dad pronounced grace, Mom would say a verse from the Bible. The rest of the family would then repeat the verse. One of the verses I recall Mom reciting was Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
I also recall another passage often read and quoted by the men and women in southwest Arkansas whose humble faith and prophetic citizenship sparked my interest in theology, ethics, and justice. At Matthew 25, verses 44 and 45 read:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
The nurture I received from my parents and childhood elders about God, love, and justice has shaped my understanding of ethics – meaning how we treat one another – since those childhood meals and community interactions. That nurture has helped me realize that the way we treat marginalized and vulnerable people, those Jesus described as least among us, is the way we treat God.
This insight challenges us to see marginalized and vulnerable people as surrogates of God in every society, regardless to our notions of empire. Prophetic citizenship forces us to see God in people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, frail, imprisoned, and unwelcomed. Prophetic citizenship is not about building empire. It is about producing what Howard Thurman called “the Beloved Community.”
Prophetic citizenship recognizes, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the Jesus idea of God, love, and justice focuses on using power to achieve justice. As Dr. King declared in his last address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Perhaps nothing exposes our blindness about power, love, and justice more than how societies treat marginalized and vulnerable people. I wonder if we see God in the people we deem unworthy.
Do we see God in people without healthy food? Do we see God in people who do not have clean water? Do we see God in homeless people? Do we see God in sick people?
Do we see God in people we mass incarcerate and kill in the name of empire? Do we see God in immigrants we refuse to welcome?
Do we see God in people who are desperate, destitute, hated, and helpless?
Lord, when did we see you …?
Do we see God in murder victims?
Do we see God in their grieving loved ones?
Do we see God in the people who killed?
Lord, when did we see you …?
I am struck by the moral and ethical inconsistency of people who insist that justice requires society to kill people who are condemned because they killed others.
Yet, we somehow realize it is unjust to rape people who commit rape.
Somehow, we understand it is unjust to torch the homes of people who commit arson.
Somehow, we know it is not right to plunder the belongings of thieves.
Somehow, we recoil at the idea that justice requires society to order agents of government – our political empire – to molest children whose parents molest children to show we condemn child molestation.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Lord, when did we see you…?
The State of Arkansas killed Ledell Lee last night. It is easy to recognize that was a political act, meaning an act done in the name of official policy as an expression of our sense of empire.
It is not easy to recognize another truth.
There are beings we refuse to see.
 Dr. King’s last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “Where Do We Go From Here?” is reproduced in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p.247.