- Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Grant Me Justice! (19th Pentecost, Proper 24C)
"Grant Me Justice!"
19th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24C)
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
On October 9, Georgia Southern University invited award-winning author Jennine Capó Crucet to give a lecture to its student body. The Cuban-born author’s 2015 novel Make Your Home Among Strangers was assigned to the entire First-Year class as required reading. The novel tells a semi-autobiographical story about the daughter of Cuban immigrants growing up, going to college, and facing challenges in her family life and struggling against racism in her everyday life. She came to Statesboro to discuss the novel and to promote her newest book, a collection of essays about white privilege and American identity called My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.
Capó Crucet’s book title is of course quite provocative. She doesn’t shy away from her actual experiences of racism in this country and she articulates those lessons through her creative writing and speaking. Now she does so explicitly in the non-fiction genre. What she may not have known as she arrived in Statesboro for this lecture is that she was stepping into a tense racial situation.
Georgia Southern University has struggled with its 2018 merger with Armstrong State University primarily due to the racial and cultural compositions of the respective campuses. Statesboro has a majority white student body and Savannah’s students are majority persons of color. Last year, GSU hired the Atlanta-based Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation to study its student body, and the report was not encouraging.
Students of color disproportionately report feeling like they don’t belong to or feel valued by the university. Many white students indicated that they wanted to end all campus conversations about “racial and gender equality” and “diversity” (Flora). Over the last year, GSU students and faculty have been found to use racial slurs and racist images with impunity. Even when students have raised concerns to the administration, the responses have been weak. The report concluded that Georgia Southern is at a “diversity flashpoint,” which it defines as “a potentially explosive interpersonal situation between community members that arises out of identity differences and the conflict that can emerge as a result” (Ibid.).
So when Capó Crucet began her lecture less than two weeks ago, she was not received hospitably. She reported via Twitter, “[A] white student questioned whether I had the authority to address issues of race and white privilege on campus.” This led to an extended public debate in which many students shouted at the esteemed speaker. In reference to this confrontation, Capó Crucet wrote, “Her hostile reaction to my work closely mirrored the exchange that I recount in the essay itself. It was very surreal and strange.”
Later that night, things took a disturbing turn. Several white GSU students tore apart Capo Crucet’s book and burned it outside on a grill. Multiple students filmed this incident and posted it to social media. The video went viral and it appeared on local news and even on CNN. Other students (especially students of color), the author, and many from outside the university condemned the incident as disrespectful, closed-minded, and racist. But the university’s formal responses have been much more lenient, defending the white students’ “freedom of expression” and issuing no punishments.
WJCL reports that students organized formal complaints before the university Senate last Monday (a week after the incident) and demanded a further response from the administration. The students want to see the university support them in engaging in difficult conversations across difference. The students want to see the rights and safety of people of color protected. The students want to see the campus grow into a more welcoming and hospitable environment for people of all races. The Student Government Association’s Executive Vice President Spencer DeMink summarized their attitude toward the administration: ““Don’t stay silent. Silence will only bring the understanding that we are okay with what happened last week. I am not, we are not, and I hope you are not either” (Johnson).
And now we turn to Jesus’ story about a persistent widow, who goes before a judge to plead her case: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” The judge is unjust, unfair, and unafraid of the consequences for his failure of integrity. This judge does not care about protecting the widow’s welfare or about the laws he is sworn to uphold. Like many people in positions of power, he has been corrupted by his privilege. Even if he once cared about doing the right thing, he either doesn’t care anymore or doesn’t know how to do the right thing in this scenario and has given up.
Like students pleading before a broken university administration, this widow knows that the system cannot or will not do right by her or other vulnerable people of the world. This widow should have given up by now. She should have lost hope. But she doesn’t. The widow pesters and bothers the judge until he is worn out by her complaints. A more literal translation of verse 5 might read, ““because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming” (Wilson). She is metaphorically boxing with the judge and she is going to go all 15 rounds if she has to in order to get what she needs and deserves.
Many people interpret this parable by comparing this “unjust judge” to God. But the widow here is the voice of the prophet, not appealing to God, but appealing to the unjust powers of the world. The unjust judge is just who he appears to be: somebody with earthly power and authority who uses it selfishly and unfairly. This unjust judge is the kind of person we could meet in any institution or read about in any news source.
So the widow is our model for how to pray and how to speak to the rest of the world. The widow is a model prophet. Likewise, Jeremiah shows us the path of the true prophet, who preaches to “break down, to overthrow, [and] destroy” the unjust powers and systems of the world. The true prophet also preaches “to build and to plant” new righteous creations in the Lord. Prophets become instruments of God’s Good News of grace for the whole world. The Good News sounds good to those who have suffered in this life but it sounds bad to those who have oppressed others for their own gain. The same arms of love can feel like arms of judgment and wrath for those who have something to lose when all people--including the lowly--are raised up.
Jesus calls us to imitate the widow in our lowliness and our disruption of the unjust powers that be. Like students who stand up for their dignity and rights, we must stand up to corrupt or ineffective bureaucracies. We must preach the Good News that all human beings are created in the image of God and we seek justice and peace for all people” (BCP, p. 305). And we must be bold and unafraid when the powers of this world, the people who stand to benefit from upholding the status quo, when they resist us fiercely. And we must be willing to question ourselves when we are unwilling to change the status quo that hurts our neighbors. The prophet’s voice doesn’t just come out of the church but speaks to it as well. So it is our calling to pray boldly to God for wisdom so we can speak boldly to rulers and authorities. May God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Flora, Rachael, “Georgia Southern under fire for diversity crisis.” Connect Savannah. Published 16 October 2019. Accessed 17 October 2019. https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/georgia-southern-under-fire-for-diversity-crisis/Content?oid=13407913.
Gafney, Wilda. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=705.
Johnson, Sharon. "Georgia Southern hosts meetings in response to controversial book burning." WJCL. Published 14 October 2019. Accessed 17 October 2019. https://www.wjcl.com/article/georgia-southern-hosts-meetings-in-response-to-controversial-book-burning/29464966.
McCoy, Robb, and Eric Fistler. https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/proper24c.
Wilson, Brittany. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4201.
WJCL. “Students Burn Author’s Book After Lecture on Diversity.” CNN.com. Published 12 October 2019. Accessed 17 October 2019. https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2019/10/12/book-burning-georgia-southern-university-students-vpx.wjcl.
Image Credit: https://blavity.com/latina-author-responds-after-georgia-southern-students-burn-her-book-because-of-her-remarks-about-white-privilege?category1=news