So is it any wonder that as we approach the advent of the coming of the Prince of Peace that we get confused about the concept and possibility of peace. We hide behind the excuse that the solutions to the world’s problems are too complex. We don’t know enough. We can’t really make a difference, so why even try. Let’s focus instead on the sales at the mall. Isn’t it odd that we call black Friday the day that our accounts go further into the red? Let’s dope ourselves up with eggnog and tinny holiday songs that conveniently avoid any mention of God being smuggled into this world as a poor homeless immigrant with suspect parentage and a posse out to get him. The consumer frenzy that the Christmas has become is hardly even seen as ironic anymore.
When the Prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people, they were not in comfortable homes around roaring fires having just gorged themselves on way too much turkey. They were people who were living in exile. They had been militarily driven from their homeland. They saw the temple destroyed—the place where God was supposed to have resided. They were now prisoners having had everyone forsake them. Jeremiah’s word came to them as a word of hope. It was one of the very few words of hope Jeremiah ever uttered. He left aside his gloom and doom, looked at his forlorn sisters and brothers and gave them the word that all was not lost.
“Behold”, he said, “a branch shall come up for David”. Isaiah uses similar language saying, “A shoot shall come forth from the root of Jesse.” Jesse was King David’s father. The people feared that as they saw their king taken into exile, their days as a people were over. But Jeremiah and Isaiah both claimed that the Davidic line had not been broken. There was another who would follow. Both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels contain genealogies tracing Jesus to King David—a branch to spring up from David. Of course those branches come from Joseph’s lineage, but that’s another sermon altogether. Bethlehem is called the city of David. “A branch shall come up for David”. Pointing to that day and that hope that one would come and restore the people is what kept the exiled people alive. “In those days”, says Jeremiah, “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Jerusalem the city whose name means “YHWH is our peace” has a future. The ideal is not dead. We just need to remember the ideal upon which it was founded.
The branch, says Jeremiah, will execute justice and righteousness in the land. Now, those two words are similar and often synonymous in Hebrew. But here, Jeremiah goes to pains to use both words to describe the one to come. Justice and Righteousness. Mishpat and Tsedaqah
When we think about justice (Mishpat), we think about setting things right. We think about peacemaking. We think about having health care and jobs for all. We think about people having a livable wage. We think about people getting a fair shake—where there are no barriers like race or national origin, or religion or gender or gender identity or affectional proclivities or age or physical ability or who knows who and who scratched whose backs. We think about being held accountable—getting justice—when we have stepped out of line. When we think about justice, we don’t think about just us, we think about being in community and looking out for another. We see this as a core value. And any city or state not founded on this is doomed to ruin sooner or later.
Now, when we think about righteousness (Tsedaqah), we think about we think about our individual decisions. We think about how we make our moral choices. We think about how we live up to our highest ideals. We think about how our religious convictions get lived out in our actions or our words. We think about that moral high ground from which we can see the world as it should be and as it might be. Our Muslim sisters and brothers emerge from the Hajj this week, the most righteous of events in their faith. Christians enter into Advent seeking the most righteous and benevolent season of our faith. Righteousness is the moral choice we make every day to be faithful and humble and subordinate to God.
So why does Jeremiah speak about justice and righteousness? I think it’s because one cannot exist without the other. Justice without righteousness ends up looking like vengeance. It ends up cutting down your enemy and defeating them.
Righteousness without justice becomes self-righteousness. It breeds me-first-ism and is a kissing cousin of idolatry.
We need righteousness with all its morality and justice with all its practicality and compassion to merge. What we get when justice and righteousness merge is a river of peace. That’s what we imagine this Advent—at least it’s what I imagine.
And so it is through this lens of justice and righteousness that I anticipate the words of our President this week on our country’s strategy in Afghanistan. I don’t confuse him with the Messiah and I know he has a next to impossible job having been handed two wars that were not of his choosing.
As we anticipate the coming of the Prince of Peace, we find ourselves mired in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and we don’t have a clear way of getting out of the mire and muck that war has caused. I think that the military is an important player in the peace process, but if it is the only player then we will have squandered the opportunity for peace. We need to spend at least as much time and energy on education, infrastructure, and spreading good will amongst the people. The US needs to be seen as a trustworthy ally that seeks the long-term health of the people. The lack of education and infrastructure and hope leaves a hole that too often gets filled with extremists bent on violence and apocalyptic delusions of grandeur and heavenly reward. This is the theme of the movie from a couple of years ago, Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s also the theme of the work by Greg Mortenson depicted in his book “Three Cups of Tea”. I recommend both of these in order to look at the quagmire that is Afghanistan. We need to move toward peace and the only way to sustain peace is to eliminate the desperation that war seeks to solve.
We also need to recognize, as Harvey Cox encouraged us at last month’s Westminster Town Forum, that Taliban means student in Arabic. Many of the so-called Taliban are people who are seeking to be righteous in a feudal land of chaos and corruption. Only a small portion of them are the extreme zealots. The vast majority are simply trying to be righteous. And when pushed by outside forces which they see as unjust, they will retreat to what they know, which is to pull together their feudal, ethnic and religious groups and hang on for dear life and defend themselves from outsiders.
This will not lead to peace. The river of justice must merge with the river of righteousness. Mishpat and tsedaqah must come together if we are to witness peace.
So how do we do that? How do we seek peace? We can only do this if we allow space for both justice and righteousness: law and mercy; holy work and a holy attitude.
We are doing this in church. Deidre Druk has encouraged us to write letters to several transnational companies who knowingly used the pesticide Nemagon in Nicaragua so that we could have lots of bananas on our table. The pesticide was outlawed in the US for the health risks it caused the growers. The excess pesticide was used in several Central and South American banana plantations. The result is that the workers got poisoned. Deidre and I visited with many of the former workers and their families a year and a half ago. They are still camped out in downtown Managua hoping for justice in the form of medical care for them and their families. Many are sick and dying. They welcomed us with open arms and asked us to share their stories. In particular, Deidre was moved by not only their disease and poverty but by their warm embrace of Christians who would hear their stories. Their stories and honoring them has become a part of Deidre’s tsedaqah, her righteousness. The letter-writing campaign is a concrete way of bringing mishpat, justice to them. This is about creating a river of peace.
These hats and these gifts that we bring forward are different than the gifts we give family and friends. I read this past week that our Christmas tradition is not really gift-giving, but gift-exchanging. These gifts are for those who really need it and we expect nothing in return. This is both an expression of mishpat and tsedakah. The fact that these gifts are here, where there is a river of peace flowing out of the Jordan that we can touch is a reminder of the current that runs through our lives as Christians. It’s accentuated during the Thanksgiving and Christmas Seasons. A friend sent me the following quote by Melody Beattie this week that speaks to this:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow. ~Melody Beattie
I pray that we might witness the river of righteousness merge with the river of justice. For only that will bring peace.
Since Deidre has great experience running cabarets here at UBC, she also ran the Open Microphone event at this summer’s peace camp. Tentative and experienced people alike found their voices and said what was on their hearts at that event. I loved hearing all of the passions that people shared. Kim and Rebecca sang a song. Another read poetry. A child told a few jokes. Gayla Marty read from her own original work. A teenager played the guitar and sang a song she wrote that week. My favorite part of the event, however, was when Sarah Burkett, now 24 years old sang a song from her heart. It wasn’t on pitch or even close, but it was her soul singing. People knew of her struggle with Down syndrome and her longing for acceptance. They knew of her faithfulness and compassion. She was no longer the child wielding the imaginary sword when singing about peace. She was a poised young adult that demanded to be heard. She knew who had redeemed her. She knew what made her whole. And she wanted to share it with us, her peacemaking family. And when she got done singing, there was a standing ovation. She was the river of peace. She showed us how to live both a righteous life (one where you know your moral core) and how to live a just life (by making a place at the table of blessing for everyone), and she guided us safely home all the while pointing the way toward a better future. And for a brief moment, I caught the meaning of Jeremiah’s promise that we would once again cross the Jordan to the city where God is our righteousness. And this time we go there via the rivers of peace. May we find that river and be buoyed and swept by its current this Advent season.