Shut It Down
Luke 18: 1-3 Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
4-5 “He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”
6-8 Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”
We are seeing more now than our nation has in half a century, an unrest that is erupting in cities across the United States as people who have been too long forgotten are starting to rise up and speak in one voice a cry that speaks both an ancient truth, and a modern reality, “Black Lives Matter”. But as protests are emerging in places previously unheralded as Ferguson, Missouri and places infamous as New York City and West Baltimore, Maryland protest has emerged as more than speech, it has taken the form of destruction of property and in times more recently, the injury of the very police forces whose members have continued to kill people in the streets and in the back of police cars with no cause and little regard for life. As people are trying to make sense of what is unfolded, we have heard everyone from political officials to news pundits and from police officers to pastors talk about the two protest groups. The one is the “peaceful protesters, those who are coming together to chant and march and express their disagreement with the system as it is. Everyone applauds this group. They are the spirit of democracy, their visible leaders become celebrities on social media, and occasionally on mainstream media as well. In a time when we long for heroes whose humanity is as plain as their courage, these, mostly young people are stepping into that space with a remarkable charisma. The “other” protest group has been called agitators, criminals, and opportunists. Their words are not celebrated, in fact they are not even remembered. It is their actions we remember, and overwhelmingly condemn. These are the ones who burned the QuikTrip in Missouri and the CVS in Maryland. These are the ones who have thrown rocks at the windows of businesses and police cars, and even at police. These are the ones from whom any leader or activist who is connected to money bends over backwards to create distance. Protest can be celebrated as long as it is safe, non-intrusive, and most importantly non-violent. This, is after all the lesson we learn from the patron saint of protest, Martin Luther King Jr. and from Jesus, is it not?
This text in Luke offers what I believe is a non-traditional glimpse into the value system of Jesus. Luke sets certain interpretative parameters on this text in his editorial comment about this parable being about prayer (1). It is therefore both easy and understandable to follow the Occam’s Razor theory of Biblical interpretation and say that this parable is, indeed about, and only about prayer. However I want to lift up what I believe are parallel and non-contradictory truths that can be mined out of the text that speak to the protest moment we are in now.
Jesus, in telling this story, tells the story of a judge, who appears to operating with no functional system of accountability as he does his work of “dispensing justice” in the the land. The protagonist of the parable is a widow woman whose rights were being violated. By using a widow, it is widely agreed upon that Jesus in intentionally invoking the image of one who has no standing, no access, no ability to speak for herself, and no one who will speak for her. She is, for us, a young, poor single mother; or a young man standing the corner whose pants sag and whose face is tatted; or a undocumented worker hiding in plain sight trying to stay unnoticed; or any number of other people who, by themselves are seemingly powerless against a system that is regularly oppressive and impersonal. The widow woman in Jesus parable is having her rights violated, and the only way she is able to get justice is from a judge, who was not obligated by any legal or moral standard of the time to listen to her case. The situation is worsened by the fact mentioned earlier, that the judge respected neither God, nor man, and therefore had no one to hold him accountable.
So what does this woman decide to do? She shuts its down. As Jesus tells the story the woman badgers the judge until he cannot take it anymore. He finally relents and gives her the justice that she needs, because she is relentless in making life miserable for the judge. Now hopefully you are already seeing the comparisons between this woman’s actions and the protests that have erupted and continued to erupt against police murder and the cover-up that has become an all-too-common part of life in the United States. The chanting, the marching, the interrupting of traffic, and even the destruction of businesses and property are ways of sharing the pain, ways of making what is unbearable for a segment of the community too easily ignored, a common and persistent pain until it is no longer bearable and society ushers in the change just so the pounding will cease.
Now I know people will think I’ve taken this text completely out of its context, and misappropriated it for my own indulgent purposes, but Jesus’s post-parable editorializing suggests that maybe I’m not as far off as many would like to think. Jesus draws two lessons from his own parable, the first is the lesson that Luke telegraphed to us in the beginning of the text: God is better than the judge; we are more to God than the widow. If the judge grants the widow justice, then surely God will grant us justice. There is a second point, though. It can easily be overlooked as a throw away line when you are looking for the first point. Jesus closes this lesson by saying that God is looking for the same type of persistent faith on the earth. To me this is where Occam’s Razor becomes dangerous. Because one can easily say that what Jesus is talking about is the faith to keep praying to God. However, that only works if you are interpreting this parable based only on what is evident in these verses. For while the call to prayer may make sense in a vacuum it seems wholly inconsistent with what Jesus did. Jesus did not pray to God about the situations he encountered, he brought God in and interrupted them. There were times his interruptions were cause for celebration, like the wedding at Cana. There were times when his interruptions were inconvenient, and perhaps scary, like in the march into Jerusalem. There were also times when his interruptions were destructive, like when Jesus cleared the temple. So why would the savior who was constantly interrupting tell the disciples a parable about interrupting, only to really be telling them to pray?
Now this next part is just my imagining what might be happening in the text, and is not part of my Biblical analysis. It actually makes more sense to me that Luke, in writing down this parable, is aware that telling people to be an interruption to the ruling system could get the writer, the reader, or the person carrying the message killed. So why not tell the story with a strong nod toward prayer as the purpose of the passage, to give plausible deniability in case this ever has to go to court. (End imagination.)
It seems possible to believe that all of the protest, not just the protest that we would want our children to be a part of, has a part to play in bringing about the will of God. It is possible that all of the protest is crying out to God and to the leaders of our nation to make justice for all a reality, and not an empty promise. The great patron saint of protest, Dr. King refused to condemn the riots that occurred in 1966, even if he differed philosophically from their tactics. Maybe that is why our great patriarch of non-violence infamously said in an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS,
I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.
To those who are screaming in Baltimore, to those who have screamed in Ferguson, to those whose screams never made it to CNN, God hears your screams. My prayer is that more and more people of faith will spend less time judging, condemning, and distancing themselves from your screams, rather that they would judge, condemn, and distance themselves from the system that causing those screams.