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Some of you know this story: A beloved child is sent to Earth by his parents in order to save his life, and in so doing, that son ends up saving Earth and its people again and again.
He is a child of Krypton, no powers on that planet, but here in this world, the earth’s sun makes him nearly invincible. He stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
He is Superman, the goody-two-shoes of the comic book world, almost too wholesome to be believable. And isn’t the United States lucky that his alien ship landed in this country and not another?
Graphic novelist Mark Millar in the story Superman: Red Son actually explores what it would have been like if Superman landed not in Kansas but in the Soviet Union back in 1953. And instead of “truth, justice, and the American way,” what would it be like if Superman was a “Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact”?
What would his sense of “truth” and “justice” look like then?
Which begs the question: How does our upbringing, our culture, where we are raised and by whom we are raised shape our understanding of what is truth and what is justice?
In 2006, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that the word of the year was “truthiness.” Not truth, but truthiness. Truthiness is “something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.”
As Stephen Colbert, who coined the term, once explained: “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty.” And then he asked, “What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?”
While Colbert believed this was a new phenomenon occurring in our country’s recent history, human beings have been struggling with this for a very long time.
As Pontius Pilate once famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
As Americans, we have been grappling with this since the beginning of our country. When the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote the words, “All men are created equal” and asserted this statement as truth, they didn’t actually mean all people, nor did they even mean all men.
Through centuries of re-interpretation, we have added to the initial definition of “all men” so that it at least, legally, should include all people. And yet, we know, even today, that not everyone is actually treated equally, even in this country. There are disparities based on wealth and class and status and race and sexuality and gender. We do not all start on a level playing field.
So, what is truth? Surely, it’s not all relative and dependent on the times and culture of a place. So how do we live into truth in order that justice might prevail?
Later on in John’s gospel, chapter 14, verse 6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Now, he doesn’t I am the only way. Too often this verse is used to exclude and illegitimate
how God can work in and through almost anything and nearly anyone.
But for us as Christians, as followers of Jesus, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” it means that for us the way Jesus lived, the truths that he lifted up,
his life devoted to love and peace and justice, is how we, too, are called to live. And we measure what our culture and those in power proclaim as truth, against how Jesus lived: his way, his truth, and his life.
In Biblical interpretation, there is a method called the “Rule of Love.” Almost anything can be supported by The Bible when taken out of context. But when we read it, using the historical and cultural context of the time, looking at the big picture, the overarching theme is a story of love.
The PC(USA) affirms that:
“The fundamental expression of God’s will is the two-fold commandment to love God and neighbor, and all interpretations are to be judged by the question whether they offer and support the love given and commanded by God. When interpretations do not meet this criterion, it must be asked whether the text has been used correctly in the light of the whole Scripture and its subject.
Any interpretation of Scripture is wrong that separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being, including both love expressed in individual relations and in human community (social justice).
No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons either within or outside of the church. Such results from the interpretation of Scripture plainly indicate that the rule of love has not been honored. This rule reminds us forcefully that as the rule of faith and life, Scripture is to be interpreted not just to discover what we are to think or what benefits we receive from God in Christ, but to discover how we are to live.”
The Rule of Love helps us discover truth. And Jesus’s life points us to truth.
As the Confession of 1967 states:
The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate [capital W]
to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written
[lower case w].
Jesus is our truth. His servant leadership, his radical love and grace, his ever-expanding inclusion, his rejection of social norms that upheld the powerful, his preferential option for the poor, these are the truths we find in the person of Jesus.
Knowing this truth doesn’t mean we have all the answers to every question or scruple about faith. Rather, this truth frees us to admit that we don’t know everything,
and Jesus as our truth can help anchor and center us as we seek the truth together.
Knowing this truth means knowing Jesus, being in relationship with him, being his hands and feet in the world, and the Body of Christ on earth today. And knowing this truth should not lead us to judgement but to freedom and justice.
In our Lenten Bible Study booklets, there’s a quote by Marcus Borg on justice.
He concludes, “Justice is the political form of compassion, the social form of love…”
When we promote justice, we are aligned with God’s truth. Justice is about how we form communities and live life together with others.
And justice is particularly about how we care for those who are the most disenfranchised, the most powerless and marginalized in our society.
To quote Mahatma Ghandi, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” In other words, a great nation is a just nation.
During this Lent, we have been affirming together The Belhar Confession. We’ve included portions of it in worship, and for those of us who are taking part in a Lenten Bible Study Group, we are digging deeper into some of the scripture that shaped and formed it.
Today, we consider together what it means to be called to justice.
The Belhar Confession was written during apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was essentially legalized injustice, based on race.
In the story of South Africa, Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned by those in power
became president of the country after negotiating an end to apartheid.
Some hoped that after his election, now that he was in power as the first black president,
that he would then enact revenge on the minority group of white South Africans
who had wielded power over everyone else. Instead, President Mandela sought peace.
He sought unity and reconciliation, and he sought truth and justice.
One way South Africa did this was through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions where both those who were victims and those who had victimized others could come and speak, tell their truths, be heard, acknowledged, and, for those who had participated in criminal acts, to seek amnesty.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were the two figures who spearheaded this seven-year process, seven years.
Over that time, the commission collected 21,000 victim testimonies, of which 2,000 were publicly broadcast. For many white South Africans, it was the first time they had heard, in such detail, the physical and psychological harm Black South Africans had endured during apartheid. After the commission finished its work, it produced a report, as is customary,
with recommendations including reparations, reformation of the political and social sectors, and, in some cases, prosecution of perpetrators.
Only 849 out of the over-7000 applications for amnesty were granted. But some were granted amnesty, depending on the severity of the crime, and the repentance and possible rehabilitation of that person.
It takes a lot more work, a lot more time, and a lot more energy to hear over-7000 people ask for clemency than it does to just lock them up and punish them for their crimes.
Similarly, it takes a lot more work, a lot more time, and a lot more energy to listen to the pain and stories of those who suffered, allowing them to speak their truth, than it does to offer a blanket apology and a tepid appeal for peace.
And yet in order for justice to prevail, the nation had to face the truth. They had to reckon with the brutal realities of racism and the dehumanizing, death-dealing policies of apartheid.
These commissions didn’t make everything okay once they were completed. But they were recorded to help ensure that the crimes of apartheid would never be forgotten, and that they might never be repeated.
And these opportunities to speak the truth, work towards reconciliation, and seek justice through changed policies and laws helped begin the process towards a more just nation.
Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann defines biblical justice this way:
“Biblical justice concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity. In covenantal tradition the particular subject of YHWH’s justice is the… widow, orphan, and immigrant, those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society.”
The widow, the orphan, and the immigrant are lifted up again and again in scripture because they held no power in biblical society; they were stripped of their voice,
and often ignored, or worse preyed upon by the powerful.
Justice means to stand with the most vulnerable among us and to ensure that there is enough for all to live with dignity. So how will you seek justice in our world today?
With whom will you stand, so that justice might prevail?
Whose truth will you lift up and amplify, what truths must be spoken aloud,
so that justice and reconciliation and freedom are made possible?
Because this is the work we are called to do, for justice is God’s passion, and the way of justice is the way of Jesus found through truth.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
John 8:12-20, 31-32
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” Then they said to him, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
Then Jesus said .., “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
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