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Seeking Justice

As part of Lent (the Christian run up to Easter) a number of people are focussing on the issue of seeking justice. Justice tends to be inexplicably linked to the issue of fairness. But what is fairness? That was firmly brought home to me some years ago when I heard someone say: “Is it fair to eat a beefburger? If you are desperate for food you will think it is very fair, but if you are the animal who has to give up its life for you to eat, then it is very unfair”.

Now the person in question wasn’t trying to be smart or clever but was making the point that quite often the idea of what is just or fair can depend on your individual perspective or point of view. One person’s freedom fighter can be another’s terrorist for example.

That said, we all know that there are things in this world which are without doubt clearly an injustice or unfair. The genocides of the Holocaust, those carried out in Cambodia, in Rwanda, under Stalin and going on now as we speak, of the Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) are unjust to anyone’s view, and no matter what reparations are made, they are crimes against humanity and God.

Closer to home there are innumerable personal injustices that people have had to endure. I think of the families of Jonathan Ball (aged 3) and Tim Parry (aged 12) who were killed in the Warrington IRA bombings in 1993 and to this day no individuals have been brought to justice for their deaths. I think also of Marie and William McCourt whose daughter Helen was murdered 32 years ago. Her killer was recently released from prison but to this day he refuses to say where he hid her body, thus preventing any real closure or burial by her family.

These are just dreadful stories, and I don’t think anyone can imagine the nightmare that these families have had to live through where no sense of justice has prevailed and in all likelihood may never happen in this world.

So how do we cope with these kind of global and personal tragedies where injustice haunts your being? I think there are two things that can help to sustain us.

The first is a recognition that whilst we desperately want to right a wrong it is ultimately down to God to judge people (Hebrews 10:30) and that in time He will do that, and we cannot act as an avenger no matter how justified we feel. We should not act as if we are Charles Bronson or Liam Neeson in a Death Wish or Taken film. Be assured that in the end all wrongs will be righted.

The second is probably the greatest blessing we have which is Forgiveness. As horribly difficult as it is, the reality is that we are called to forgive, and justice is not a requirement in order to forgive someone. Jesus’ command is clear. When Peter asked him: “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”, Jesus replies “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

However, forgiveness is amongst the hardest acts you can perform- quite often it is the very last thing you want to do in case it somehow reduces the severity of someone’s or something’s actions against you or others. However, I don’t think you can truly heal unless you forgive. As the old proverb goes: "the person who seeks revenge should dig two graves".

Sometimes however, the offence in question is so grave that you feel you just cannot come to forgive someone for what they have done. If that is you, I would say that what can help is to do two things. First, forgive yourself for not being to forgive and second, pray for that other person-as praying for them can come easier than to forgive them.

At other times genuine good can come out of an awful tragedy. Again, I think of the death of those boys Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry. Two of the parents (Colin and Wendy) wanted to understand why

their boys died and went to visit people in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland to find out how  people were trying to work for peace there. As a result, they set up a charity (‘Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation’) and eventually a Peace Centre to assist and help victims of terrorism and they now “campaign for peace knowing that sadly conflict is inevitable but violent conflict is not.”

Good will always overcome evil.


Keeping the Faith

Someone I know regularly says to me “when will it all end?”, and of course he is talking about the lockdown, and I tend to offer my take on the fact that 11 months or so on and ‘we are getting there’- infections, hospitalisations and deaths are thankfully all sharply down- and around 20% of our population have now received the vaccine. This is all great news of course but it still means that for now we must continue “Hands. Face. Space.”

However, the continued lockdown is still a real burden on peoples’ lives especially on their already fragile mental health, and at this time I think we need to look towards those great people of faith who had to endure similar or worse conditions, who got through them and what their experience and sacrifice can mean to us here today in 2021.

For me you need look no further than the great man that was Noah (Genesis 5-9). He was the ninth descendant of Adam and Eve and a truly great patriarch who was said to be “a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).

As we know at this time -which was probably in what we now know as the Bronze age (maybe 4,000 BC or so)-God saw that the earth was so corrupt and filled with violence that He decided to destroy it and all of mankind, and to begin again with Noah and his family.

But that required Noah to build an Ark for him, his family, and the earth’s animals to survive in, whilst the world perished around them. Now you can imagine that when he and his family started to build this incredible vessel that he must have been mocked, ridiculed, and declared mad or worse and at a conservative estimate it is believed that it took them around 70-75  years to build the ark. Imagine the kind of things that would have been said of him and to him during those decades. Yet he persisted because he was a man of faith and knew what God said would happen, would come to pass. In fact, you can now get t-shirts with the inscription “They thought Noah was a conspiracy theorist. And then it began to rain.” However, Noah was no conspiracy theorist, but was a great man of faith who did what God asked of him.

The finished Ark must have been a magnificent vessel just to look at let alone be on, but we know from Genesis that it was 450 feet long, 75 foot wide and 45 foot high. To give you an idea of its size its length was greater than the height of ‘Big Ben’, was around twice the size of a Boeing 747 plane and inside it could accommodate 17 Olympic size swimming pools or over 125,000 sheep!

However, what is the connection between the current lockdown and Noah? I think it is that most theologians have come to the view that the Bible’s account of the Ark is that Noah and his family and the animals were on the Ark for around 370 days or so. Our lockdown is, as I write this, around 330 days and counting, but there are vastly important differences between the two experiences.

Guess what? the Ark did not have Wi-Fi, there was nothing to download during their year plus voyage waiting for the seas to recede- nothing to view or to listen to apart from natural scenes, to take away what must have been excessive boredom at times. Although the Ark was a 3 storey vessel it is believed to have had only 1 window and either a roof or basic skylight so you can imagine with all the animals on board it’s sanitary conditions would have been very basic, and can you imagine the smell!

Noah and his family were not young people either. Noah was 600 years old when the Ark was built, his sons were around 100 years old themselves, so these were not young adventurers . The faith they must have had waiting for that moment when the winds and sea would die down to allow them to encounter some kind of land to renew the earth must have been extraordinary and also very lonely as they were the only humans left in the world.

In comparison with our lockdown of getting on for 12 months now, although the demands and restrictions on us have been very significant, we have -unless self- isolating- always been able to take some exercise outside, to talk to people either in a socially distanced way or by telephone or via the likes of Zoom. Through the modern miracle of broadband and Wi-Fi we can pretty much listen to or view almost anything (maybe too much?) whilst we await for more people to be vaccinated and for the time when we can finally return to some kind of normality.

Noah and his family can show us the way to get through this current crisis- they had huge reserves of patience and faith, and finally when Noah sent a dove out across the oceans it returned with an olive leaf telling him at last that land was nearby. God rewarded them and mankind with his covenant sealed by the magical rainbow in the sky and if we keep our patience and faith, we too will get there.

How to avoid 'The mark of Cain'

One of the biblical stories that has always fascinated me is an early one- that of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). We will recall that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil , He sent them out from the Garden of Eden, and in time, they had children the first of which were Cain (the eldest) and Abel (the second born).

Now Cain became a farmer whilst Abel was a shepherd, but the trouble started when they presented offerings to God, and He preferred Abel’s sacrifices to that of Cain. Lack of faith may have been the reason but we don’t know for sure, but what is important is what happened next. Cain was angry and jealous at his offering being less well regarded than that of his younger brother, and he went into the fields and murdered Abel. So, we are early into the Genesis story and we already have the first murder and the first murderer – Cain.

He lied to God when asked where Abel was (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) and Cain became a cursed man. God banished him from the kingdom and Cain became a “a fugitive and vagabond” (Genesis 4:12), but to protect him, he was given what has become known as the ‘Mark of Cain’, and it is believed that his family line perished in the Great Flood.

In so many respects it is a very sad tale. God must have been so disappointed with his creation of humankind at that point- Adam and Eve had let Him down, as had their first born Cain and His new world which was so good, was already being spoilt and we know that in time things got much worse, so much more that God felt He had to start again with new people such as Noah.

For me though, there is a really important lesson here which Cain refused to learn, and it is something that is still a critical message for us to take on board. When God could see that Cain was unhappy about His reaction to his offering, He told him:

If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling; but because you have done evil, sin is crouching at your door. It wants to rule you, but you must overcome it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain was so jealous and angry that he could not see what was right, and that if he had, then he could have had peace. But he couldn’t, so Cain allowed sin to overtake and rule him.

Anger is of course a negative condition, but we can allow it to descend on us whether we are stuck in traffic, being irritated by something that is happening (or not happening) or when we just get ‘bogged down’ in “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

I think as Christians though, the story of Cain teaches us several important lessons for life:

  • Worshipping God is serious business and that although we can pretend that we honour Him, you can’t fool God with what you bring to Him;
  • We need to learn how to control our anger before it takes us into sin;
  • It is not for us to vent our rage by taking the law into our own hands -leave that to God;
  • Learn from our mistakes – if our offering to God is not acceptable, find out why and get better in honouring Him- Cain could have sought help from his brother rather than murdering him

The wiser way is to listen to and act out Paul’s great epistle:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Keeping Christmas

I was rather tickled by the large sign in the main Harvey Nichols’ store in London recently which simply said “Bah, Humbug!” (although it did also say “Roll on 2021!”). Why? Well because they perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, but what the store was quoting was part of one of the greatest pieces of Christian discipleship- the novella ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The phrase “Bah, Humbug!” is of course one of the classic catchphrases of a certain Ebenezer Scrooge and was his mean view of what Christmas meant to him. It is widely recognised what Charles Dickens published on 19 December 1843 hugely influenced what we now take for granted at Christmas - families gathering together, seasonal food and drink, fun, and games, and what could be described as a “festive generosity of spirit”.

However, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is more, much more, than just a hugely entertaining and moving tale of an old miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve, that changed how we celebrate the season of goodwill in modern times. Dickens wrote it as a Christian allegory (in the same way that CS Lewis did in his ‘Narnia’ books) because his Christian faith was deep and sincere. He once told his family:

“My dear children, humbly try to guide yourselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there”.

At its core, ‘A Christmas Carol’s message is that of the New Testament- that even the worst of sinners may repent and become good men and women. Its impact on Victorian society was huge. One writer said of it:

“the book is unique in that is makes people behave better”.

There was more. Following its publication there was a very significant upsurge in people giving to charitable needs, families did open their doors to those less well off, and in the USA there was one businessman who on reading it was so moved that he gave all his workers Christmas Day off (it was still not a public holiday there) and gave each of them a free turkey. That was the power of Dickens’ Christian fable.

A Christmas Carol’ though is no fairy tale. It was set very much in the reality of some peoples’ experience of Victorian Britain. Dickens had toured the country and had been moved and greatly upset by the numbers of street children living rough, ending up in workhouses or working down tin mines. He wanted to open readers’ hearts and social consciences to those people struggling to survive and to encourage those who could, to be benevolent towards them.

Its 79 page tale is of a man (Scrooge) who started out in life with great intentions but allowed himself to be beaten down by the world- his mother died giving birth to him and his father resented him for that. His beloved sister died too young, and he rejected the love of a good woman and replaced it with love of a new idol -the love of money. He had forgotten who God had created him to be- and turned himself into the cold, heartless monster that at the start of the story we know him to be.

Dickens though knew, that in life we do have chance after chance to be redeemed, to be transformed and ‘born again’-only if we take it. That is what Scrooge finally does – the 3 spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future show him the impact of his behaviour (treating his staff poorly, not helping those in need, and of course the potential premature death of poor Tiny Tim. Spoiler Alert: he did live!) but more importantly, how different the world can become if he repents and becomes anew.

The message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is as vibrant and urgent in 2020 as it was almost 180 years ago. We should celebrate Christ’s birth by gathering together (but please make it ‘Small, Short and Local’!) and opening our hearts and if possible, our wallets, purses or time, to those less fortunate than ourselves. I can do no better than echo what Scrooge’s nephew (Fred) teaches him of Christmas:

“I have always thought that Christmas… as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable pleasant time, when men and women seem to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as fellow travellers to the grave. I believe Christmas has done me good, and will do me good, so I say God bless it!”

Happy Christmas all!