The Messy Arc of Justice

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 — Week of Proper 11, Year One

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman, Liberators and Prophets, 1902, 1894, 1883, 1913

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 976)

Psalms 119:49-72 (morning) 49, [53] (evening)

1 Samuel 25:23-44

Acts 14:19-28

Mark 4:35-41

The story of David’s encounter with Nabal and Abigail is as entertaining as an episode of The Sopranos.

David and his armed men had been running a protection racket in southern Judah. As the wealthy herdsman Nabal was shearing his sheep, some of David’s men approached him for a payoff. Nabal disrespected them. David swore retaliation — the death of every male under Nabal.

Nabal’s wife Abigail intervened however, meeting David with generous gifts and extravagant expressions of respect. Her intercession stayed David’s hand, and impressed the “rest of him” as well. When Nabal realized his close call, he suffered a stroke and died a few days later. David moved in on Abigail, and she was added to his harem. (Elsewhere the Bible names at least eight of David’s wives.) The story closes with an ominous note that King Saul had given his daughter, David’s wife Michal, to another man as husband.

Abigail is a strong and resourceful woman, yet I am struck by the limits on her options as a woman of her culture. I enjoy her power and decisiveness as she commands Nabal’s servants and resources to plan a successful strategy to thwart the manly bloodshed. But from my cultural perspective, I’m troubled that her being added to David’s harem is as good as it gets for her.

Today we celebrate the feast of four heroines of our culture’s history — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman. These four were among the strong and resourceful women who challenged the entrenched sexism and racism of an earlier age. They had to struggle against conventional wisdom, religious authority, and the law.

Although we continue to live with crippling expressions of sexism and racism today, there has been progress — slavery is illegal and is no longer defended by law or by Christian ministers; women may vote, hold public office, and exercise equal leadership in some, but not all, religious traditions.

We continue to express our racial bigotry in many ways, particularly through unjust laws that leave our immigration system dysfunctional, immoral and incredibly anti-family.

Yet, I am encouraged as our generation participates in yet another movement of liberation and equality, this time on behalf of our GLBT neighbors. We follow the same trajectory as the trail blazed by our ancestors who worked to free slaves and to bring equality for women and for people of color.

Elsewhere, there are new heroes and heroines every day risking their lives on behalf of the “Arab spring,” articulating hopes rising deeply from within the human breast.

Likewise, it is encouraging when the perfidy of a corrupt system like the Rupert Murdoch empire is finally exposed and we have a communal opportunity to purge and cleanse.

I do believe that God’s Spirit inclines our human evolution ultimately toward fullness and union. As abolitionist Theodore Parker is credited with saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It is messy and conflictive. We shouldn’t be surprised. It’s always been messy and conflictive, full of abuse of power and and ambiguous sexual energy.

Every generation has the opportunity to expand the arc of justice. But we have to be able to see where conventional wisdom, religious authority and the law are being stretched by the moral universe in our own day.

Fifty years out from the bloody conflicts of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, we see articles and documentaries reminding us of those days. There is much to cringe over with embarrassment. Many of us, and our parents, chose wrongly in that struggle.

But in my lifetime, I have seen so much to be encouraged about. In my youth, people spat upon and physically attacked youngsters who thought it was okay for black and white people to learn together, eat together, be together. The law stood to uphold the attackers. Today we have a black president whose parent’s marriage would have been illegal in more than thirty states. Beginning this Sunday, hundreds of gay couples will celebrate their right to marry in the state of New York. And across the Middle East, the breath of freedom and representative democracy inspires hope in the teeth of violence.

Yes, it is a mess. But it is a beautiful and hopeful mess.

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