Justice Delayed Rebecca Lyman Stanford Memorial Church December 1, 2007 In Christian liturgical rhythms Advent and Lent are two preparatory seasons for the foundational celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Lent is the season of self- discipline and examination—in other words, what is wrong with you. Advent is the season of preparation for the Messiah—in other words, what is wrong with the world. The scriptural readings each Sunday for the next three weeks therefore offer stark images of judgment and punishment together with the images of the last days (or “eschatology” in Greek) which prefigure the arrival of the “Messiah”. “Advent” is the Latin translation of the Greek word “Parousia” which means the “coming”: the coming of the Messiah or the second return of Jesus to consummate the plan of God’s salvation with the end of history. These somber texts about waiting and judgment are in huge contrast to the bustling, tinsel consumer Christmas getting up and running around us. We may wring our hands about the “true spiritual meaning” of the holiday in the face of such gluttonous materialism, but the social dimension of the judgment of the Messiah has been largely lost. Perhaps only academics facing the end of the semester plus all the holiday preparations have a taste of Advent apocalyptic each year! The only “judgment” we usually encounter is watching Scrooge repent before the Ghost of Christmas Past (I prefer the Alistair Sims version myself). Christmas has been privatized spiritually as much as consumerized materially. No wonder critics of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins or Philip Pullman are scathing about us bleating on about the Prince of Peace and beating plowshares into pruning hooks. In a world of continuing war, plague, cruelty, genocide, and death we are either willfully manipulative or utterly stupid. Why believe a god who has promised peace, restoration, and plenty when Jews have waited four thousand years in periods of exile and Christians waited two thousand in periods of persecution and Inquisition for the reign of God? Justice delayed is justice denied. The problem with this stream of biblical interpretation is assuming that God is outside our world as an immutable and transcendent judge waiting to lower the boom on imperfect humanity. Our messy physical existence here on the ground is somehow antithetical to the orderly and spiritual future of a world cleansed by the justice of God. Many of us love the severity and finality of this vision. Conservative Christians have embraced the chaos of the rapture and war in heaven from Revelation to see their own righteousness vindicated. Terrible biblical images have been turned in popular fiction in the Left Behind Series. For some our foreign policy in the Middle East should follow the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. One may give up on negotiated peace in this world for the perfection of the afterlife. This is what one theologian has called “over-realized eschatology”, that is a justification of violence and tyranny in the service of God against sin in the world. Or one can fall into business as usual because the parousia is delayed; the absence of God is assumed. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming back: look busy!” What is lost in this focus on judgment is another and equally strong theme in eschatology in Isaiah: the restoration of the world, the repair of God’s beautiful creation in which justice is about relation rather than retribution, the physical blooming of the entire earth, the turning from violence to peace in the face of new possibilities of life with God. This is not retribution, but restoration. To focus on hope offers a different eschatological take. This is the season of birth after all, of the creation of new horizons which utterly alters and transforms our usually normal reality. The philosopher Hannah Arendt focused on “natality” as a means of expressing the fundamental starting point for understanding human life and freedom. “Birth” for her was the symbol of human freedom and infinite possibilities of transformation; each individual comes into the world unique, free, and undetermined. Philosophy therefore should start here at the ever renewing, ever undetermined human; our foundation should be birth and infinite potentiality, not mortality or limits. This was the way to understand the breadth and infinity and regeneration of human life both in the self and in the community. As interpreted by Jonathan Schell in an article “The politics of natality” (Social Research 2002), Arendt’s continued thinking on the political and social consequences of this freedom brought her to a meditation on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the unexpected and restorative quality which alone can stop and alter the chain of consequences of actions: “Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction that does not merely re-act, but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven” (Willing, p. 241). Forgiveness therefore is the source of freedom in society: “Only through this constant release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.” For Schell Arendt’s combination of freedom and forgiveness can be applied to problems of war and peace as “the politics of natality”, the sustaining hope of creativity and regeneration at the hands of human agency which has the power and capacity to save our world. Theologically, when we follow these philosophers and turn our focus from transcendence, judgment and death back to immanence, forgiveness, radical newness and birth we find ourselves in the world of Incarnation. Religion when focused on birth is not about escaping the world or waiting for the final justice of an external agent, but rather the radical possibilities of living within our physicality and contingency as home here and now: “The Word took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The eschatology of Incarnation is not about going somewhere else, but embracing and healing what is here now on the ground in God’s good and suffering creation. As the feminist and process theologian Catherine Keller commented, “Justice is love under conditions of conflict.” (Face of the Deep , p. 233). When one begins to see all moral and physical life as a process, an ongoing relation or web of freedom, forgiveness, and restoration a new vision of God and ourselves emerge. Divinity is not absent or apart or beyond, but rather potential, latent, diasporic, and penultimate within this world of freedom. Eschatology at Advent should be about reminding us about the energy of hope of birth not the finality of judgment. We are preparing the nursery in the next few weeks to celebrate the power of radical newness and regeneration which is the true sign of divinity in our world: “Behold, I make all things new” is also part of Revelation. The journey of gestation and pregnancy is one of growth, reflection, fear, and wild hope for all a child might bring. This sort of waiting is too fearful and unknown for mere optimism, but only the blind trust of the goodness of the future which is hope. The fear of the feminine in Christian theology is another whole sermon. Why have we preferred kings, thrones, and flaming swords to mothers, wombs and new life? This Advent root yourself in transforming hope, a gestation time to prepare ourselves for something radically new, to believe in healing and regeneration rather than a closed system gone wrong. The love and justice of God comes out of us here on our planet and in our history, out of our actions and choices, comes as an ordinary child born at the edges of an oppressive empire, whose parents struggled to say yes to an unknown future. The infancy narratives with illegitimate birth, cold stables, murdered infants, and startled shepherds are written deliberately to show us the startling power of divine justice which shows up in odd places. This is the season of Ansel Adams, our winter solstice in which the emerging light does not fail, and indeed shows us the beauty of what we thought was night. Incarnation demands wholeness of the holy body and world. This is the season about meditating on what it means to be human—each of us born as the image of God, contingent and suffering, but created out of love by God who will not let us go. In this world of “natality”, of birth and divine love, justice delayed is love withheld. As the merchants delight in telling us, this is the season of giving. The gifts to ponder these next weeks are not only those which delight the senses, but also those which heal the soul and body, and consequently heal our world: forgiveness, restoration, repentance, the new beginning which is part of our human and divine constitution. Now is the time in Christmas cards, at office parties, on stressful highways or shopping queues to practice love as justice, and to mend the mess of this world. Forgiveness is the necessary corollary of freedom which brings the new world into being. The radical hope of Advent is the reality of the unquenchable renewal of life, the wild joy of God’s surprise, and the restorative justice which mends all existence.