America celebrates the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend. This week was also the time when Pope Francis issued his book, The Name of God is Mercy; and it was the week in which the primates (or chief bishops) of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury to seek a way forward through the divisions of the global church. These three things (King, Pope, and Primate), are not to my mind unrelated, and so this morning I’d like to say something about each of them.
I remember well the morning after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis back in 1968. I was in 3rd grade, and had just some downstairs to the breakfast table, where my parents were listening to the morning news on the radio (as they always did). I knew immediately, however, something was terribly wrong that morning, for there was a kind of stunned silence in the room. As a young boy, I didn’t understand much about what had happened, but as I think back to that morning, I realize that my parents sensed that more than the death of one man, a whole vision for America had been attacked—a vision that grasped the fact that for justice to be secured for any one group of people, it has to be secured for all. As King put it in that often quoted line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so it was King’s unique ability to be able to link the civil rights movement, with the injustices of the Vietnam War, and with the problem of poverty throughout America. No one of these issues could be solved, he insisted, unless all of them were resolved.
Now, justice is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and usually without much real thought to what the word really means. As a college student, I was a political philosophy major, and was immersed for four years in what amounted to a study of just one word, “justice.” We looked at all types of definitions for it: Plato’s concept of the benevolent Republic, Aristotle’s ideal of the good life, Bentham’s utilitarian call for the greatest good for the greatest number, Marx’s advocacy that workers reap the rewards of their own labor, and so on and so on. My conclusion, by the end of it all, is that no one has ever managed to pin down exactly what justice is. It eludes our best attempts at definition and precision. Rather, it is something that is constructed bit by bit, over time, with a good deal of trial and error, never complete and always demanding out attention.
Justice, in other words, has to be a very capacious concept that requires of us as citizens a breadth of heart and mind such that we never give up on striving to establish it, and at the same time never grow discouraged at how far short we are of succeeding. It requires openness to what is necessary and new, and generosity in making room for one another (what we here at St. Michael’s refer to as “open hands, open hearts, and open minds”). Thinking back to today’s gospel story of Jesus’ sign at the wedding in Cana (turning water into wine), we might see this as one layer of the meaning of that sign: it shows us in vivid terms that his ministry among us is to be one of abundance and excess, not just in the physicality of water and wine, but in the spiritual terms of compassion and mercy. In building the kingdom of God, Jesus seems to indicate, there will be no holding back when it comes to the community of love he has come to establish, and the bounty of good wine that he provides for the wedding is a tangible sign of the excess of that love.
And this brings us to Pope Francis and his new book on mercy. It seems to be Francis’ particular gift to understand that the faith of the church is not primarily expressed through statements of doctrinal orthodoxy, but through acts of compassion, care, concern, sympathy, and understanding—or, in a word, mercy. Francis tells the story, for example, of a woman whose confession he heard when he was a parish priest in Argentina—a woman who had to prostitute herself in order to feed her children. He took it upon himself to help provide for the family, but when the woman came to thank him, it was not for the material assistance he provided, but for the fact that he had never ceased to address her as “Señora,” a term of respect and dignity. You see, to have mercy means never to lose sight of the essential dignity of every human being, no matter their circumstances, no matter their politics, no matter their origin. Mercy is, after all, the way in which God looks upon each of us: loving, forgiving, calling, accepting. Mercy (as the title of the pope’s book alludes to) is the first attribute of God, or as Francis puts it, “mercy is true.” Mercy, therefore, is as much a part of the content of faith as any doctrinal statement or position. And since this is so, the act of showing mercy on our part, is among the most concrete ways that we experience God’s presence in our midst.
And so we come to the primates who gathered this past week in Canterbury. The occasion of this meeting was an attempt by the Archbishop of Canterbury to draw together the chief bishops of each of the 38 provinces (or national churches) of the worldwide Anglican Communion (to which we as Episcopalians belong), to overcome the threat of division over a variety of issues, sexuality in particular. In the end, as you may have heard, they managed to hold together as a body, but issued a statement taking issue with the Episcopal Church’s decision last summer to authorize the same-sex marriages, saying that it was a “fundamental departure from the faith and teaching” of the Communion. The implication is that much of the Communion thinks we have succumbed to secularized cultural influences, at the expense of the traditional teaching of the church.
What seems to be missing in that account, however, is a recognition that we as Americans understand ourselves to have been on a long trajectory of widening the circle of human rights and freedom, from emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement to marriage equality. That is the sentiment and national identity captured in that old hymn which we sang today, “We shall overcome”: a sense that there is always more work to be done to establish the cause of justice fully.
Moreover, we as a people have again and again had to confront the hard reality that whenever we have tried to narrow the circle of who is included and who is excluded, we have gotten something terribly wrong. Slavery. The Long Walk. The Trail of Tears. Japanese internment camps. The voyage of the St. Louis, that Jewish refugee ship that was turned away from our shores during World War II. Border fences. Though we may not always be fully conscious of it, we as a people know at a profound level the price of exclusion and the corresponding value of mercy, because there have been so many wounds that we have had to heal. It is inevitable, therefore, that our church, like our society, should be touched by that reality. So yes, it is true that our church has been influenced by the culture—but it is a culture that has over time tried to come to terms with the full implications of that guiding phrase, “liberty and justice for all”—an ambition to which we are committed as a people, in no small part, precisely because of the roots of our founding fathers in the very English Christianity that gave rise to the Anglican Communion. And I think that a part of the legacy, is that it has caused us a church to hear and read in the gospels in a uniquely urgent manner a mandate for mercy and inclusion where others might overlook it. As one commentator put it, we as a church have come to believe that when we are judged by God, it is likely that God will hold us more accountable for those whom we left out, than those whom we let in. That is who we are.
So it’s been quite a week. I’m glad the Anglican Communion is still in one piece, but we still have a long way to go in achieving the real understanding and relationship that can bind together a truly global church. I’m grateful that a man of the compassion and humility of Francis is pope, and that he’s written a book on mercy. And I’m humbled beyond words by the personal sacrifice that Martin Luther King, Jr. offered to us as a nation and people, who understood justice as the pole around which the moral arc of the universe bends. For as today’s psalm reminds us, the justice of the Lord is like the great deep, and we have only begun to plumb its depths. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016