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THE JUSTICE COVENANT

by Gerry McCarthy

gerry mccarthy


In his recent book Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing Lutheran priest Dennis Jacobsen tells a story.

     He writes: An old rabbi once asked his students: "How do you know when the night is over and the day has dawned?" One student raised his hand. "Could it be, Rabbi, that it is when you look in the distance and see a tree and can tell whether it is a pear tree or an orange tree?" "No," said the rabbi. Another student raised his hand. "Could it be, Rabbi, that it is when you look in the distance and see an animal and can tell whether it is a dog or a bear?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Well, tell us then," implored the students. "Tell us how we can know when the night is over and the day has dawned." The old man responded, "It is when you can look into the face of any man or woman and see there the face of your brother or sister. Because, if you cannot do that, no matter how bright it is, you are still in the night."

      We separate ourselves from people in various ways. Racism, classism, ageism, and sexism are the obvious dividers. But there are subtle cultural attitudes that separate us from people too. I once attended a conference where Jean Vanier spoke to a gathering of young people. Let’s be honest, he explained, we sometimes look at people and say to ourselves: "psychologically you smell."

     Too often we forget how status symbols, competitiveness, and the cult of celebrity effect our perceptions of people too. In his new book Snobbery: The American Version Joseph Epstein writes: "It used to be who you were, then it was what you did, then it was what you had, then it was whom you knew -and now it’s beginning to be how many people know you."

     Epstein’s description of social power in North America came to mind while reading Sr. Barbara Fiand’s new book In the Stillness You Will Know. I was struck by her reference to "radical servanthood." She says the foot-washing performed by Jesus is the primary symbol of the Christian covenant. I asked Fiand about this when I reached her by telephone recently. "Even though the foot-washing was just in the Gospel of John, you have that wonderful reflection in Matthew’s Gospel about the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over you…it shall not be so with you," she says. "It’s not that you have an option, and you can discern if that’s the way you want to go. If you’re a follower of the vision that cannot be how you live. To me, that is what the Eucharist stands for. That is the new covenant. Jesus washes their feet, then breaks the bread and pronounces a new covenant. So what is the covenant? It’s a justice covenant. It has nothing to do with magic. It has everything to do with the body encountering itself in Christ and saying ‘yes’ to a radical different way of life. That’s where Christianity hasn’t always been tried."

     Occasionally I find myself struggling with frustration and anxiety. It’s usually when I’m enmeshed in the dominant culture. Negative attitudes, assumptions, and cultural priorities take us away from the liberation of the Gospel. Before long we’re measuring our work and relationships by standards completely foreign to Jesus.

     The radical servanthood of Jesus’ life turns the tables on those cultural attitudes that separate us from others. We begin to see through new eyes. And we’re filled with immense grace.

     Social justice is too often viewed with a mixture of confusion, alarm, defensiveness, and misunderstanding. I’ve had people say it must represent a political manifesto. But I can think of no better way to sum up social justice than to echo the words of Barbara Fiand. She writes that: "Each of us, because of his or her integral relationship with others, nature, and the world of values, has the capacity to beautify or taint the waters of eternity."

     Community organizing and efforts to help the poor and vulnerable usually face resistance. The struggle for justice is never an easy path for Christians. Disappointment often reigns. But in Doing Justice, Dennis Jacobsen tells us that the Spirit that first summoned people to do justice will also fill them with light and grace. "Deep within, deeper than any discouragement or defeat, deeper than any regret or resignation, there lie the beauty and the joy of a life well lived," he says.

     When we do justice we’re connected to the covenant of Jesus. It’s work of humility and service that must continue to find ways, as Daniel Berrigan once explained, to "unleash the contemplative springs within."

Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge

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