Justice, Prayer and Outrage Fatigue
February 20, 2017
Craig Greenfield is an activist, author, serial social-entrepreneur, founder and director of Alongsiders International.
Let me guess: You're feeling a little upset about the state of the world. Political Facebook posts got you all twisted up inside. You're feeling the burden of injustice around the world. Me too.
Lately, I've been meditating on an obscure story that Jesus told about someone who faced massive injustice. The lessons in this story for our situation today are profound:
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
When I was a kid sitting in the pews at church, I was taught that this is a simple story about why we should pray more. "God is like the judge, actually much better, but still, like the judge," they said. "So, keep praying even when God seems to be ignoring you and one day, like the judge, He will relent and grant your three wishes."
Now I see this story a little differently. And it brings me great comfort.
God is not the evil, apathetic judge. And Jesus never meant for us to see the judge in this story as being like God. In fact, the judge represents every unjust leader and corrupt government official. Jesus describes the judge as someone who neither "feared God nor cared what people thought." This bad guy is described as "unjust" both in action and attitude.
The Widow and the Unjust Ruler
We have two characters, a downtrodden widow and a powerful person. The widow seeks justice and the powerful man has the power to give it to her, but he won't.
For us, like the widow, often the ones we are asking for justice simply do not care. They don't care about us, and they certainly don't care about the poor. They are unjust and corrupt leaders.
If you've sat with mistreated orphans and widows, or slum evictees, or refugees denied entry to a safe haven, you know the outrage. It threatens to overflow from your chest and eyes. If you have eyeballs, you will see injustice all around. And it would be easy to cultivate a perpetual sense of outrage.
In the story Jesus tells, the widow would have had every right to walk around with clenched fists and a burning heart. And here's the lesson we need today from Jesus in the midst of all that is wrong and oppressive.
Jesus told this story to teach his disciples that they should pray and never give up their pursuit of justice, even in the face of indifference and even downright evil. In it, He is calling us to prayer and perseverance—not perpetual rage.
Prayer in an Age of Outrage
Brian Zahnd puts it like this: "Beware of cultivating perpetual rage. I know there's much to be angry about, but your soul cannot bear the strain of perpetual rage. Pray more."
Pray more. Because God is good and He loves justice even more than we do. No one can healthily maintain a continual sense of outrage. We need righteous anger to push us toward action. But first we need to allow it to push us into prayer.
As my friend Chris Heuertz says, “Through activism we confront toxicity in our world, but through contemplation we confront it in ourselves.”
We need both. We need to bring this anger to God in solitude and silence, so that we can know his will, persevere, and come back to fight the battle another day. We need God to carry our anger for us, and help us transform it into something meaningful and wise.
The widow's prayer needs to become our prayer: "Grant me justice against the adversary." But prayer alone is not enough. Through prayer, God guides us into wise action. Pope Francis got it right when he said, "First you pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That's how prayer works."
A version of this article originally appeared on Craig Greenfield's blog, where he regularly writes about church and justice issues. Used by permission.
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