Sunday, September 16, 2007

“Justice Calling”

Psalm 50; Luke 12:32-40[1]

The 2005 movie The Constant Gardener, based on John Le Carre’s novel of the same title, is a story about two people, Justin and Tessa, who are fighting injustice. Justin is a rather quiet and shy member of the British Foreign Service in Kenya. His wife, Tessa is a fiery human rights activist concerned to expose government exploitation. Tessa discovers that a pharmaceutical company called KDH is testing a drug called Dypraxa on the poor as an antidote to Tuberculosis. The problem is that they are conducting their trials by coercing poor Africans in exchange for health care. If they take the Dypraxa, they get heath care. If not, they don’t get health care. The other problem is that the medicine they’re testing is in some cases fatal. And, as Tessa rightly suspects, they are conducting their tests and covering up the deaths with the approval of the British government.

In the final scene, Tessa’s cousin explains the situation in this way, “So who has got away with murder? Not, of course, the British government. They merely covered up, as one does, the offensive corpses. Though not literally. That was done by person or persons unknown. So who has committed murder? Not, of course, the highly respectable firm of KDH Pharmaceutical, which has enjoyed record profits this quarter, and [and will] continue testing Dypraxa in Africa. No, there are no murders in Africa. Only regrettable deaths. And from those deaths we derive the benefits of civilization, benefits we can afford so easily... because those lives were bought so cheaply.”

The film is a study in contrasting characters. At first Justin is quite content to do his job and to tend his garden, empathetic but for all practical purposes oblivious to the suffering all around him. Tessa, by contrast, has a heart full of compassion, and seeks to reach out to help everyone she meets. In one particularly telling interchange, Tessa and Justin are traveling back to the city in their Land Rover, Tessa sees 3 young Africans she knows, and she asks Justin to stop and give them a ride. Justin objects, “We can't involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa.” Tessa asks, “Why?” Justin replies, “Be reasonable. There are millions of people, they all need help. It’s what the agencies are here for.” To which Tessa answers, “Yeah, but these are three people that WE can help.” Justin refuses, saying, “I have to think of you first.”

After Tessa is murdered to keep her from revealing what she knows and creating the scandal for KDH and the British government, Justin begins to investigate—first, to satisfy his own doubts about his wife, but then to carry on her work. In the process, he finally begins to see the people of Africa as people, and he feels the same compassion for them that Tessa had. At the end of the film, Justin is begging a pilot to take a young girl aboard a plane escaping from a band of marauding tribesmen, using almost exactly the same words Tessa had used with him—“this one is one we can help.”

In a very real sense, I think you could say that in the process Justin finally opens his eyes to the injustice around him. Or perhaps it’s better to say that Justin finally heeds the call of justice through the people who are being exploited all around him. As we’ve observed several times in our study of the Psalms, from the biblical point of view justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the strangers have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. It means that those on the margins of social power not only have someone who advocates on their behalf but also someone who takes concrete steps to make their lot in life better. Simply put—justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. Of course, when you look at the problems in the world, it can be overwhelming. There are so many millions who need help who are beyond our reach. There’s nothing we can do about that, but there are some we can help here and now.

This is the kind of call that the Psalmist speaks of in Psalm 50. God the Lord calls out to us all to put God’s justice into practice. What God wants from us is not ritual, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s kingdom and God’s justice in the world—to “pay our vows to the Lord.” It is the same message the prophet Micah had: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Throughout the Bible, what God desires from us most of all is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien are most frequently named in the Bible, but we could add others to the list, like the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill.[2]

In a very real sense, as we look at our world with all of its desperate needs, we might say that it is Jesus who is calling us.[3] “I am hungry, will you give me something to eat? I am a stranger, will you take me in? I am suffering, will you come to me?” The Bible makes it clear that we cannot claim to have a relationship with the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ if it does not lead us to identify with and work on behalf of “those he came to free and for whose salvation he died.”[4]

Justice is calling; what will our answer will be?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/12/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[3]J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-130.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 287.

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