Around my neck I often wear a pectoral cross made from spent ammunition from the civil war in Mozambique. It comes from a project translated from Portuguese as ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ as in those words of Isaiah from Advent Sunday’s lectionary readings:
‘In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’ (Isaiah 2:1-5)
We live in a world in which we are acutely aware that ‘nation lifts up sword against nation’ and there is mess and pain and injustice. Whether it’s the narrative around immigration, or a fuel crisis, or the damage inflicted on our planet, or indeed the price of eggs, there is talk of justice in the public square. Thankfully, in our vision of LIFE Together we have committed to be ‘advocates for flourishing through initiatives which combat injustice…’ yet I am under no illusion that acting with justice is easy or straightforward, and of course mercy and love must also be brought to the table.
Last week, I hosted an event in the House of Lords focused on the experience of long-term sentencing on both victims of crime and those in prison. Sadly, the popular narrative is that the way to deter crime and to deal with offenders, and to make our streets safer, is to lock more people up and for longer. The evidence does not support these headline-fuelled views. Furthermore, if we want to reduce re-offending, make rehabilitation a possibility and ensure victims of crime are valued and respected, then the content of the sentence is vital.
Probably the most poignant moments of last Tuesday’s event was the speech by Ray and Vi Donovan, whose son, Chris, was murdered in 2001. Theirs is a story of grief and anger but also of transformation, both for them and for the offenders, made possible through a restorative justice programme.
At that event on sentencing, I was wearing my Mozambican pectoral cross, as I was when I recorded my message on the need to recognise domestic abuse. I will wear it for each of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. I was also wearing it last week when I had the privilege of hearing the President of South Africa address members of both House of Parliament and I thought back to my time in South Africa in 1994 and the injustice of apartheid. I have also been wearing it when I have opened angry emails and letters from people who have wanted to express their own sense of injustice about decisions made about them or their worshipping communities or their buildings. I recognise that sometimes what one person sees as the right path will be seen as injustice by another. We live in a messy world. Yet, justice begins with daring to see the big picture beyond ourselves and ensuring the light is shone in every corner. It will always be about what is right in the present because of the call to shape the future. It is never about revenge and will always be about good order and right relationship. And the call to justice has to begin with our hearts focused on God and the Kingdom of God, which is here and yet not fully.
Those words of Isaiah hundreds of years before Christ came to earth, begin with ‘In the days to come …’. Those days have broken in with the coming of Christ but are still to be completed with Christ’s return and the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. We live all this in Advent as we look back and look forwards.
Just over a week ago, I was sitting with a group of children in a primary school and a child pointed to my cross and asked if he could hold it. It was duly passed round little hands. Then came the prophetic words from one child: ‘If you hold your arm out and hang the chain from your hand it doesn’t feel heavy, but when you put it round your neck, it is.’
That’s the thing: we are called not to dangle justice at arm’s length but rather to wear it and carry it close to our hearts and live it with our eyes fixed on God and the coming in of God’s kingdom. Perhaps then we will see injustice as God sees it – whether it be about world issues; or prisoners and victims; or gender violence and domestic abuse; or the way I treat my neighbour; or how we order our life together.
Whatever we choose to do this Advent, may we seek to walk the path of justice with love and mercy and imagination, as we echo Isaiah’s words ‘come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’ May we long to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths.
This comes with my thanks and prayers this Advent.