What follows is Joshua Chittum’s Micah 6:8 reflection:
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?
Last week I toured the United Nations Headquarters in New York City before attending a work conference in the heart of Manhattan. Within the UN’s vast complex our tour guide lead us through an exhibit that spotlighted the injustices of the world – military expenditures dwarfing humanitarian aide, the fact that it is cheaper to take a life with a landmine than to save one from the same device, artwork from the Arab world highlighting the beauty of cultures outside our own, while fearmongers ravish the senses.
Displayed on a black pedestal, standing with the weight of witness on her shoulders, was Saint Agnes who was discovered beneath the rubble of a cathedral destroyed by the Fat Boy bomb in Nagasaki. Her entire backside from head to toe was charred and molted. I looked into her eyes and tried to imagine the unimaginable. Feel the force of the shock wave that knocked her to the ground. See the sacred space crumbling around her. Touch the heat of her enflamed exterior.
I longed to stay in her presence – this representation of destroyed lives, of decimating the sacred, of pure injustice. But the tour guide ushered us along and time would not allow me to stand face to face with her any longer. It’s just like life. Take a fleeting look at injustice and then move on as if nothing happened. But that day, standing beneath a stone saint, a tantrum began to brew that was not satisfied with pushing aside all the pain of the past and the present.
Intensifying my temper was a quote by a former UN General Secretary. Painted in black letters on a white wall it stated the mission of the UN not “to take humanity to heaven, but save humanity from hell.” The hurt of the words slowed my step. Though I cannot succinctly define justice, merely avoiding hell does not come close to sufficiency.
Prone to slide into places where there is more darkness than light, my mind did just that. I thought of the people in the world and their individuals hells. The wars. The bombs. The landmines. The limbs missing. The fleeing. The drowning. The hate. I then thought of the families and children experiencing homelessness that I work with in my day job. I thought of their struggles. The mental illness. The violence. The addiction. The hopelessness. And I began to agonize over whether we have succeeded in saving humanity from hell.
This angst and obsession stayed with me throughout my time in New York. I struggled with feelings of ineptness in my role, in my organization, my community, and this world. The face of Saint Agnes stared at me as I wandered the city streets. She spoke to me. She told me to do something, to throw a tantrum if I must. Just as long as I didn’t allow that moment standing before her to become fleeting, to become forgotten.
Meanwhile, I tried to focus on the learning I was sent to do at the conference. But the injustice of children seeing their dreams disintegrate through no fault of their own kept spinning in my heart and mind. The absurd shortcomings of our actions dug its way into my ear and played an unsettling tune. The lavish fundraisers. The Christmas present hand outs. The warm fuzzies for those privileged to feel them in their bellies. The non profit industrial complex.
So very little of any of this creates justice. So few lives are allowed to live according to their dreams. There’s just the monotony of derelict lots and police chasings. Of lost hope and a competition for the one who hurts the most. I swore at the bromides to get through the day. I don’t care about a single starfish any longer. I only care about the millions dying along the shore. I don’t care about the planting of one, little seed. I only care that so much land is barren to begin with.
Listening to all this in my mind – stuck in a city not known for its tranquility – my clinical anxiety pinned me to the mat. Fantastical worries about evil gods and falling worlds, the mirror reflected nothing but weakness and impotence. How can I move a grain of sand, yet alone come up with a plan that will act for true justice, rather than spin in place inside a rusted, wired wheel?
I returned to Kansas City drenched in hopelessness. I continued my work on this blog. I rewrote it. I overwrote it. I wrote it again. The message remained vaguely defiant, yet helpless without a plan, except my desire to rage.
Still, there was a deadline and though I wasn’t completely satisfied in them, I shared the words. In return, I was heard. And comfort was shared with me. It took a few days, but that simple act placed a candle back in my hand. The wick is still not lit. But it was the mercy of another that gave me back what I had dropped. And without that mercy, I’ve realized there can be no justice.
This struggle over the last few weeks stemmed from a place I could not identify until I heard a quote this morning on the On Being podcast. Host Krista Tippet, talking to a secular Buddhist, quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as saying,
“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised…When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated… I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.” (You can listen to the full episode here: The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel.)
I fear that someday I will become well adjusted to injustice. I fear that with that adjustment I will no longer be able to act for its demise. I fear that Saint Agnes’ face will be forgotten. I fear that I will give up when the world seems less interested in ending justice and more interested in pleasures. Mercy was the only way to help me through this.
Even if we have failed or fail in the future and find ourselves in the darkness of hell, only together can we find stones to strike and create a spark for light. With that light comes the hope that even if everything we did was wrong today, tomorrow we may be grow closer to getting it right.