This Moltmann Monday, I want to share a passage from The Spirit of Life with you, which I hope will help us think theologically about recent issues in Baltimore, and about the systemic racism in our country that keeps rearing its ugly head. It comes from a section on “the Justification of Life” and I’ll try not to quote the entire thing…!
In the world of injustice there are not merely victims on the one hand and perpetrators on the other. Between the two there are also political conditions and economic structures which actually turn some people into victims and others into perpetrators… I have called unjust systems like this ‘vicious circles’, because unless their very beginnings are resisted they develop a kind of potential of their own, through which the whole system inexorably impels itself towards its own death. First of all the weaker and most vulnerable creatures die, and then the stronger ones too. First of all the children of the poor die, and later the rich will die as well. ‘First of all the forests die, and afterwards human beings.’ …
We human beings are both the perpetrators and the victims of these vicious circles and their deadly spirals. The strong and rich can for a time shuffle off the costs on to the weak and the poor, but in the end they are going to become victims themselves. The phenomena are familiar and sufficiently obvious. What we are dealing with here are the concepts of structural sin and the righteousness and justice of God which creates peace.
Ok, let’s just stop there for a minute, because there is already so much to ponder. Look: the bottom line here is that we are all in this together. That has always been the case, and will always be the case, because that is the way God has designed the world to work. That can be a beautiful thing, because when something goes well, it goes well for many. But it also means that, invariably, when something goes wrong for a person (or, in systemic sin, for a group of people), it will eventually go wrong for everyone else, too. Life begets life, thank God. But we can’t forget that death begets death. And when death takes hold in a system of a society, these vicious circles spiral toward destruction. As Moltmann said, “the whole system inexorably impels itself toward its own death.” In more colloquial terms we call that a death wish. So, maybe racism hasn’t hit the last couple of generations of white people very squarely, but it was only a matter of time before the death spiral of racism caught up with all of us. That is what invariably happens. We can see this trend over and over again throughout human history. It’s not enough that we are okay, for a while. Whatever isn’t okay for someone else or some other group of people will make its way toward us, too, given time.
Think about a car. You might have a small problem with a small part of your car, and for a while, only that small part is affected. Your oil is getting clumpy, but everything else still works fine. But at some point, that problem is going to break down the whole car, and you will be stuck on the side of the road with a much bigger issue (and a heftier repair cost) than you did when it began. If something in the system is broken, eventually the whole system is going to be affected. Racism is a broken part of our American system, and things are going to keep breaking down until we repair it.
Alright, back to Moltmann (italics his):
The highest form of justice is the justice of compassion, which creates justice for people deprived of it… This does not mean tempering justice with mercy. It means that people receive the rights of which they have been deprived, and that the unjust are converted to justice. …
So who then is the Holy Spirit?… He is the Spirit of righteousness and justice who can be sensed in the pain of people without rights over their deprivations. Without a feeling for justice this pain would not exist. … He is the Spirit of righteousness and justice who speaks in the guilty conscience of the people who commit violence. …
This divine justice is shown in world history by the instability of unjust conditions, which have to be kept on an even keel by more and more violence, more and more police, more and more military control. Peace is a fruit of justice… All that grows on the foundation of injustice is organized peacelessness. So unjust systems have feet of clay. … The hidden presence in world history of the divine justice in God’s Spirit ‘destabilizes’, so to speak, human systems of injustice, and sees to it that they cannot last.
You’ve probably heard me say before that our view of the Holy Spirit is often too fluffy and idealized. So I love this section from Moltmann because the Spirit is not vague hippie happiness. It is serious presence, amid violent conditions of life. The Holy Spirit can be found in the pain of people who have been treated unjustly. Think about that for a minute. When we quote Romans 8:28 and talk about the Spirit groaning for us when we have no words, that is not limited (or even primarily) a personal thing. That is the groan of our very world, our very societies and communities. Like the people of God who cried out in Egypt from their unjust slavery, the Spirit is present in the pain of those the system has trampled. And the Spirit is also present when the people who have done the trampling, either directly or complicitly, begin to realize that they play a part in it, and feel the prick of conscience that comes right before (we hope) repentance. In each of these, we see the Spirit of God speaking to us and moving us toward LIFE and away from those vicious circles that spiral toward death.
One last thing: I know this is eggshell territory, but there are two ways to see the uprisings and frustrations and riots that have been happening (and will continue to happen if nothing changes). One of them is to judge and denounce, which I understand and sympathize with, because nobody wants violence, and I’m certainly not advocating it. But there is another side, and that is this: these reactions are, at their core, an instability that comes from an unjust structure. These are not actions done in a vacuum. They are symptoms of an unjust system that has spiraled down to such a level that it threatens to affect all of us. It is hard, and the violence is wrong. But the instability is absolutely right. It’s not only right, it’s Spirit-breathed. The Spirit of God who always rejects death and seeks to move our recalcitrant feet toward life will not be silent about this injustice, because we are designed to feel pain when the justice and righteousness of God does not happen.
What if we saw this time in our nation’s history as a movement of the Holy Spirit for us once again to revisit our country’s racism? What if we saw this injustice and thought, you know, the Spirit is once again moving in the pain of injustice, and if we could only listen, if we could only follow, maybe this time- maybe this time- we can begin to turn this system of death slowly back toward the life that God intends.
We love to think of the Spirit as a comforter. Let’s not forget that the Holy Spirit is righteous and just, and sometimes that means the Spirit brings instability to our unjust systems to remind us again of the kingdom of God we’re meant to behold. We aren’t meant to stay in the instability, but sometimes the only way we can find our way to peace is through turbulence.