The streets rang with the sound of a pounding fist on a door. Over the symphony of footsteps, pushcarts, and the murmuring of a crowd going about business as usual, you could hear the “bang, bang, bang,” of flesh making contact with wood on rattled hinges. It had become a familiar sound, day after day, and a familiar site as well as a woman stood her ground outside the office of a judge, relentlessly awaiting the door to open so she might plead her case yet again and demand justice against those who had wronged her. And day after day, she was greeted with the same hesitant annoyance as the door creaked open and the judge answered her knocks with dismissive condescension before slamming the door in the her face once more. Such treatment would not dissuade her pursuit of justice, though, for the next day, there she was again — beating the drum of self advocation with even more determination than the day before until, finally, the judge relented and granted a ruling in her favor.
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells this parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. It is a parable that depicts the unfortunately all too familiar dynamic of what happens when someone who is deemed less than and living without access to resources goes up against the powers at be in demand of reparation. At that time, to be a widow often meant living without the security and support of a family structure, having to rely upon the charity of others for survival. And yet, Jesus depicts this woman not as some helpless dependent but as an empowered advocate for herself who refuses to give up the pursuit of justice when those who are supposed to be upholding it drop the ball. And I wonder what the widow, the judge, and the words of Jesus teach us about God’s sense of justice. What does God’s sense of justice look like?
- God’s justice takes accountability seriously — not for the sake of retribution and punishment but, rather, for the sake of restoration, reparation, and the righting of relationship
- Justice is for all of creation, not just the privileged few
- Justice is hard — requiring persistence, confrontation, and righteous discomfort
- The Kin-Dom of God is one that takes justice seriously
- Jesus linking persistence in prayer with justice
- Justice as a spiritual practice
- The notion of “God’s justice” is fraught with negative, punitive connotations; however, God’s sense of justice which Jesus seems to impart is one that centers around inclusivity, equity, and love
Born into slavery in New York at the onset of the 19th century, Isabella Baumfree suffered the cruelty of four different enslavers before her 15th birthday. One of 12 siblings, all of whom shared a cramped basement cellar for a bedroom during her early years, Bella experienced the forced separation of her family, the inhuman abuse at the hand of her enslavers, and the trauma of being considered property as her introduction to the world. And yet, she persisted.
Years later, when the state of New York approached their declaration of the emancipation of all enslaved people in 1827, her final enslaver refused to follow through with his promise of freedom for Bella. Taking her freedom into her own hands, though, she escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia, and found refuge with a sympathetic family while her other daughter and son remained behind. Upon hearing the news that her son, Peter, had been sold to a slaver in Alabama — an action which, by that point, was illegal in the state of New York — she was devastated. And yet, she persisted. Enlisting the aid of those who gave her sanctuary, Isabella Baumfree took her former enslaver to court, ultimately winning her son back in the first recorded case of a Black woman challenging and being granted justice against a white man.
With her son returned to her, Isabella Baumfree moved to New York City in 1829, but her early years of freedom were marked by the difficulties of survival that many emancipated people experienced. And yet, she persisted — finding work as a housekeeper to support herself and her son, converting to Christianity, and even winning another court case against a white man who tried to implicate her in a crime she did not commit. She and her son, Peter, would remain united until 1839, when he took a job on a whaling ship and never returned. Though her grief was overwhelming, she yet persisted.
It was June 1, 1843, and Isabella Baumfree made a few decisions that day: she decided to change her name to Sojourner Truth and to devote her life to her faith and to the abolition of slavery for all. Sojourner Truth would come to join the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which fought for abolition and women’s rights, and would go on to become a leading voice of activism for human rights in the decades to come along the likes of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Despite the dangers of speaking out against slavery and gender inequality as a Black woman, Sojourner Truth persisted, with her 1851 speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” echoing through the centuries to inspire hearts still today.
Her work as an activist was a lifelong commitment — continuing to advocate for abolition during the Civil War (even meeting Abraham Lincoln), fighting for land grants for former enslaved people, insisting on prison reform throughout the country, and championing the fight for women’s rights. Sojourner Truth would continue her work even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and though she would not live to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, her life and legacy was an undeniable inspiration and catalyst for putting that ink to paper.
A life marked by unimaginable suffering, awe inspiring perseverance, and a drive for justice for all, Sojourner Truth was one of the most important and influential abolitionists and champions of women’s rights that this country has ever known. Through slavery, poverty, legalities, and loss, if anything can be said of Sojourner Truth, it is that she persisted.
Her persistence is something to be in awe of, something to be inspired by and to aspire too, of course. Sojourner Truth is an exemplar of perseverance and what a prophetic pursuit of justice requires — especially for an emancipated Black woman living in the 19th century. Yet, her persistence points to the necessity for persistence to begin with; and the necessity for persistence points to the state of society’s neglect and oppressive delay of justice for its people — particularly for human beings who are deemed less and least.
Persistence is inspiring and hopeful. It makes for good battle cries and remarkable lives. But it also makes for exhausted hearts — hearts still rattling the hinges of freedom and equity today. The need for persistence breeds understandable tiredness: tiredness from not being taken seriously or treated equitably because of one’s gender identity, tiredness from bodies being brutalized because of the color of one’s skin, tiredness from being shamed and suppressed because of whom and how one loves, tiredness from being dislocated and stereotyped because of one’s economic status, and tiredness from having to fight the same fight over and over again for centuries on end. People are tired; and it has largely been the people who are most exhausted, who experience these injustices firsthand, who have had to carry on the fight the most. It has largely been the people who are most in need of rest who have had to be the most persistent in bringing about change and convincing the world that their voice matters.
It has been the widows of the world who have had to bang on the doors of justice the longest and the loudest. And of course, such persistence and determination should be praised and exemplified. But it should also be a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go in our communal commitment to co-creating a just world where everyone does their part and where justice applies to all.
The widow’s necessary persistence is a commentary on society’s posture of neglectfulness when it comes to listening to those whom it would have silent and caring for those whom it would rather keep on the other side of the door, the other side of the road, the other side of town. On the other hand, Jesus, someone who was born on the other side, points to God’s promptness and ever ready ear as the example of the kind of faithful and just responsiveness that we are all called to emulate with one another. God’s justice is one that is quick and equitable, compassionate and persuasive, affirming and constructively disruptive. God’s justice is a justice that listens and responds with care and respect and tangibility. But this kind of justice is not reserved for the heavens beyond the clouds. No, this sense of justice, God’s sense of justice is meant to be our sense of justice too.
Let us look to the widow for inspiration. Let us look to the Sojourner Truths of the world for inspiration. And let us look to the judge for introspection to identify the ways in which we fall short in our treatment of one another and in our listening to one another, so we might work towards a justice that is in line with the divine’s — a sense of justice so ingrained and natural that it does not require persistence at all. What does God’s sense of justice look like? It looks like the immediacy with which Christ loves. It looks like equity, reparation, and inclusivity without the need for banging on closed doors to begin with.
So may we be persistent in our working towards such a day when persistence is no longer needed, when justice is not something that must be begged and pleaded for but, rather, exists as the default response to and for all. Amen.