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Jan13FriWhat is the role of The Salvation Army in advocating for the poor and marginalized? What influence can we have over those who treat others unjustly? January 13, 2012 by Major Julie Slous
Most of us have vivid memories from our childhood, some for their charmed and warmed aspects, others for the struggle and learning they represent. It is the latter that shadows my perspective when I think of Grade 4 recesses. While most of my classmates watched the clock, anticipating the bell, I remember dreading the moment. Why couldn't time just stand still? Once recess began, I would have to face the bullies in the playground—a group of Grade 8 girls who liked to torment me. They were mean and relentless, and double my size and strength. I was not from their side of the tracks and they made sure that everyone knew what separated us in the larger playground of humanity. Their only agenda was to impose their power and rules on poor, unassuming, Grade 4 students. Life wasn't fair.
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While my days of playground rivalry are long past, I've discovered that schoolyard bullies often grow up to be adult bullies. During a recent interaction with some imposing individuals in our church neighbourhood, the clanging of the recess bell came to mind. The occasion was a community meeting for local residents who had come to The Salvation Army seeking information and support in the midst of some very difficult circumstances. I watched as the bully entered the room, an imposing giant whose professional mandate had little sensitivity toward the plight of the poor. The impact of the bully's presence was instantly felt. Conversation closed down. People shrank in their seats. A heavy awkwardness filled the room. This Goliath had arrived, flexing an intimidating presence. No one seemed ready to respond with any sizable slingshot.
I wondered in the moment what Jesus would have done. How would he have responded to a presence so intent on squashing the poor without any regard for their suffering? I questioned more specifically what The Salvation Army should be doing to advocate and support these people. What was my personal opportunity in this heart-wrenching situation?
Visions of the persistent widow came rushing to mind (see Luke 18:1-8). She was a feisty soul who dared to face the bullies in her neighbourhood. She comes boldly to the New Testament stage pleading for justice. We don't know exactly what the widow's issue was, only that it was significant enough to bring before the judge of the day. Most likely, she is being denied the inheritance she deserves. Whatever the scenario, she is determined to fight the giant in her neighbourhood (or perhaps even within her own family) and receive justice. It was a voice and presence like hers that I needed for my situation.
The widow's story is relevant to us as we continue to think theologically about the work of The Salvation Army in bringing hope and dignity to the marginalized. Cultural factors provide a helpful backdrop for our understanding, as the widow has obvious strikes against her. First of all, she is female, living in a male-dominated society, without voice or influence. Second, she is a widow. In the ancient Near East and throughout Scripture, the widow was not only a symbol of powerlessness but was immediately identified as a victim of injustice and exploitation. As she stepped into the judge's courtroom, she did not enter heavy-handedly or with any sense of advantage. Third, the woman had refused to resort to bribery, which would have been the conventional means of the day for settling disputes. She comes earnestly to represent her situation. Her fighting spirit is motivated by an urgent need for survival.
In replaying this story, we might well ask why Jesus didn't insert the presence of someone like a Salvation Army dignity worker somewhere in this scene. At the very least, why isn't there a Good Samaritan showing up to offer support and advocacy? Surely Jesus could have added a couple of credible witnesses to bring weight and authenticity to the widow's request. But the widow stands alone. Although Luke has told us how Jesus is completely invested in the poor (see Luke 4:18), this is not emphasized in the story. Rather, the widow is without advocate or advisor. We look on and are impressed by her persistent spirit that refuses to surrender to the bully before her.
By the time we get to the end of the story, we are primed and ready for Jesus to preach about the importance of advocacy for the poor. It's been the perfect setup to rebuke those who have not stood up to the bully threatening the woman. But yet again, we will not find this emphasis. In fact, we've been alerted from the beginning to understand this story is told to show the disciples that “they should always pray and not give up” (see Luke 18:1). Respectfully, we note Jesus' overall point. The widow teaches us the importance of persisting in prayer. If we labour long enough on our knees, we, too, can wear the judge down and see our petitions answered. The prayers of the righteous will prevail. Let us persist so that when the Son of Man returns, this kind of faith will be found on the earth (see Luke 18:8).
While we might be tempted to move on at this point, we risk missing Jesus' deeper insights. Let's replay the parable again. A corrupt judge gives in reluctantly to a widow's request, not because he buys into her cause, but because she is becoming a major annoyance to him. “Because this widow keeps bothering me,” says the judge, “I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me” (Luke 18:5). More vividly translated, the widow's assault is so intense that it's as if she is giving the judge a black eye. The widow achieves a relentless presence that publically calls the judge's reputation and power into question. Finally, we arrive at the parable's main point. If a corrupt judge can respond to the persistent pleas of the poor, how much more will a loving God respond to the prayers of our hearts?
The widow's success is held out as an inspiration to all who follow in the courtroom of the unjust judge. Misdirected powers of authority and regimes of injustice can be brought to account. If a persistent widow with no advocate can have success before a corrupt judge, how much more will a loving God heed the prayers of his people? The widow becomes a model dignity worker. She reminds us that injustices must be challenged. If one who has been so unjustly victimized herself is able to give this testimony, how much more should we be empowered to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves … defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9)? If we doubt we can make a difference, the widow of Luke's Gospel is standing in the wings to remind us that success can come with our courageous persistence.
Just in case you think the widow's story cancels out our responsibility to advocate for the poor, look again. Jesus tells us “to pray and not give up.” In so doing, Jesus may know something we have yet to discover: it is through the experience of prayer that our own hearts become connected to the heartbeat of God. When this happens, it's impossible for us to walk away from those who struggle for justice. The real issue is not about how we bother God with our requests, but more importantly how God will bother us back. It is a bold picture of the Kingdom where God's dignity workers act on what burdens the heart of God, because our prayers have led us to this place. And so we pray not to wear God down with our individual requests. We pray to chase after God's own heart and to know his way of tackling the bullies in the neighbourhoods of the poor.
Theologian Frederick Buechner said, “Persistence is our key, not because you have to beat a path to God's door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there's no way of getting to the door.” While prayer will never change God, it can change us. Prayer becomes the means through which our priorities become aligned with God's mercy and compassion. It is the divine forum in which courage is cultivated to never give up, never back down and never compromise faith. As we enter this new year, let us find our way forward on our knees, because we know this is how bullies are defeated in the neighbourhoods of the poor. This is what faith looks like on earth.
Major Julie Slous, D.Min., is a corps officer, with her husband Brian, at Winnipeg's Heritage Park Temple. She also serves as adjunct faculty at the College for Officer Training.