“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Our first reflection this Lent, for Ash Wednesday, 13 February 2013, is written by Fr Michael J. Kelly SJ, a well-known writer, speaker and researcher on HIV/AIDS. Originally from Ireland, he has lived and worked for 50 years in Zambia. Fr Kelly has been widely recognized and awarded for his contribution to understanding the interplay between AIDS and justice as well as the importance of education to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Lent helps us get back to basics, challenging us to a deeper understanding of who we are, where we are heading and how well we are doing. As we do this, we examine our relationships with one another, with the world that God has entrusted to our care, and ultimately with God.
A particular challenge of Lent is to listen with fresh ears to the vision statement proclaimed by Jesus in Nazareth and to ask ourselves what we are doing to make it a reality in our personal lives and in the world around us: “The spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour” (Lk 4:18-19).
During Lent we may ask ourselves whether we have made a home in our hearts for the wonderful liberating news of Jesus: are the poor better off because of this news? Is the world becoming a place where those held captive by oppression, by guilt and depression, by stigma and discrimination, jubilantly find that the burden is being lifted from their shoulders? Is the world becoming a place where the downtrodden and marginalised can rejoice in the experience that they count and have their concerns addressed?
We hear, as if for the first time, the challenging words of Isaiah that the fast that pleases God is to loosen the bonds of injustice, to remove the pointing finger and the speaking of evil, to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
And then we look at our world, the beautiful world that God has given us. This is the home especially designed for us by God where no child, woman or man should ever experience hunger, thirst, want, neglect, abuse or degradation of dignity; where no one should be overwhelmed by disease; where all are free to exercise their personal responsibility and grow in a sense of personal worth. God placed us in this world so that we may achieve joyful self-fulfilment by reaching out to Him and to others and by caring for our environment – in doing so, we will lay the ground for an eternity of unspeakable happiness enveloped in God’s love for us.
Tragically, however, there is a great gap between the world as it is and as God intended it to be. All the injustices surrounding us keep that gap wide open and make it ever wider, working their way into nearly every aspect of life. And the ones most affected are those who are already at a disadvantage – the poor, women, children, those living with a disability, the elderly, those belonging to minority groups, prisoners and people affected by HIV.
Some years ago, the All-Africa Conference of Churches said that “unless and until justice is served to all people in the world, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, HIV and AIDS cannot be uprooted”.
What the Conference rightly said about HIV/AIDS is equally true of the many other unjust situations in our world, among them poverty and hunger, inadequacy of social, health and education services, corruption and abuse of authority. Gross injustice persists in all situations of discrimination, disempowerment, gender-based violence and child abuse. Around the world people flee conflicts, human rights abuses and survival-threatening climate change. People migrate in search of employment too, while exploitation of the south by the north continues and financial and economic systems obscenely favour the wealthy, leaving millions in poverty. None of these ills will be uprooted unless and until justice is served to all people in the world, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Lent is an excellent time to become more aware of these unacceptable and blatantly unjust situations. It is a time when we see more clearly what Pope John Paul II meant when he referred to the “structures of sin” that dominate our world. It is a time to ask if we ourselves could somehow be participating in these structures of sin.
Lent is a time when we question our lifestyle, the enterprises in which we are engaged, the commercial world in which we are caught up, the political and economic arrangements in which we participate in our society. Are any of these doing anything to diminish the dignity, needs and rights of others? Conversely, are we and our society doing anything to ensure that all individuals, families and groups are treated fairly and can play a role in determining their own destiny, that they can enjoy a just share of the benefits of society, a measure of control in its processes and an awareness of their worth? What concrete steps are we taking to recognise the inherent human dignity of every man, woman and child and to ensure they have what they need to live a decent and fulfilling life?
We know that the sort of Lent that pleases the Lord is “to break unjust fetters, and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor.” If we try, this Lent, to move in this direction, then our integrity will go before us and the glory of the Lord will go behind us. We will cry and the Lord will answer: “I am here” (cf. Isaiah 58: 6-9).
To read the Lenten reflection in French, please click here.