A blog from the Revd Dr (Mother) Alycia Timmis, Priest-in-Charge, The Northleach Benefice
“Justice” is a word we use and hear quite a lot, but what does it mean? It is, of course, both a noun and a verb – a ‘thing’ and an action. In the noun sense: Justice is the administration of law or equity. Maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment; giving of due deserts. In the verb sense: To punish or reward appropriately, to treat justly; To maintain justice in or among.
A call to justice came to me in my first term in university.
“You can change the world. Today. All it takes is a few simple steps!” These were the opening words of the main speaker at a gathering of students during my first term at university. All sorts of organisations and groups were vying for our attention and support. This particular group declared that they were about effecting change and making a real difference in the world. At the risk of showing my age, I’ll reveal that the cause celebre for this particular group was Apartheid in South Africa. At the time, young people all over the world were clamouring to force their academic institutions to divest interest and end any financial ties with South Africa. That seems a lifetime ago now, and in fact, I suppose it was.
However, I remember that meeting like it was yesterday. A dazzlingly articulate student took to the stage. He exuded passion and charisma. He railed against our tuition fees—our parents’ hard-earned money—being used to underpin an evil, oppressive regime. How could we stand by and let that happen? Something had to be done. And we were the ones to do it.
Details were given for a host of actions, protest marches and “occupying sit in’s” that had been organised to take place during the winter term after the Christmas holidays. We were advised, by another student sporting dreadlocks and torn trousers that we should go home over the Christmas break and tell our parents of our intentions to participate in the upcoming actions and make provisions for bail – as being arrested, was a very likely consequence
At those words, my heart sank. Changing the world was one thing; the prospect of prison was quite another. Still, over the Christmas holiday, I bided my time and waited for the right moment to put all of to this my father. My Dad was a man of few words. But, I knew him to be a man of faith, honour and courage. A man who stood up for what he believed in. He had served his country in the US Navy during the Second World War. Upon returning home from the South Pacific, he had participated in the great quest for Civil Rights, as both a private citizen and a public servant – he was a barrister who became a high court judge. My father was selected, by the then Governor, Bill Clinton, to become the first Black American to hold the post of Federal Judge in the Southern state of Arkansas. Surely, I mused, he would support my desire to ‘be counted’.
I found him, as usual, in his study reading the newspaper. He always held the newspaper up high, rendering him invisible behind it. “Dad, may I have a word?” The rustle of paper, and a faint, barely audible sound coming from behind it encouraged me to press on – swiftly. I took a deep breath: “Dad, I’ve decided to show my support for the black people in South Africa, living in the shadow of the injustice of Apartheid. I’m taking part in protests at Uni, and the organisers said we may get arrested. I just wanted to let you know.”
Anxiously, I waited for a response but received only silence. Then, a sudden and more substantial rustling of the newspaper, and then, from behind it, came the verdict: “Alycia,” he said, “It is commendable that you care about the people of South Africa. It is a truly dreadful situation. Racial inequality is one of society’s greatest evils. But, I can assure you that getting arrested is a highly overrated experience.” He went on, still from behind the paper: “Marching down the road with a placard is fine, but if really you want to do something, to help them and others, you must be the change you want to see in the world.”
In my naivety and youth, all I surmised from this response was that his answer was “No.” That I couldn’t go. So, I sloped off to my room, in a teenage huff. But, with age comes wisdom, and over the years I have come to know, understand and appreciate the truth and value of my father’s words. The things we do, the isolated actions we take are important, but, of far greater significance is the person we are every day; how we live, how we behave, and the way we move through the world. Our inclinations, our natural responses, the content and conduct of our lives. This is less about doing the right things, and more about living the right things.
While outward signs are important and often valuable, like protest marches and taking the knee, these things on their own are not often the means of change. As my father tried to teach me, Justice more often than not happens quietly, off-stage, off-screen, in understated and often unseen ways.
To give a current example, there are real imbalances in our education system, imbalances that have been heightened by the to-ing and fro-ing, in and outing, bubbling and isolating, of our children from school during the current pandemic. Real discrepancies in homeschooling, for a myriad of social and economic reasons, have shipwrecked the most vulnerable in our education system. This fact is something worth screaming, shouting, complaining, tweeting and marching about. However, more than gestures are needed to truly effect change. And, I’d like to take this moment to commend members of my local worshipping community who have taken this particular injustice to heart and are doing something about it. Members of our Northleach Benefice Pastoral Care Team are giving their time as reading volunteers in school – sitting, listening and supporting less confident younger readers, who have been impacted dramatically by the erratic nature of schooling over the past 18 months. We have volunteers that offering similar support in the area of Maths. This is an example of being the change, of working actively for justice, and not just gesturing for justice.
The words of Micah 6:6-8 put it best:
And what does the Lord require of us
that we are to act justly, and to show kindness and mercy,
and to walk humbly with God.