Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8;
Amy Goodman is in trouble. She’s the television journalist my wife and I had dinner with last summer. She’s the host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network.
In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to sources such as OpEdNews, Information Clearing House, and Alternet, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable fountain of information about issues that touch all of our lives. Amy’s program is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
Anyway, Amy is in trouble. Or should I say that judges in the North Dakota legal system are in trouble. I mean the court’s black robes there are about to tangle with a woman who is stronger and more committed than all of them put together.
The issue at hand is a charge of criminal trespassing against Ms. Goodman. It stems from her coverage of Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline – a nearly 2000 mile, multi-billion dollar construction stretching through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. The pipeline cuts across Sioux Tribe sacred sites and burial grounds at their Standing Rock Reservation. Defense of those holy grounds has brought together thousands of Native Americans from across the country and Latin America, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world.
On Labor Day weekend this year, while Amy was covering that resistance, security forces of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline’s builders, set dogs on the Standing Rock “Protectors” (they refuse the name ” protestors”). She filmed a dog whose mouth was dripping with Protectors’ blood.
Amy’s honest reporting (protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment) proved offensive to ETP, their security forces, and to the local police. Hence the charges.
Please keep all of that in mind as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. In the context of an unjust legal system, our readings raise the question of what it means to “pray always.” Jesus says it means persistently demanding justice. Amy embodies that meaning.
Actually, the readings compare what might be termed men’s intermittent way of praying with women’s unrelenting persistence. For instance, in today’s readings, men shockingly pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies.
In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel is in it for the long haul. She indefatigably confronts the power structure of her day as her way of “praying always.” That is, like Amy Goodman, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice. According to Jesus, that’s what prayer means.
Take that first reading from Exodus. . . Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.
“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another assistant called Hur.
Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.
“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”
So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. That’s a pretty primitive concept of prayer (and of God), don’t you agree?
In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, “praying always” represents the adoption of an attitude — a way of life — that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Amy Goodman.
To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)
“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)
“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)
“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)
“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.
(Laughter from the crowd . . .)
“’While it is true,’ the judge says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”
In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!
Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?
Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.
Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position and acting upon it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.
So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”
What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspires us to renounce ideas of a God who calls us to “mow our enemies down.” It inspires us to view prayer not as a now-and-then petition, but as a lifestyle based on a struggle for justice.
In any case, Amy Goodman seems even more determined than the widow in Jesus’ parable. In prosecuting her, the pro-ETP justice system has bitten off more than it can chew.
Thank God for persistent women! We men have so much to learn from them. A good start towards doing so would be to watch “Democracy Now” every day. It’s on line. Check it out.