On Advent Sunday 30th November, our service included writing cards of greeting to 5 selected individuals supported as part of the Amnesty international Write for Rights campaign. We also wrote to people in authority with requests for individual cases to be heard, or reconsidered. The service was planned and lead by members of the Justice and Peace group.
The Gospel reading was the parable of the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18 1-8) which was beautifully dramatised in a sketch performed for us by David and Pam.
This is the address that was delivered by Fiona Liddell.
Helen Bamber , one of the founder members of Amnesty died earlier this year. She was born of a Jewish Polish family in N London. Her activism began at an early age – as a teenager she was on the streets protesting against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
In 1945 she responded to a call for volunteers to help survivors of Nazi concentration camps and at the age of 20 she was one of the first relief teams to enter liberated Bergen –Belsen and witness the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an experience that had a profound impact on her life.
Back in the UK in 1947 she joined the committee for the Care of Children from concentration camps looking after some 722 orphaned children who survived Auschwitz. She joined Amnesty when it began in 1961 and chaired the first medical group. Out of this she established the organisation that was later to be known as Freedom from Torture. We shall be supporting this organisation through our Advent appeal this year. And we shall be hearing more about it in the coming weeks.
‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you received me into your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me’ as we heard last week from Matt 25. Helen would surely have been counted against the sheep in this parable of judgement. She was persistent up to her death at 89 years in her work for those whose human rights were in some way violated.
The widow in the parable is upheld as a model for us, of persistence – persistence in prayer, according to Luke in his introduction. The story itself is about her persistent action. So it’s the point of the parable about prayer, or about action? Prayer…. action, they are not totally separate, surely. Prayer spills over into action. Our action can drive us to prayer. Our letter writing today is a part of our worship and a practical expression of our prayers.
The widow was fighting for her rights – we don’t know what the issue was. In the play she had been robbed of land. In the bible, we havn’t a clue. The issue wasn’t important. In a sense the same is true with the individuals in the Amnesty Campaign.
We are not asked to be judge. We may anyway have different views on eg the rights and wrongs of whistle blowing, or on gender identity. We are not being asked to judge these cases, we are asked to take the issue to the door of someone in a position of power and authority, like the judge in the parable, in order that justice be done. In each case adopted by Amnesty one or more basic human rights have been violated. That is what we, like Helen Bamber, stand up against, for the sake of God who made and loves each one of us, no matter what. By joining a global campaign we keep up a persistent tide of pressure for cases to be heard or reconsidered, and for action to be taken.
The judge in the parable, we are told, had no fear of God or respect for man. He had no conscience. He was indifferent to her plight. Some of the amnesty cases live in countries where the governing regimes are known to be corrupt or undemocratic. Like in the parable – and beautifully illustrated in the sketch- an appeal to the justice of the cause is ineffective. But lest we think that Amnesty are only in undemocratic countries we should remember that we have already supported cases from US and this year, as a first, one from Norway. These regimes sign up to human rights and to democracy! Sometimes even just and democratic regimes can slip from exercising their own standards.
When they do, it is our privilege and duty to speak up. In this country we have a long tradition of free speech and democratic action. It is a hall mark of our non conformist tradition. The earliest Congregationalists, Presbyterian and Baptists of the 16th and 17th Cs were known as Dissenters because of their opposition to the prevailing idea of the State church. Our forebears believed in acting according to their conscience, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit , even if this brought them into conflict with the authority of the State.
Tony Benn, who also died this year, has said that the biggest influence on his politics was not socialism, as you might think, but the non conformist, dissenting tradition. For him, politics was a moral issue. His mother Margaret Wedgwood Benn was a theologian, feminist and the founder President of the Congregational Federation. She was an early advocate of the ordination of women. Her theology had a profound influence on Benn, as she taught him that the stories in the Old Testament were based around the struggle between the prophets and the kings and that he ought in his life to support the prophets (who stood for righteousness) over against the kings (who had power).
In Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh, even in the US, or Norway or in the UK we cannot take justice (righteousness) for granted. We still need prophets and others who will stand up to the State when necessary for the sake of justice
With the extremism that is typical of so many parables, we have in our bible story one of the least powerful members of society confronting one of the most powerful figures, and frankly wearing him out. The widow had faith in her right to justice – which was different from having faith in the judicial system. The law– the judge– had failed her – but she was not giving up!
But If a corrupt judge can mete out justice in the end, Jesus asks in the reading we heard, then how much more will a gracious God do for us?
Or, we might ask, if one poor, illiterate woman can get justice from a corrupt and indifferent authority, how much more will 50, 1000, 10s of thousands of people achieve through writing and praying?
A little twist at the end of the reading reminds us what this story is ultimately all about… ‘Will the Son of man find faith on earth when he comes ?
That is why we write letters on behalf of Amnesty cases as part of this service. We do it out of faithfulness to a God of love and justice, we do it out of faith in the ultimate triumph of what is right.
We do it because we can, we are free to do so. And because they – Raif, Prageth, John Jeanette, Chelsea, Kalpana, are worth it!