Accompanying justice: hard work, lament and hope
Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Haitian migrant near the border of the Dominican Republic (Sergi Cámara/JRS)
Boston, 5 December 2012 – A couple of months ago, studying The Nature and Destiny of Man by the US theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote that there is a "new peril of evil on every new level of the good", made my graduate students – who work with the poor – despondent. It was too pessimistic they said, some of whom are also preparing for ministry as priests, religious or lay people.

This evil – so stubborn, effective, and hard to defeat – is characterised by Niebuhr as the Antichrist, who cannot be overcome by human power (1 John 2:18-19; 4:2-3). "The Antichrist who appears at the end of history can be defeated only by the Christ who ends history".

One of my students protested that Niebuhr "portrays a world where charity and proper justice are myths of the masses. It is hard to come away with some sort of empowerment to send me out into the world to be Christ-like".

I tried to reassure the students that while we must be realistic, work for justice can be successful. Our efforts make a difference in the world. But after class, two students came to speak to me.

One has worked in a secondary school in New York that serves poor and immigrant children, many of whom are members of ethnic minorities, and whose lives are difficult.

"Work for justice is hard!" she said.

Another student, experienced in peace-building efforts in Rwanda, agreed.

"Niebuhr is right that most political decisions are based on self-interest".

Work for justice cannot count on signs of success. Hope must be sustained by working in solidarity with others, even when there are no clear signs of progress.

The story of the yogurt vendors in Santo Domingo who lost their jobs when they tried to defend their rights confirms that my students were right. Perhaps the best religious response to the vendors' troubles – and to the disappointment of those who walk with them – is the Psalms of affliction and lament.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
Let my cry come to you. 
Do not hide your face from me
In the day of my distress….
All day long my enemies taunt me….
I wither away like grass (Psalm 102).

In the words of African American theologian Bryan Massingale, "Laments are cries of anguish and outrage, groans of deep pain and grief, utterances of profound protest and righteous indignation over injustice, wails of mourning and sorrow in the face of unbearable suffering….Laments….are uncivil, strident, harsh, and heart-rending".

Dying almost abandoned on the cross, Jesus laments in the words of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Though laments express desperation, they are also protests calling God to account and asserting a higher justice. Lament helps make suffering bearable by forming community, even when no 'solution' is possible.

As the JRS spokesperson, who tried to protect the yogurt sellers from their boss and went with them to court recounts "the young men we had accompanied thanked us sincerely" because "they had felt some recognition as persons with dignity". This mutual recognition and respect for one another's dignity is the essential meaning of justice and the basis of all just laws and structures.

Although when the laws and courts of Santo Domingo failed to vindicate the workers they reinforced structures of injustice, the faithfulness of the JRS members planted small seeds of justice that may grow roots reaching deep enough to erode those structures from below. 

Whatever the societal outcome, the accompaniment by JRS has already created a new community, nourished mutual respect, and lessened the suffering of being considered a nonperson.

John Paul II called all Christians to take from the Eucharist "the strength to commit ourselves ever more generously" to "actions in the world in favour of development and peace". He assured us that "our personal commitment, like Christ's and in union with his, will not be in vain but certainly fruitful" (Sollicitudo rei socialis, no. 48).

Despite the truth of these words, experience teaches us that the fruit of our actions might be small and slow-growing. Yet it is still possible to struggle on and encourage one another, since "all serious and upright human conduct is hope in action" (Benedict X, Spe salvi, no. 35). The community created by courageous and hopeful action waters the seeds of justice.

Lisa Cahill PhD, Theology Faculty, Boston College