Seeking Justice – Review
Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus, by Keith Hebden, January 2013. Circle Books, ISBN 978-1-78099-688-2, 177 pages. RRP £11.99 (paperback), £4.99 (e-book)
I am so glad I elected to review this book for CEL (I had missed its publication in 2013) because I think this is one of the most disturbing and challenging Christian books I have ever read. I say that because I found it virtually impossible to disagree with the author’s main thesis, but the implications of such agreement for my own priestly praxis are terrifying and yet irresistible. The matter is compounded by the fact that the author writes out of the integrity of his own radical commitment to praxis for justice; it is hard to disagree with someone who so manifestly preaches what he already practices. As a result, the author offers me a much needed wake-up call to rouse me out of my complacency and a metaphorical kick up the backside to motivate me to do more to work for justice and true peace.
Gradually, layer by layer, rather like peeling an onion, the author uncovers and exposes the myriad ways in which we have allowed our lives to be overlaid by an imposed sense of order and ‘normality’ that is, in fact oppressive, exploitative and unjust. Hebden offers many examples of how our choices are controlled or managed for us by ‘authority’ or ‘the powers’ and demonstrates a convincing and well-illustrated defence of non-violent resistance and of the importance of compassion as the motivating ‘force’ in opposing oppressive regimes etc.
The book is peppered with excitingly fresh interpretations and insights of many familiar biblical texts. We are given a completely fresh and imaginative interpretation of Romans 12 and 13 that convincingly sets the teaching of Paul in the stream of compassionate action for justice that is the hallmark of the teaching of Jesus.
If, like me, you find yourself increasingly frustrated and helpless in the face of the remorseless tyranny of the wretched coalition government’s betrayal of democracy and its humiliation of those who are patronisingly and insultingly denigrated as ‘the undeserving poor’ as beneath contempt you will find in this book creative and positive ways to channel that sense of frustration and turn around that sense of helplessness into positive, compassionate action. Hebden ruthlessly exposes the contradictions of Capitalism and its corrosive effect in the lives of ordinary people.
The author distils much modern insight into the social mores and societal hierarchies of life in 1st century Palestine and illustrates clearly how the actions and teaching of Jesus were carefully constructed to attack and challenge them as unjust, unequal and unfair. He successfully ‘reads between the lines’ of the minimalist Gospel accounts of, for example, the cleansing of the temple as recorded by Mark, and expands the interpretation of the narrative to bring clarity and insight to what is really going on.
Although his accounts of various protests against injustice, for example the long-standing demonstration at Aldenham against the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, or the Dalit stand against the appalling requirement that they dispose of human waste by hand, are very powerful and often moving, I was left wondering what this type of witness is actually achieving. I confess I am one of those whose convictions have never quite given me the courage to stand at the gates or join the protest march. I’ve never liked ‘processions of witness’ for that matter. So I am least qualified to make criticisms and as ever it is always easier to criticize others, but, valid as the presuppositions may be – this activity is wrong, we must therefore make our protest – I am left wondering how effective such compassionate action for justice really is; and I suppose to answer my own question, am I able to come up with a more effective alternative? My hope would be that the kind of non-violent protest that Hebden espouses is gradually having a ‘trickle-up’ effect and, complemented I trust by the activities of armchair activists like myself, will gradually cause more and more people to think about what they are doing and the ways in which their jobs, policies and politics contribute to exploitation, corruption and oppression and have a change of mind and heart. It may well be a case of ‘small is beautiful’ or rather, little and often, slowly but courageously chipping away at the assumed power of the powers and gently undermining their credibility and authority.
In point of fact Hebden answers my question to some extent in later chapters where he recognises that sometimes there is need for more up-front protest when, referring to the million people who marched in London to oppose the first Iraq War, he concluded that:
‘It was the magnificent failure of that march through London that led me to realize that traditional protest is not creative or costly enough to lead to change.’
The theme of passive resistance runs right through this gently polemical call to action to ordinary people to oppose the destructive forces that in so many hidden, deceitful and disguised ways seek to diminish and demean them. I took great heart from Hebden’s account of one example of successful passive resistance from the era of the Nazi occupation of Norway when he writes that:
‘When in 1941 the government tried to force professional bodies to join up, they met with meek refusal on all fronts. The athletics groups disbanded, unions refused and forty-three professional bodies signed an open and joint declaration against compulsory membership of the Nazi Party. This resistance was met by violent recriminations, prison sentences, and repression that triggered ‘mass resignations from the organizations and, far from weakening them, gave them new vitality’. Schools and churches joined in with their own resistance; bishops and teachers setting the example of public refusal were sacked but continued to publicly defy the Nazis, leading to a massive climbdown from the fascist regime.’
In this provocative and challenging book we at last have a passionately argued defence for a political Gospel and a political Christ that is not afraid to go behind the texts of the Gospels and Paul’s letters to draw out the power and subtlety of that attack which both Jesus and Paul make on the vested interests and powerful elites and cliques of their day. These insights are powerfully translated to the 21st century and the cry of today’s poor and marginalised, but always with a grace and a restraint that is well illustrated by this comment on a clause from the Beatitudes:
‘To be meek is not the same as to be passive. To be meek is to show restraint in one’s actions. Meekness allows for a measured and therefore more productive response to oppression. This is why Jesus said that the meek shall ‘inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5). Jesus knew that those who can restrain themselves from merely reacting to someone else’s agenda will find a way to have their hunger for justice more completely satisfied’.
Each chapter concludes with a brief set of suggestions for small groups to take further their exploration of the issues raised. I strongly and warmly recommend this book as a real treasure.
The Rev’d Canon Donald C Macdonald