Raleigh Mennonite Church
A woman. A vulnerable woman. A woman without social or political power. This woman finds herself up against a heartless bureaucrat who cares nothing about justice. And she pushes back. She nags and fights until justice prevails.
Today Jesus tells his disciples a parable. And when I heard it I thought, “this sounds so familiar.”
I realized why after Brenda mentioned the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” at a meeting we were at earlier this week. That’s where I’ve heard this story before.
“Pray The Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary about the end of the long civil war in Liberia. Liberia is a country that was settled by freed slaves at the end of institutionalized slavery in the U.S. Over time conflict arose between these American transplants and the indigenous peoples. Further tensions grew over the mixed religious landscape – both Muslim and Christian. The income gap widened, anger flared, joblessness was rampant, the ruling elite ignored the cries of the people. And in 1989 Liberia erupted into a civil war that lasted over a decade. Thousands were killed and displaced. Rape, looting, the recruitment of child soldiers, sectarian violence – all of this was part of the normal rhythm of life in the country side.
Until one day a group of women had enough. It started with a dream, a dream from God to gather women to pray. And that prayer became the force through which a peace movement began in Liberia, a women’s peace movement. It was a movement that required persistence, a movement that began with Christians who were joined by Muslim women. It was a movement that was dangerous, subversive, and demanding.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” isn’t a movie with a central confrontation between a group of women and a bunch of warlords. Instead, it’s a film about tenacity, about weeks of sitting in the fish market while President Taylor drives by without a second look. It’s about a peace movement that spans years, required adaption, travels across countries, a movement that grew to thousands of women refusing to be silent over and over and over and over again.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
The parable is about two things. First, it’s about prayer, about how God loves us and wants us to pray because prayer has something to do with justice. And second, the parable is about the way the world works, about the way justice prevails in the face of persistence. Somehow these two things go together. Leymah Gbowee and the Nigerian women’s peace movement unite this parable for us, putting the pieces together. Leymah shows us the faith of the persistent widow.
Luke has been taking us through this lesson of faith over the past couple months. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus’ teaching that faith isn’t a commodity, a paycheck you cash in. Instead it’s a disposition of life, a way of being and acting in the world. And today we hear more about faith. We get a template, a blue print for this faith, a few more details on this disposition. Jesus wants us to be like this woman: tenacious, resilient, relentless in our prayer as a pursuit of justice. “When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus wonders, will he find the faith of this woman, will he find women like this one on earth?
That’s why Jesus calls prayer a need, a necessity. Jesus doesn’t pass it off as something we do to make ourselves feel better. Prayer isn’t lifted up because it calms us down, distracting us from action. We need to pray because praying opens our lives and our imaginations to the justice of God. Praying keeps us aware that God is nothing like the wicked judge, God is nothing like one who scoffs at justice.
The believers to whom Jesus directs this parable are not just the disciples. This is a parable for us, for those of us who see injustice run rampant all around us. It’s a parable for those who need to be reminded that God is with us and for us, that God is with those who are broken, distressed, and disheartened by the evil we see.
I have been particularly disheartened at the shadow of the unjust judge that has loomed over our country. Over the past two weeks I’ve listened as Christians defend rhetoric of sexual assault. I’ve watched Christian women use the robust and rich theological language of sin and forgiveness to get a presidential candidate off the hook. I’ve watched as over a million stories of sexual assault poured in over Twitter. I’ve heard my friends publicly tell their stories about sexual assault for the first time. I’ve heard silence from many of my brothers where there should be a resounding condemnation. I’ve been told sexual assault is common, everyday speech for men, “locker room” talk, the kind of language I should expect and accept.
I suspect that Leymah Gbowee was taught to expect and accept the brutality of sexual violence that accompanied the Liberian civil war. As I watched the film about the Nigerian women’s peace movement, I was struck by the weariness of this endless violence. I was struck by how Leymah, a single mother with three children, a woman five months pregnant at the time she received her dream, a poor woman with no power—I was struck by how Leymah had a dream about praying her way into peace.
Leymah had a dream. She dreamed about prayer, and that prayer grew. It’s a prayer that brought together women from across her country, women brought together across religious lines. It was a prayer that started with the mouth, and the prayer got louder. The prayer grew feet. It grew arms. It grew a heart. It grew lungs. It was a prayer of persistence and organization, the prayer of a widow who is relentless, who will not cease her prayer until her demands for peace are met.
If we ever doubted that prayer spills out into protest against injustice, the persistent widow makes this plain. One of my favorite lines in this parable–apparently tamed for us, the gentle English-language readers–is found in widow’s outcry against the judge. A literal translation says, “This widow keeps bringing all this trouble, I will grant her justice so she stops giving me a black eye.” This is language borrowed from a boxing match, a “fearless macho, judge cornered and slugged by the least powerful in society.”
From judge’s perspective, from the position of power, this woman is trouble. She won’t leave him alone. She’s puts her whole life into her protest, all of who she is—showing up at his house, pounding on his door, crying out for justice. If she can’t sleep she won’t let her oppressor sleep. She doesn’t play by the rules imposed upon her by culture, by what others say women are allowed to do, by what others say women are allowed to be.
Sometimes we’re asked to do this, to act like this woman—to let our desire for justice lead us outside the bounds of culture, outside the bounds of pre-scripted roles, outside the expectations imposed upon us by the judges of social acceptability. What the widow displays is the actions of one acting outside her role. Those of you who are women and have found yourselves described as “aggressive,” as “angry,” in your confrontation of systems of coercive power—you have a very good idea of what is happening in this parable. The judge gives a sarcastic response to a woman who has gone outside her station to protest. Her power is her relentlessness, her willingness to do whatever it takes.
Echoing back from today’s parable are Leymah Gbowee and the women of the Nigerian women’s peace movement. Echoing back is every woman who has prayed for the strength to report a sexual assault, every woman who has told her story to help make others brave. Echoing back is every woman whose prayer has grown to a protest, whose prayer has become a movement, a black eye on a system of oppression – women who acted in the way women were not expected to act, women whose prayer grew legs and lungs, women who would not stop, would not rest until justice was done.
This week I am longing for a movement of prayer that erupts into protest. I am longing for my sisters and brothers to speak out against sexual assault. There is nothing braver than persistence of this kind in the face of evil. It is a bravery so intense it requires, it needs a God whose whole entire being, whose life even unto death is bound up in bringing the justice to the earth, whose life is bound up in your life.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
 Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (641).