After Stephen Lawrence was murdered his parents faced a valley of institutional failing and disregard, ranging from a press that initially didn’t bother to report on their son’s death to a police force that didn’t bother to investigate effectively. A failed private prosecution and the public inquiry that concluded the police were institutionally racist constituted another two lowlights. In their tenacious campaign to see Stephen’s killers convicted, the discovery of new DNA evidence finally led to their sentencing.
Describing the moment the verdict was announced, Neville Lawrence said: "It was like when you dive underneath the water and you hold your breath, and you have to come out and huhhhh [he gulps in air loudly]. I thought my heart was going to fly out through my mouth and drop on the floor when I heard 'guilty'."
A man gasping for justice.
Much has changed during these 18 years due to the tireless commitment of people who continued their fight for justice. Celebrating Martin Luther King Day we glean from the wisdom of another man who gasped for justice. Warning against “the myth of time”, as if there is something in the flow of time that would correct all wrongs, King said: “Social progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.”
Standing on a hill in Galilee, Jesus pronounces those who hunger and thirst for righteousness blessed. It’s that ache for justice that works for them, the very hunger for righteousness that drives them on (Proverbs 16:26). Living in a fractured world, they not only share in the pain but also share in the promise that they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).
In his Confessions, St Augustine describes his search for God:
“You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you…
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped
and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
A man gasping for God - burning for peace, moved by a spirited hunger and thirst.
The prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of a similar aerodynamic in heaven where for a long time God has been quiet. But now, He gasps - leading His people by ways they have not known, guiding them along unfamiliar paths, turning the darkness into light and making the rough places smooth. “These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:14-16).
That promise forms the arc over our struggle. Placing the Christian community in the midst of a groaning world, the apostle Paul locates our endurance and overcoming in relationship. Our overcoming lies in the reality that we are inseparable from divine love.
To overcome is also to remain faithful to Christ, exercising a stewardship that reflects his image in the world (Romans 8). As the political activist Helen Keller said: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” People who ache for justice can bring about a seismic shift, affecting moral, social, historic, economic, spiritual and legal dynamics in society while also testifying to the capacity to overcome.
King’s lens was shaped by his conviction that the arc of the moral universe is bent toward justice. The victory “through him who loves us” celebrates Christ’s lordship, love and faithfulness.
Marijke Hoek, Coordinator Forum for Change - Evangelical Alliance