1 September 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
Last year I sat through a judgement given by the Chief Justice of the Falkland Islands
It was an important case as it concerned the former Chief of Police
He was standing trial on historic sex offence charges
The Judge delivered an impeccable judgement reminding himself, and the attendant audience, about the burden and standard of proof in English criminal law
At the end of his summing up he acquitted the defendant on all charges saying that he could not be certain so that he was sure that the accused had committed the crime
In other words, he had reasonable doubt over the guilt of the defendant
By contrast, Cardinal George Pell, the third most important priest in the Roman Catholic Church, had his conviction for sexual abuse upheld last month
The Appeal Judges, were certain, so that they were sure, of his guilt
In both cases, the Judges acted in the finest tradition of the English Common Law.
Justice was administered with scrupulous fairness and are both marks of a just society
Justice is a basic human instinct.
As all parents know, one of the first things that a child says or notices about a household is its sense of fairness
“That’s not fair” is often one of the first things a child will contribute to family life
Justice is seen as being at the heart of any society, and the administration of that justice is at the heart of the Old Testament reading this morning
King Solomon asks God, not for great wealth or the death of his enemies, but instead for discernment in administering justice
This desire to act justly rightly found favour with God
The word justice occurs more than two hundred times in the Old Testament and, in essence, means treating people equitably
In criminal matters, it means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case alone, nothing else, and perfectly fits the cases which I cited in my introduction
But justice in the Old Testament means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing
It also means giving people their rights and that includes, not only criminal justice, but social justice at the same time
Social justice is continually referred to in the Old Testament and is typically mentioned, in relation to widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor
In our own times, this would include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and elderly.
The onus to act justly therefore falls, not just on the King, but on society as a whole
This therefore begs the question as to whether we too are acting justly.
This is a massive question ranging across an enormous spectrum
However, having raised the question three thousand years ago, it is perhaps not unreasonable to ask how we are doing three millennia later?
How would we be judged by God?
I fear the answer is not very well…………………
Refugees are entitled to special protection under International Law
The legacy of World War II made the International Community determined to provide a safe haven for those fleeing conflict
This was wholly understandable after the horrors of two World Wars
Although the situation has become muddied by economic migration, those genuinely fleeing conflict have been treated very badly indeed by many countries
Our treatment of Refugees has been described by the Red Cross as “damaging, dehumanising and disempowering”
Lord Alf Dubs, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, secured an agreement for 3000 children to come to the UK from Syria but only 240 places were ever filled
What has happened to us as a society where we treat the refugee with such contempt?
Migrant workers fare little better
They largely hidden from sight and so we tend not to notice but exploitation is widespread across the UK economy
Construction workers, farm workers, car washers, domestic servants, to name but a few, are often abused and underpaid
They tread an awful tightrope knowing that if they lose their contract of employment then they become illegal migrants
And, as a result, the opportunities for abuse worsen and they suffer racism almost as a matter of routine
Unlike migrant workers, the homeless are in full view in our towns and cities, but we still do little or nothing to help
320,000 people are homeless. A rise of 165% since 2010 -13,000 increase last year
I read, with considerable concern, a report by the Children’s Commissioner last month
Homeless children are now being accommodated in shipping containers in a space no larger than 12 by 4 meters-
In essence they are being made to live in a parking lot
Next time you park your car, just think about it
The NSPCC said that it was like something out of a Dickensian novel.
Bleak House takes on a whole new meaning
Then look at the way we treat the elderly
A House of Lords Committee report in July said 1.4m older people were denied the care they needed as a result of cuts, means tests and rationing,
Many were housebound and unable to fulfil everyday tasks like washing or going to the loo.
What must that be like?
We will all of course all find out but we will have failed to speak out in the meantime
Would God find that we had acted justly as a Society?
No – these are the great scandals of our age
But it is not just society at large which insists on denying social justice but the Church itself
The sexual abuse cases mentioned at the beginning of the sermon stand in stark contrast to the conduct of the Anglican and Catholic Churches
The awful case of Peter Ball, former Bishop of Gloucester, revealed a Church which sided with the Establishment and ignored the abused
The recent Historic Abuse Inquiry found that the Church of England, rather than acting justly, had put its own reputation before the needs of victims
The Churches response was marked by “secrecy, prevarication with no concern for the welfare of its victims”
Even the Church’s so called apology “remained unconvincing”
Our own Church has tarnished the establishment of God’s Kingdom here on Earth
In the light of Solomon’s wish to act with justice, a cursory self-examination of whether our own Society is just is perhaps long overdue
However, it is also an appropriate way to approach the New Testament reading this morning
As a Society, as a Church as individuals, we are forever saying “I thank God you that we are not unjust like other people”
We think of ourselves as safe and secure with the Church as our haven
But when we stop and think for a moment, what we can say no such thing
We all bear a corporate and individual responsibility for the social injustices which I have just outlined but have not even begun to describe
This is not a personal attack but a call to recognise just how easy it is to ignore what is going on around us
It is so easy to convince ourselves that we are acting justly when we are not
And so easy to think that it does not apply to us when in fact it does
It is easy, perhaps too easy, to sit back and say nothing when we should be reflecting our desire for social justice not only in our lives but in our politics
I come out of this no better
I am a priest in a Church which is guilty of a grave injustice wrapped up in our national propensity for snobbery and deference
I am just as guilty as the next man and claim no moral high ground in any of the above
But the readings this morning also give us a clue as to how we should go forward
Solomon found favour with God when he asked for a discerning heart
May we too ask God that we might act justly
May we too seek to act with the scrupulous fairness like the Judges and, above all
May we too ask God to have mercy on us all, as sinners