The Persistent Cry for God's Justice
My foremothers called it Ogu Umunwanyi – The Women’s War. The white men called it the Aba Riots, diminishing the women’s roles in bringing about change and reducing their protest to the frenzied and irrational violence of savages. It took place in November 1929, when thousands of Igbo women – including those from
Umuahia, my ancestral home – protested against the British colonisers who wanted to restrict the role of Igbo women in the governing of their own communities.
The protests of 1929 spread like wildfire, as tens of thousands of women from across 6,000 square miles of southern Nigeria – an area covering around 2 million people – rose up in protest against the British, demanding that ‘all white men should go to their own country’.
Knowing Igbo women as I do, the descriptions of their modes of protest make me smile, not with amusement but with pride. These headstrong, fierce women were just like my mum or grandma or aunties.
They employed traditional methods of protest that only Igbo women could – ‘sitting on’ or ‘making war’ on men whom they believed had been behaving badly. This involved, as anthropologist Judith Van Allen describes:
“Gathering at his compound at a previously agreed time, dancing, singing scurrilous songs that detailed the women’s grievances against him (And often insulted him along the way by calling his manhood into question), banging on his hut with the pestles women used for pounding yams, and, in extreme cases, tearing up his hut (usually meaning pulling the roof off)… The women would stay at his hut all night and day if necessary, until he repented and promised to mend his ways in the future.”
This month is Black History Month, and as has been so with the injustice experienced by Black people throughout history, the actions of these Igbo women were met with disproportionate force. On two occasions, the British District officers called in the police and the troops, who fired upon the women, killing more than 50 of them and leaving another 50 wounded. This was the first instance of a major anticolonial protest by women in West Africa, and it resulted in the British abolishing the system of warrant chieftains and appointing women to the Native Courts.
In this instance, these African women were able to reclaim the positions of authority they had held before the colonisers came with their regressive notions of the role of women in the functioning of a society.
They got justice through their persistence.
In the Luke 18 passage read earlier, we hear Jesus telling the parable of the persistent widow. A woman who wears down an unjust judge. Who keeps on and keeps on demanding justice until he has no choice but to give it to her, concerned about what she might do to him if she doesn’t get it.
The Greek translation of the text sees the judge use dramatic hyperbole by employing the word hupopiazo - meaning to ‘blacken the eye’. While other translations treat the word as euphemistic for ‘wearing him out’, it’s important we don’t miss the intended sentiment – that the woman may be ready to inflict violence upon the unjust judge, such is the level of her grief.
This is not a woman who lives a privileged life where she can afford to sanitise her anger, to act in a calm and measured way as society might expect of ladies. No, this woman’s life circumstances mean that her anger cannot be contained, her demand for justice not merely relayed in quiet, polite, requests, but the kind of loud protest that hits you right between the eyes; that does not allow you to look away.
Like the Igbo women who employ persistent collective action to achieve the justice they deserve, the widow does not let go until she has it.
I wonder what justice she is seeking. The parable does not spell out the details of the wrong that has been done to her, but the word used for justice here may imply
‘vengeance’. Some wrong has been done to her and she demands it be made right.
The past 400 years of Black history has seen much wrong perpetrated against Black people. It’s been a story marked by violence, oppression and brutality. From the transatlantic slave trade through to the murders of unarmed black men and women by those who were supposed to protect them. The chant that black lives matter is a heart-cry borne out of injustice and pain. Three words that say such tragedies and the rotting flesh of racism that causes them must be rooted out. It’s a cry that says no longer can we dehumanise black men and women. A cry that will not stop until we achieve our full humanity.
Why a widow in the Luke 18 parable? Throughout the Bible we see widows, orphans and immigrants spoken of as the most marginalised in society. By choosing a widow, Jesus is emphasising the fact that in society’s eyes, the odds are stacked against her. Like women of the time, she is seen as a second class citizen just for being a woman. And she has no one to speak for her, which is why she is making demands of the judge alone. It can be implied that this corrupt judge may have been corrupt due to the common practice of being bribed; but this widow does not have the means to bribe him. Instead, it’s her persistence, her petitioning, her prayer that moves the corrupt judge to action.
Hebrew and womanist scholar Dr Wil Gafney describes how the Luke 18 passage demonstrates the persistence and resourcefulness of women to, in womanist parlance, “make a way out of no way; and survive until they can thrive’.
I can think of three black women – not necessarily widows themselves – but those whose persistent campaigning and petitioning in the face of injustice and tragedy has moved mountains. Mina Smallman, Doreen Lawrence and Mamie Till – each mothers of brown-skinned people, loved by God, who were murdered. In the aftermath of their deaths, each mother sought to blacken the eye of the powers that be, demanding justice for their children.
Mina Smallman’s daughters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death in a park in Brent, London, in June 2020. Mina – who also happened to have been the first female black or minority ethnic archdeacon in the Church of England – maintained that racism was what led to the police not doing enough to find the sisters after they had been reported missing, and racism that led to the horrific sharing of images of the dead sisters’ bodies by police officers at the scene. When Mina Smallman was asked in a Guardian interview earlier this year why she kept on, why she was persistent in her demand for justice, she quoted Emmeline Pankhurst on fighting for women’s suffrage: “You have to make more noise than anybody else,” she said. “You have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.”
Like the persistent widow, Mina Smallman demands justice and commits to wearing down the powers that be until they give it to her.
In 1955, 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was abducted, tortured and murdered after being wrongly accused of winking at a white woman in a grocery store in Mississippi.
After viewing the brutalized body of her son, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley decided to hold an open casket funeral in the hopes that when the world saw – really saw – the violence committed against her son, that it would wake people out of the slumber of inaction on racial justice. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said. As images of Emmett Till’s broken and mutilated body were featured in magazines, Mamie Till’s prayer was that this injustice could not be ignored and that the authorities would be moved to make change so that nothing like this would ever happen again. We know of course that Emmett Till was not the last black person murdered for the colour of their skin.
I was nine years old living in Eltham in south-east London when teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered a few streets away from where I lived. His mother Doreen’s name has become synonymous with the fight for racial justice in the UK. She has devoted her life to not just seeing the murders of her son brought to justice, but the police and the authorities held to account for the institutional racism that Stephen’s murder highlighted. She knows she can never give up; that she must be a thorn in their side. She leaves the authorities with no peace.
No justice. No peace.
These three black women, like the persistent widow, demanded justice in the face of tragedy. As black women, they knew full well that justice had not been a friend to black people. In the words of poet and activist Langston Hughes:
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise: Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
So what might this parable mean for us today, living in the age of Black Lives Matter – in a world where there seems to be so much injustice?
Ultimately Luke 18 can be seen as a lesson for us to never tire of praying to God for the justice the likes of which we believe we will see in the Kingdom of God. If the corrupt judge can be moved to grant the widow justice, how much more so will a God of justice be moved by our petitions. Your kingdom come, we demand; your will be done, we pray. On earth as it is in heaven.
We recognise however that though we might see glimpses of justice in this, the now and the not yet of the coming of the kingdom of God, God’s ultimate justice will be seen in the coming of God’s kingdom. But for most of us, this feels unsatisfactory.
We join with the psalmist and the Igbo women and the Mina Smallmans and the Doreen Lawrences and Mamie Tills crying out ‘how long, O Lord?’ Crying out for justice in the here and now.
Perhaps you are someone in a position of authority, like the judge in the parable. Or perhaps you have power or are privileged in some way. For the persistent widow and those who have been wronged or oppressed, the constant demand for justice can be exhausting. But it cannot all be on them. At some point, those with power must act in order for justice to happen. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just because we are worn down by the persistent cries of the persecuted.
The Black Church, throughout its persecuted history, has long grasped the reality that the good news of Jesus Christ makes a difference in the spiritual and material realities of our daily lives. It’s not just about where we go when we die.
So may we be persistent in our cry for God’s justice to come in the here and now, to those who are helpless, to those who are unrepresented, to those who are oppressed, who are victims of violence and abuse, to those who are marginalised in so many ways. May we come alongside those who stand alone crying out for justice. As Martin Luther King said, echoing Amos 5:24: “Now is the time for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.”