It brought tears to my eyes on Friday evening as I watched hundreds of people gathering for a spontaneous vigil outside the Supreme Court building in Washington to pay tribute to RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg. An icon around the world, Ginsburg was one of the most outspoken advocates for gender equality of our time, including voting rights and equal pay for women. Ginsberg, who served as a Justice of the Supreme Court for 27 years, was the first female Jewish Justice. The crowd spontaneously recited the Jewish prayer for the dead and also began singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a Justice for all, teaching us how to see the reflection of God in each person on this earth.
During a 2004 speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Ginsburg said, “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof’ – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they ‘may thrive.’”
I remember Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a woman who was unafraid to speak her truth. At the same time, she was able to “reach across the aisle” and become friends with those who were her ideologically opposite, as witnessed by her close personal friendship with Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg was also very disciplined in her work and play, evidenced by the fact that she worked out with a personal trainer for an hour twice a week. Ginsberg also loved the opera.
Justice, justice you shall pursue. Treating and advocating for all people as the unique individuals God created them to be. It’s not only the calling of Supreme Court Justices, but it’s our call as well so that we may thrive as one human family. That’s how I will remember our beloved Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Is it coincidental that the gospel reading for yesterday was Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard? It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the lectionary passages for each week often speak directly to what is happening in our lives and how God hopes that we will make the connections. The laborers in the vineyard is one of my favorite biblical stories because it applies to so many situations where we feel disenfranchised and disregarded and say, “It’s not fair! Nor is it just!”
Jesus tells us that a landowner went out in the morning to hire day workers and agreed to give them a denarius. Several other times during the day, the owner returned to the town square, saw other workers hanging around, and hired them, saying, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” At the end of the day, the owner settled his accounts by paying each man a denarius, whereupon the workers who had been hired first complained, “It’s not fair! We worked more hours than they did.” And the owner simply responded, “Are you angry because I’m generous?”
The words “justice” and “fairness” are often used interchangeably, but common to both terms is the belief that we should be treated as we deserve. It’s not fair! I can’t even begin to count how many times I heard those three words when our children were growing up. They were rather close in age and would periodically challenge how Gary and I treated them.
Case in point: Christmas. As presents began to appear under the Christmas tree during Advent, the kids would inspect every present to see who it was for. The tipping point for dissension was how many gifts were under the tree for each person and how large they were. Choruses of “It’s not fair” would occasionally echo through the house until Christmas Day, when everything was settled and at least one child would throw a fit.
Gary and I continually wrestled with what fairness and justice mean when each child has different needs at different times. We did notice, however, that as our children matured, they didn’t seem quite as obsessed with fairness. Simply growing up and living life were teaching them that who gets what and how much is a complex process. We all learn sooner or later that life isn’t always fair. There is no one who always gets what they want or deserve. At the same time, we have a generous God who desires that we extend grace to others as we receive grace in the midst of our own failings.
Many things in our world right now aren’t fair. Nor are they just. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is discovering that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting racial-ethnic groups, the elderly, and the vulnerable much more than other groups. Poverty, unemployment, and a lack of access to health care are also contributing to this discrepancy. It’s not fair. Nor is it just.
Deep divisions and disparities in our current social context in the United States have been exposed, with our long history of racism and indifference toward the lives and suffering of historically marginalized people. This year has reminded us again that our call to integrate faith and action in order to become an anti-racist country and world is not over. We must continue to be a voice for those whose voices are not heard. And we must move beyond perfunctory acts of repentance to a deep engagement with our communities concerning inequalities around race and class. It’s not just.
The toll of the wildfires on the West Coast is unfathomable. Last Thursday was the first day with no “Spare the Air” warning in the Bay Area after a record 30 consecutive days of the alerts about polluted air. Even though firefighters have been making headway against several of the most significant wildfires, weather conditions could change at any time. It’s not fair. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/17/us/wildfires-live-updates.html
But there’s more. Cancer is not fair. Job loss is not fair. Crop loss is not fair. Recovering from floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and derechos are not fair. Mental health issues are not fair. Even in the church, we struggle. Clergy are having to reinvent ministry day by day during this challenging time and, at times, feel stressed, anxious, and demoralized. It’s not fair.
Perhaps the most important question is who deserves grace and who doesn’t. As the parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds us, you and I are called to embody the generosity and grace of the landowner, who refused to be distracted by pleas of “not fair” and justly paid all of the workers equally.
One of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s well-known quotes is, “America is known as a country that welcomes people to its shores. All kinds of people. The image of the Statue of Liberty with Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. She lifts her lamp and welcomes people to the golden shore, where they will not experience prejudice because of the color of their skin, the religious faith that they follow.”
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said this, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
Thank you, RBG, for being a Supreme Court Justice for all, and thank you for advocating for justice and fairness for those who come to our shores.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.