As Christmas beckons, Dionne Gravesande reminds us that, whilst God sent His Son to bring us peace on earth, He also wants Christians to play a part in seeing justice done on this earth.
Christmas is almost upon us, and the familiar scriptural readings will be read hundreds of times across this land. Isaiah 9 is one such text: ‘For unto us a Child is born and a Son is given…’ … you know the rest. But the season gives us another opportunity to look again at the message, and to look at it from a different perspective. How shall we hear Isaiah 9, speaking of dividing captured wealth, of defeated nations, of lifting the burden of oppression and exploitation?
Our sacred Scriptures are not simple or safe or capable of only one interpretation. They are complex and full of different, sometimes opposite meanings, and too often we have a habit of finding in them the truth that suits our own interests. But life is complex and, for many people, dangerous. ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’ – we might hear this message as a warm blanket of false optimism, pretty words and pretty stories to wrap around us, shutting out the reality of violence, injustice, war and huge agony.
But we do live in a violent world and an abusive world, and too often this violence is directed at women. I recently attended the World Council of Churches Assembly meeting in South Korea. Of the many stories and testimonies shared, one completely captured the Assembly’s attention. It was the story of the ‘comfort women’.
Forced into sexual slavery in World War II, these seven elderly women are still fighting for justice and acknowledgement today. Every Wednesday at noon, for the past decade, seven Korean women gather outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. They are the last of the Korean comfort women, who were forced to work in state-organised brothels, servicing Japanese soldiers in World War II. Many of these comfort women were lured under false promises of work, while others were abducted from their homes. In the 70 years since the first brothels or ‘comfort stations’ were established, no perpetrators have ever been arrested, nor have the women received any compensation. In 2007, the comfort women held their first protest. Since then, they have held more than 1,000 protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, in which they, together with their supporters, present their demands for justice and recognition.
These women suffered massive trauma: they were drugged to keep them compliant and, when they fell pregnant, they were beaten and given forced abortions. Of the 234 Korean comfort women who identified themselves publicly, only seven remain and are in mind to give up. How do you gain peace and offer goodwill to all men while such injustice exists? Yet, by God’s incredible mercy, these women do not want revenge but they do want justice. They don’t preach hate, but instead demonstrate love. The Church in Korea helped to restore dignity and life to these women, and they did this in both word and action.
This Christmas, we cannot be so wrapped up in our own lives that we do not see the needs of our sisters and brothers near and far. Peace on earth and the vision we read of in Isaiah 9 are some way off, but the Christmas Story is a human story that connects us to each other. We are our neighbour’s keeper, and Christmas is a time to demonstrate love as part of our public witness. It’s a time to visit, remember, and call on the elderly, the sick, the widowed and orphans, to spend time and share a word of hope or a gift.
Sometimes we could cry, as Jeremiah did thousands of years ago: “Why do you cry, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace?” (Jeremiah 6:14). But perhaps there is a different way to understand the message of the angels, which is, after all, a message for us also. We can offer up our penitence for our complicity in ‘not doing the right thing’. Yet we can also offer our gratitude for the care and generosity it brings out in so many.
The Church is called the ‘salt and light of the world’, and so we demonstrate the love of God by finding ways to work out love and respect in our communities, and that includes standing in solidarity with women and men, whose human rights have been abused and violated, so as to confront evildoing in order to secure peace. We believe that fullness of life is the divine intention, so it matters that our hopes and prayers are given practical expression.
This Christmas, we honour and respect the courage of people who refuse to let adverse circumstances destroy the human instinct to feast and be joyful, such as the Korean women. And, as Christians, we have sheer wonder at the fact that the dream and the hope of a more just and loving world refuse to die, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. In that regard, the shining Star of David still leads us on.
Dionne Gravesande is Head of Church Advocacy at Christian Aid