Message by Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi
We are midway through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place every year from 18 to 25 January. The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches Joint Commission on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has chosen as the Scriptural Theme for this year a passage from Isaiah 1:17, “Do good; seek justice.” The whole verse says: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17), while the entire scriptural text for the theme is Isaiah 1:12-18, lamenting a lack of justice among the People of God while, at the same time, promising redemption by encouraging acts of justice.
The 2023 theme this year was developed with the assistance of a working group appointed by the Minnesota Council of Churches. Minneapolis, in Minnesota, received world-wide attention when George Floyd was murdered in 2020. There was a strong reaction in the US and worldwide, with calls for racial justice.
In its Introduction to the Theme, the organisers of the Week of Prayer write: “Today, separation and oppression continue to be manifest when any single group or class is given privileges above others. The sin of racism is evident in any beliefs or practices that distinguish or elevate one ‘race’ over another. When accompanied or sustained by imbalances in power, racial prejudice moves beyond individual relationships to the very structures of society – the systemic perpetuation of racism. Its existence has unfairly benefitted some, including churches, and burdened and excluded others, simply due to the colour of their skin and the cultural associations based upon perceptions of ‘race’.”
The Prophet Isaiah lived in Judah during the eighth century BC, during a period of great economic success for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, it was a period when injustice and inequalities were rife in both kingdoms. This period also saw religion thriving as a ritual and formal expression of belief in God, concentrated on Temple offerings and sacrifices. In the worldview of this time – and it is one which recurs throughout history – the rich and those who made many offerings were presumed to be good and blessed by God, while those who were poor and could not offer sacrifices were considered wicked and cursed by God. The poor were often denigrated for their economic inability to participate fully in Temple worship.
Isaiah spoke in this context, attempting to make people aware of the reality of their situation. Instead of considering the religiosity of his time as a blessing, Isaiah saw it as a festering wound and a sacrilege before the Almighty. Injustice and inequality led to fragmentation and disunity. He strongly denounced political, social and religious structures that created and sustained inequity and oppression, as well as the hypocrisy of offering sacrifices while oppressing the poor. He spoke out vigorously against corrupt leaders and in favour of the disadvantaged, rooting righteousness and justice in God alone.
There is a lesson for us today in Isaiah’s indictment of the structural injustice of his day. In our prayer for Christian unity, let us foster what unites us and commit ourselves to strive for justice and the respect of human life and dignity. Let us never be complicit in perpetuating prejudice and oppression.
✠ Joseph Galea-Curmi
This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta