SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength…” Jeremiah 17:5-10.
Jeremiah had good reason to be skeptical about human leadership. The rulers of Judah, descendants of king David, had failed miserably to measure up to their great ancestor’s stature. According to the ancient covenant, kingship in Israel was not a privilege. The king, as God’s anointed one, was charged with judging the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. He was charged with defending the cause of the poor of the people, giving deliverance to the needy and crushing oppression. Psalm 72:12-14. But David’s royal descendants used their power to enrich themselves at the expense of their people, led the people into the worship of idols and pursued selfish and shortsighted foreign policies that brought Judah to the brink of extinction. This, says Jeremiah, is what comes of trusting human leadership.
I expect that the good people of Virginia are feeling much the same way. Several of their leaders appear to have betrayed the public trust placed in them. First, an obscure news outlet unearthed a medical school yearbook page from 1984 for Virginia’s Governor, Ralph S. Northam, sporting a blatantly racist photo. Then, while the state was still reeling from this scandal, Lt. Governor Justin E. Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. Next Attorney General Mark R. Herring admitted to having appeared in “blackface.” Finally, it was revealed that Thomas K. Norment, Jr., the majority leader in the Virginia Senate played a leading role in editing his college yearbook, which contains several photographs of students in blackface as well as racist slurs. There have been numerous calls from all quarters for the resignation of these individuals from their offices. It remains to be seen whether they will heed those calls.
Any such infractions on my part would have ended my ministerial career-and rightly so. Our faith communities place profound trust in us. When we abuse that trust, we inflict enormous injuries on both the individuals involved and the communities to which we minister. We are held to a higher standard of conduct and the consequences for our failing to live up to it are treated with greater severity. That might seem unfair, but life isn’t meant to be fair. “To whom much is given, much is required,” says Jesus. Luke 12:48. What goes for ministers also goes, in some measure, for elected leaders entrusted with making and enforcing the rule of law. We can hardly trust an individual who mocks and ridicules members of another race or ethnicity to ensure equal protection and justice for all. Nor can we trust people who abuse women and girls to protect their rights. Such conduct on the part of our elected leaders destroys irreparably our confidence in their ability to lead.
Jeremiah goes on to sound a cautionary note, however. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” says the prophet. Jeremiah 17:9. However much we might rightfully expect from those we elevate to positions of leadership, we dare not forget that they are no less human than the rest of us. Their hearts are no different from our own. We ought to know that each of us has fault lines in our souls and character flaws that, under enough pressure and in the right circumstances, might well break. Never having run for public office myself, I can’t speak from personal experience. But it seems to me that the challenges of satisfying often conflicting demands of one’s constituents, obtaining financing for one’s campaign, employing the tactics necessary to win an election and navigating the process of governing in a system heavily controlled by powerful interest groups must inflict a severe strain on one’s moral compass. What I do know is that power is intoxicating. You don’t need to have much to make you more than a little tipsy. Being surrounded by people who look to you for help, support and comfort has a way of filling you with the kind of self-important narcissism that blinds you to the results of your selfish actions and their tragic consequences for others. Too many of my colleagues in ministry have drunk too heavily from that cup and lost their way. I know only too well how easily one moral compromise prepares the groundwork for the next and how one seemingly innocent and inconsequential lie steels your conscience for bigger lies to come. For that reason, I believe we need to temper our righteous anger at our fallen leaders with a degree of understanding and even compassion.
Perhaps the fault lies with us as much as with our leaders. We are not likely to elect a candidate who tells us hard truths we don’t want to hear. We don’t like being told that the problems facing us are complex and that solving them will require time and sacrifice. We long for leaders who give us soundbite answers and guarantee that they can “fix” things without requiring anything from us. We tend to vote for candidates promising to restore us to some golden age of yore or lead us into some utopian future. Winning an election practically requires a candidate to make promises that cannot be kept-that is, to lie. Should it surprise us, then, that we wind up with leaders who cannot be trusted? Are the lies we so desperately want to believe driving us to follow only those willing to indulge our falsehoods? Are we manufacturing for ourselves the leaders we deserve?
One final observation. The prophetic viewpoint is generally from the bottom up. That is to say, prophecy takes its stand among the victims of nationalist idolatry, whether they be the exploited and dispossessed Israelites employed as pawns by the Davidic rulers in their reckless and destructive game of geopolitical domination or the 16.2 million children in the United States struggling with hunger as their government hands out billions to its corporate citizens. Prophecy, like the poem below, struggles to give voice to those who have no voice-like women and young girls sexually assaulted by powerful men and people of color subjected to systemic oppression and racist ridicule. Biblically speaking, the righteousness of a nation is judged by how well or poorly it cares for the most vulnerable under its jurisdiction. There can be no neutrality here. Prophecy is not intended to support the interests of the state or legitimize its every use of power. Prophecy exists to ensure that the cry of the poor against unjust regimes reaches the ears of God.
What the Old Homeless Man Had to Say About the Candidates’ Debate
Calling ‘em whores is an insult,
to the whores, I mean.
As far as I know,
Whoring never hurt anyone
But the whores themselves.
So if all those glad handing,
Back slapping sons of bitches
Ever did was hustle up a dollar
Or two for a pint of gin,
Maybe a snort of crack
Some place to flop for the night,
I might be more disposed to
Pity the lying sacks.
But those blood sucking
Bastards aren’t content
To lie, cheat and steal away
Just what they need to live on.
They gotta take it all.
Every last inch of land,
Every last crumb off the plate,
Every last spoon full of soup
Out of every stinking caldron.
They gotta fill the air with their stink,
Muck up the water so bad
We can’t drink it and then
Bottle up what clean water’s left
And sell it to us-
Just as though anyone could own water!
What the hell gives’ em the right,
I’d like to know?
They didn’t make the rivers and streams.
They don’t make the rain fall.
So how comes it that they got the right
To go collecting it, putting it in bottles
And selling it to us?
Democrats and Republicans,
Know what the difference is between em?
Democrats make big promises and don’t deliver
Republicans promise nothing and do!
Either way it goes, you wind up with nothing.
To hell with em! To hell with the lot of em!