Many people attend their place of worship to hear comforting words that help them navigate the daily trials of their lives. The message of how faith can help in one’s personal life can be much needed when community life is reasonably stable. It’s then that personal trials can seem to overwhelm one, while everybody else appears to be doing just fine. Many Psalms, for instance, appeal to God for relief from personal difficulties that have separated the psalmist from the good life going on all about him/her.
Comforting words inspiring the entire community to courage may be needed when it is attacked by outside forces, its future in jeopardy. Think Britain in WWII, or the United States after Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Again the Psalms are rich with pleas for God to save ‘his’ people from enemies who threaten it, or have already invaded its most holy precincts.
Comforting words, encouraging words, are important words, but not the only words God intends for ‘his’ people to hear. Sometimes God’s words are uncomfortably accusatory, challenging, and instructive. Though the psalmist may allude to them, it’s the prophet who is tasked to carry these words to the people. They are the words of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. They are God’s words delivered when the community has failed to provide equitable justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. They are God’s words of condemnation when the wealthy organize everything for their benefit, depriving the lower classes of opportunity, even seizing what little they have. God says nothing about forms of government, nor of modern business systems. God has much to say about oppression, standards of justice, and the ethics of doing business.
Issues of injustice and oppression within the community can lie hidden in the routine of daily life, invisible to all but those who suffer from them. It’s suffering those in authority can dismiss as the wages of bad decisions, laziness, or innate lack of necessary abilities, and certainly not the fault of the way the community is organized and ruled. It is the prophet who must declare God’s word of judgment, and call the community to repentance: a repentance not of guilty remorse but of faithful, courageous change. Experience informs us that few pastors are likely to willingly bear the prophet’s burden, although they’ll listen with sympathetic ear. No, they’ll feel compelled to continue offering words of comfort, even encouraging comfort, but not challenging words of God’s of judgement against the community. They’re not averse to using godly judgement to condemn particular sins of personal behavior, real or imagined, but not corporate sins of injustice and oppression that infect society. It would offend too many of their flock.
When issues of injustice and oppression unleash civic instability, pastors must take up the prophet’s staff and speak, in God’s name, to the issues. Holy Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the vows of ordination demand it. One cannot be called into ordained ministry and duck it. To follow Christ Jesus requires it. And therein lies a problem. It’s bound to make some good, faithful church going people uncomfortable. They may leave, never to return. Yet what is discomforting and challenging to some, are God’s holy words of counsel that, if followed, will lead to a better, more abundant life for all. And those are comforting words.
We are in such a time now. The current administration has made clear that it favors a society in which the relative few who control most the wealth are best suited to manage the government, that the economy should be organized to give priority to their interests, that the lower classes can be easily patronized with grand promises, that the middle classes are well enough off to not care, and that a limited laissez-faire white led nationalistic government is what makes America Great.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to use crude, old fashioned tools of physical separation and closure of gathering places because they were the only ones we had. A bumbling start caused more illness and death than might otherwise have taken place, and it revealed wide spread perversion of values assigned to the elderly, low paid but essential workers, health care providers, and others deemed expendable. Others, following the lead of the president, simply ignored the seriousness of the disease, ridiculing those who did. The struggle to find a balance between suffering caused by illness and death, and suffering caused by economic dislocation, reopened old debates about the moral responsibility of government to assure the greater good of the community, and who is to be included in the calculation.
Then came George Floyd’s murder. He wasn’t the first. His death wasn’t even exceptional, but it was the first to be recorded from start to gruesome finish at the hands of an officer sworn to protect and serve. It illuminated the truth about dozens of other recent killings as nothing else had been able to do. It reminded us of a long history of killings, lynchings, bombings and burnings. It reopened long avoided issues of systemic racism kept hidden under normative social practices overlaid by a veneer of laws prohibiting them. Many pastors have known the stories, but as long as relative calm prevailed, it was best not to disturb things too much.
Relative calm has not prevailed. Enough of the American public now believe that systemic racism is real, they have a decent idea of what it is, and they have a renewed commitment to America’s high moral standards of equality and justice for all. Some things can be quickly and easily done to help make them a greater reality. The federal government needs to enforce the laws now on the books. More importantly, state and local governments need to clean up the laws and ordinances now on their books. Organized efforts to suppress votes, and manipulate votes once cast, must be exposed and confronted. Corporate and community practices that have favored discriminatory practices have to be excised. And personal attitudes and beliefs must be more honestly examined. It is no longer a matter for civil rights activists making noises on the fringe of public awareness. In a strange way, it’s become a matter of national pride. To borrow a slogan, it’s become the way to make America great.
For Christians, it’s more than that. It means encouraging civic practices to more fully reflect the standards God has firmly established, and that Jesus certified as authentic. It does not mean making America Christian. It means Christians influencing America to live more into God’s standards of justice. They have a great deal to do with economic justice and integrity of relationships. Distractions about sex and reproduction lead to dead end alleys where issues of systemic inequality are forgotten and nothing happens.
The familiar words of caution from congregations are to keep politics out of the pulpit. What that means is it’s not the pastor’s role to challenge the social standards congregants believe are normative and good. Electoral politics don’t belong in the pulpit. But politics is more than elections. It’s the process by which communities decide the rules under which they will live together. And God is quite clear about the moral standards of justice expected of them. They’ve been clear for 3,000 years. Jesus added an exclamation point and seal of authenticity. Our ability to understand them in the circumstances of our age has been a work in progress, one that we have engaged in through inconsistent fits and starts, lack of interest, and an amazing ability to twist God’s words for personal and social benefit, ignoring the very issues of injustice and oppression that God plainly meant. Christians are called to do what they can to move society in a godly direction. Pastors are sometimes called to bear the prophet’s burden. This is that time.