Saturday Night Theologian
9 December 2007

Isaiah 11:1-10 (first published 5 December 2004)

Today's reading from Isaiah is one of the Old Testament passages that we delight in reading around Christmas, because we see in it a portrait of the Messiah. The word "branch" in the first verse is picked up as a messianic term by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:14) and Zechariah (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12), and Matthew seems to allude to it when he notes that it was foretold of the Messiah, "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matthew 2:23). Jesus does fit the description pretty well, for he was one on whom the spirit of the Lord rested, who was full of wisdom and understanding, and so forth. What we often fail to see, however, is that this passage not only describes an ideal future king, it also describes the kind of king that the prophet expected every king to be. A ruler of the people should certainly be a person anointed by God's spirit, a wise and understanding leader. A godly ruler is one who makes decisions with the best interests of the poor, not the rich, in mind. This ruler will stand firm against wickedness, while at the same time demonstrating justice and faithfulness. Finally, the reign of the ideal ruler will be characterized by peace. The prophet idealizes the messiah's rule as a return to Eden, when even carnivorous animals ingest plants, and all creation is again in harmony. Eden may be an unrealistic goal, but are the others that farfetched? Why can't today's world leaders bring us a world of peace? Why can't the leaders of the world's richest nations decide to spend their surplus on feeding and clothing the poor instead of enriching the arms merchants (and themselves along the way)? Why can't our leaders not only take God on their lips but also in their actions? Isaiah imagined that the ideal ruler would be so blessed by God, and be such a blessing to others, that all the nations of the earth would seek the ruler's wisdom and favor. Who are the people alive today who stand as signals of righteousness to the nations? They are certainly not the leaders of the world's most powerful nations, whose nations are constantly involved in intrigues to overthrow their enemies and install their friends in power, both within their own borders and throughout the world. Those who serve as signals of righteousness are leaders of some of the world's poorer countries, people like Brazilian president Ignacio Lula da Silva or South African president Thabo Mbeki. They are religious leaders who stand for peace and for the poor, like Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. They are ordinary citizens of various countries who stand for human rights, like Aung San Suu Kyi and Jimmy Carter. They are theologians and pastors who see the truth of God's concern for the poor and oppressed, like Gustavo Gutierrez and Desmond Tutu. For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 11, but that doesn't mean that other people are not also God's anointed, carrying God's blessings to thousands or millions of people. If the passage really does point beyond the ideal messiah and establish principles for other anointed servants of God, where does that leave us? If we have been anointed by God, it leaves us in a single place: serving others in Jesus' name.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (first published 5 December 2004)

George Washington's likeness appears on our dollar bills and our quarters, and he is revered as the Father of Our Country. George Washington owned slaves. Andrew Jackson was one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history. Andrew Jackson promised the Choctaw and Cherokee peoples, "they shall possess [their land] as long as Grass grows or water runs"; when gold was discovered on their lands, his forgot his promises and drove them from their lands so that the white people could prosper. Theodore Roosevelt was a man with a reputation larger than life, and his face is carved on Mt. Rushmore. Theodore Roosevelt pushed the notorious Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution, thereby stealing a measure of Cuba's sovereignty under the pretense of caring about the Cuban people. Great leaders sometimes have great faults. Poor leaders sometimes have even greater faults. Jim Hightower quips, "If God had meant for people to vote, he would have given us candidates." Too often it seems that voters in the U.S., and in other democracies around the world, have poor choices at the polls. In the last U.S. presidential election, for example, we had a choice between a white male patrician graduate of Yale (and member of the secret Skull and Bones society) and another white male patrician graduate of Yale (and member of the secret Skull and Bones society). What's wrong with this picture? Regardless of how good a leader a candidate might be and what kind of ideas he or she might have, the two most important qualifications are money and connections. The talk about moral values that has arisen since the election is largely a smokescreen, for candidates with poor overall morals are often elected, in part because they have enough money to convince unwitting (or uncaring) voters that they really do have high moral values. Today's reading from the Psalms comes from an ancient Israelite royal installation ceremony, and it describes clearly the characteristics that God desires in a leader. The leader will be personally righteous and at the same time work to bring about justice. The scope of the justice this leader will have is specified in verse 2: the leader is one who will render just decisions for the poor. Yes, the economy will flourish under the ideal ruler, but the riches will be "for the people," not just those who already have money. A huge reserve of oil was discovered in Equatorial Guinea a few years ago, and a giant influx of wealth poured into the country. Well, actually the oil revenues went to the president and his closest friends. The psalmist is clear on the subject: "May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor." Too many political leaders today are on the side of the oppressors (or may even be the oppressors themselves) rather than on the side of the oppressed. The reign of a good ruler will be characterized by an abundance of righteousness and peace. These are both in short supply today worldwide, but there is a great need for both. How does a passage like this one apply to the vast majority of us who are not political leaders, nor do we have the aspiration to become political leaders? If we're fortunate to live in countries with a democratic tradition, we must support candidates whose platforms reflect the values described in Psalm 72. Above all we must recognize that poverty, justice, and human rights are moral, even religious issues. If we want to be on God's side, we will stand with the poor, for economic justice, and for basic human rights.

Romans 15:4-13

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech this week concerning religion and politics. He said he had hoped he could avoid giving such as speech, but shifts in the polls recently, particularly the rise of former governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, to the status of Republican frontrunner in some states, encouraged Romney to deliver his speech. The problem with Romney, in the eyes of many potential voters, is that he is a Mormon, a group that identifies itself as Christian but whose beliefs are outside the mainstream of traditional Christianity. Should this make a difference when choosing a presidential candidate? Romney argued that it should not, and I have to agree with him. Like John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, Romney represents a group that many conservative Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, are wary of (although it's hard to imagine today's Evangelicals raising much of a stink over a Catholic candidate, unlike their predecessors in the early and mid twentieth century). Also like Kennedy, Romney asserted his independence from the hierarchy of his church, and he pledged both to uphold American laws and to avoid discrimination on religious grounds in all of his policies, if elected. I agree with Romney's contention that a person's religious beliefs should have no effect on the American public's evaluation of him or her as a candidate, unless it can be demonstrated (not just assumed) that a person's religious commitments would affect public policy. For example, belief in creationism might affect a candidate's attitude toward both the teaching of science in the public school classroom and the support of the federal government for scientific conclusions about current concerns. Similarly, belief in the idea of a literal battle of Armageddon in the near future might affect a candidate's foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. (As far as I know, Romney holds neither of these positions.) As Christians, we need to evaluate people not on the basis of labels but on the basis of their words and deeds. Paul wrote, Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." We shouldn't vote for or against Romney because he's a Mormon any more than we should vote for or against Huckabee because he's a Baptist, of for or against Obama because he's a member of the United Church of Christ. For that matter, if we were ever to have an atheist or agnostic candidate for president, I don't think we should vote for or against that person on the basis of his or her lack of religious commitment. After all, we're voting for a commander in chief, not a theologian in chief.

Matthew 3:1-12 (first published 5 December 2004)

The hot topic in U.S. politics over the past few weeks has been moral values. Many who supported President Bush for reelection believed that their opponents had poor moral values. Those who supported Senator Kerry protested that they too had strong moral values, though they were not identical in all cases with those of their political rivals. John the Baptist was a strong proponent of morality. His preaching in the wilderness was famous far and wide for its main theme: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" Loose morality is indeed a serious problem in today's world, as it always has been in every age. We delude ourselves if we think that the 1950s were a better time, morally speaking, or the 19th century, or the period of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. People then, as now, could be found with strong moral fiber, while others exhibited little awareness of a moral compass. More interesting than the two extremes, however (uh oh, nuance warning!), are those people, probably the vast majority in any age, who see themselves as moral people but who have a blind spot, at least from the perspective of people who live in more recent times. Take a man like General Robert E. Lee. A recent textbook that claims to offer a Christian perspective on education describes Lee as "A Christian General," and this is the perspective that is taught to the children following this particular curriculum. In his day, Lee may well have exhibited many of the Christian virtues that were accepted and valued: courtesy, chivalry, courage, and even kindness. However, from a modern perspective--in fact, from the perspective of a large number of his contemporaries--he had a huge blind spot: he fought to uphold the institution of slavery (revisionist Civil War historians, please note: I am aware that the war involved other issues, but slavery was the most important, both morally and historically). It's hard for me as a modern Christian to put Robert E. Lee on a pedestal as a prime example of a Christian gentleman, despite the fact that I grew up in a former Confederate state, less than 100 miles from Lee County and about 250 miles from the town of Robert Lee. It is interesting to note that many who are considered prime examples of Christianity to their contemporaries often fail to maintain their elevated status as examples for future generations. There are exceptions, however. Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, and St. Francis are people whose status as Christian examples continues to be accepted by large numbers of contemporary Christians. I fully expect Mother Theresa to remain an example for centuries to come. What separates these people from others whose lives are not so readily called to mind as examples for the present? I think the primary characteristic is their actions. These people were not just great thinkers, they were great doers. John the Baptist put it well: "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Holding this or that moral position in the present may get you notice, and if you're a politician, it may even get you votes. Over the long haul, however, putting your morality into practice, showing your values by showing whom you value, will have a much greater effect.