Saturday Night Theologian
25 May 2008

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Violence erupted this week in South Africa as some citizens of the country turned a hate-filled eye on immigrants from surrounding countries and beat some, killed others, and burned down their houses. The tragic irony of South Africans turning on refugees from same of the same countries that sheltered many of their leaders during the dark days of apartheid was not lost on former archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke out strongly against the violence and urged his fellow citizens to remember their days in exile. Rather than persecuting the immigrants, Tutu said, South Africans should welcome them and show them the graciousness that so many in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola showed to South African refugees in past years. It is easy to blame immigrants for problems in the country, but it is disingenuous, because problems persist with or without immigrants. Just ask the citizens of Myanmar (not exactly a magnet for immigrants from the region). More than that, persecuting immigrants rather than welcoming them runs contrary to the biblical mandate to love our neighbor and help those in need. The prophet in today's reading from Isaiah lived in Babylonia toward the end of the exilic period, and he foretold a day in the near future in which the Jewish exiles in Babylonia would be allowed to return home. Would they be welcomed by those already living in the land? The biblical books that tell the story of the early postexilic period suggest that tension existed between those who had remained in the land and those who returned. The problems were sometimes resolved, but at other times the problems festered and conflict flared up. Mixing two populations with different experiences and backgrounds is always difficult. In this case, the returning exiles were primarily descendants of the privileged class, while those already in the land were predominantly poor. In most situations today involving immigrants the relative wealth of natives and immigrants is reversed, with those already in the land having more money than those who are recently arrived (some of the early emigrants from Cuba to the U.S. were exceptions to this generalization). Regardless of the reasons for immigration--war, political persecution, joining family, economic opportunities--the clear teaching of the Bible is that the people of God are to welcome those newly arrived on their shores. They are to feed them, respect them, and help them integrate into their new community. To the extent that we do not do that, we cannot justly call ourselves people of faith.

Psalm 131

Is pride a good thing or a bad thing? Pride is counted among the seven deadly sins, yet it is something that parents try to instill in their children and that nations try to instill in their citizens. When I was in high school, our band director told us to take pride in ourselves in everything we did as representatives of the band, whether we were engaged in band activities or not. He taught us to strive for excellence, and we succeeded beyond the dreams of everyone, winning every contest we entered and earning top marks in every competition for three years in a row. What's wrong with taking pride in your membership in an organization that promotes excellence? Nothing, until you begin to look down your nose at other people who aren't a part of your group. When pride leads you to maintain personal integrity and try your hardest in every situation, it is positive, but when pride leads you to think of yourself and your group as better or more important or more deserving than another, it is negative. A lot of silly talk has been wasted this campaign season arguing about candidates wearing or not wearing flag lapel pins, but too often wearing such a pin is indicative of the wrong kind of pride. When we are proud to be citizens of a country and that feeling inspires us to work to make it even better, that's good, but when our pride leads us to denigrate the citizens of other countries, whether by calling them cowards, or changing the name of "French fries" to "Freedom fries," or considering their citizens of so little value that you threaten to obliterate them, or dropping bombs on civilian targets in the hope of killing a few "terrorists," then pride is bad. The psalmist advocates humility rather than pride, and we would do well to remember that whatever greatness and success we might have achieved as an individual, a team, or a nation, it is only though the grace of God that we have done so.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

The person of superior integrity does not insist upon his integrity;
For this reason, he has integrity.
The person of inferior integrity never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason, he lacks integrity.
The second word in the title of the famous Taoist work Tao Te Ching can be interpreted integrity, and integrity may be understood as the inner reflection of the Tao (the Way). In a day and age when many are eager to announce their accomplishments to the world, a person of integrity is happy merely to accomplish tasks of importance. When many strive to assert their righteousness or holiness through word or flamboyant display, a person of integrity is content simply to be righteous. When many compare themselves to others in an attempt to build themselves up, a person of integrity is satisfied with the knowledge that she has done all that she can do. Paul is a person of integrity, but he does not feel the need to prove it, and in fact integrity is not something that can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of others. God is the one who judges ultimately, but in the meantime, we can strive to live lives of integrity.

Matthew 6:24-34

I think Jesus' statement "You can't serve God and wealth" has many applications for modern life. Here are a few:

  1. God's command to love your neighbor supersedes the "need" to make a buck.
  2. Wealthy countries need to forgive the debt of poor countries. Forgive? Wealthy countries should be asking the forgiveness of poor countries for the centuries of colonialism and exploitation of their people and resources!
  3. The "health and wealth gospel" is one of the greatest perversions of Jesus' message ever perpetrated by greedy humans.
  4. Jesus never asked to see anyone's proof of insurance before healing him, so neither should we. Access to health care is a basic human right. Only a single-payer system will reach everyone.
  5. Wealth is a gift from God, intended to be shared, not hoarded.
  6. Those with a great personal fortune are not the only people qualified to run our countries. In fact, they may be less qualified because their intense desire not to lose their wealth once in office may lead them to make deals that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor: tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens, for instance.
  7. Universities with gigantic endowments need to reduce their tuition costs to practically nothing. In fact, since education itself is a basic human right, university and graduate school tuition should be free, or at least very inexpensive, for all who meet the entrance requirements.
  8. It is unjust for some people to be born into families with enormous fortunes while others are born into abject poverty with little hope of escape. Serving God means going a long way towards equalizing access to wealth: internationally, not just within a country.
  9. Poverty is a sin, not of the poor, but of the rich. In particular, it is a form of structural injustice that must be addressed at national and international levels. The worst war the U.S. ever lost was not Vietnam; it was the war on poverty.
  10. Churches should stop hosting wealth management classes and instead offer classes showing their members how to use their resources to help others.