Saturday Night Theologian
2 November 2008

Micah 3:5-12

Nowadays it's fashionable to be opposed to the war in Iraq and to call for the troops to be brought home. Not so in 2003 or 2004. And it's never fashionable to criticize the U.S. in the harsh way that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright did in his infamous "God damn America" sermon. One can debate the wisdom of Wright's choice of words--though in the context of the entire sermon, they aren't nearly as harsh as they sound when taken out of context--but a true progressive Christian cannot deny the right, indeed the duty, of people to speak truth to power. Yes, it usually makes sense to include a little bit of grace in the message along with the criticism, but the call to prophetic speech, and prophetic action is clear. It is particularly hard to speak against one's own people, but we are sometimes called upon to do just that. Micah forcefully denounced the injustices that he saw around him, perpetrated by the king and the ruling class, and he went so far as to predict the ultimate, and perhaps imminent, destruction of both the city of Jerusalem and its temple. How would similar words directed toward the U.S. government be received today? Not well, I suspect, and it's because too many people who think of themselves as Christians are actually Americans first, Christians second. It should be the other way around. There's nothing wrong in taking pride in one's country and in identifying with its people, but as Christians we're called to be citizens of the world before we are citizens of our individual countries. Furthermore, our highest allegiance must always be to God, not country. Micah discovered that his words were unpopular with the people of Judah, but he had to courage to speak out anyway. The U.S. is facing a momentous election Tuesday, one that may bring about great change on the federal level. If so, it will be doubly important for progressives of all stripes to maintain a critical eye toward government policies, economic trends, and current events. It's relatively easy to speak out when we don't really support the political party that's currently in power. It's much more difficult to speak out against a political party whose policies we generally agree with. Regardless of the outcome of the election, though, God's call to us remains clear: speak out against injustice and inequality wherever it is and whenever we see it.

Psalm 43

Psalm 43 expresses my sentiments almost exactly. I'm in a position where I feel I have been treated unjustly, and I'm sometimes tempted to slip into either anger or depression. I know in my mind that neither response is helpful, but knowing that doesn't stop the feelings, at least not always. "Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!" Why is there injustice in the world, and in particular, why do those who think of themselves as observant Christians engage in injustice? The first answer is that those who commit injustice, from my point of view, don't generally think they are doing so. To use an analogy from history, male employers who paid female employees lower wages than their male counterparts in the 1920s or the 1940s probably didn't think they were doing anything wrong, since "everyone knew" that men needed to make more money than women in order to support their families. But if you don't know you're committing injustice, does that make it OK to do so? Is it a valid excuse? Why not argue, then, "I didn't know that there was anything wrong with discriminating against someone just because they're Black"? Such an argument would never fly today, but it would have not all that long ago. The second answer to the question of why Christians commit injustice is a theological one. We are all sinners, and our view of the world is skewed by our sins, prejudices, and experiences. That includes the person who believes he is being treated unjustly, of course. In an ideal world, Christians involved in injustice could be reasoned with, and when they saw the error of their ways, they would change them. In the real world, pride and shortsightedness usually prevent such repentance from happening. How then should one deal with injustice on a personal level? I think it's all right to by angry, as long as that anger does not devolve into hatred. Some might advise that it's best to accept the injustice and just move on, but I disagree, at least as a general rule. If Rosa Parks had just moved to the back of the bus, the Montgomery bus boycott would never have gotten off the ground, and the modern civil rights movement would quite possibly have been delayed. On the other hand, it is certainly wrong to be consumed by anger, because an angry person is less effective in living out his or her life. In the end, I think the psalmist has the right idea: pour out your anger and frustration and grief to God, trust God to take care of you, and take steps to get on with life.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 (first published 30 October 2005)

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" This is a question that adults often ask children, and children often ask themselves. "I want to be a doctor," "I want to be a fireman," and "I want to be a teacher" are typical responses. Children see people in their communities who help others and are well-respected, and they think it would be great to be somebody like that. Even answers like "I want to be a pro basketball player" or "I want to be a ballerina" focus more on the joy of playing or performing than on the potential monetary rewards (more for the basketball player than the ballerina!). When we get older our goals in life often change, and we sometimes start thinking about the financial rewards of one job or another. Now we might want to be a doctor or a lawyer because it pays well, not so much because we would be helping others. Or maybe we start working at a job, any job, because it's one that we can get, and we stay with it, not because we see value in our work but because we grow complacent. When we get to be 30, or 40, or 50, or 60, will we look back on our lives and be happy with what we've accomplished? Will we feel like we've taken advantage of the opportunities that God has given us? Will we feel like we've lived lives worthy of God? Paul says to the Thessalonians, "We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." Of course, leading a worthy life does not depend exclusively on one's job, for what we do with our free time, through our churches, and as volunteers is also important. However, since most of us spend about 40 hours a week at work throughout much of our adult lives, the job we have is important, for God wants our work to be meaningful. Specific jobs are not meaningful in and of themselves, for one person can be a teacher who makes a tremendous difference in the lives of her students, and another can be a teacher who barely tolerates her students in pursuit of a paycheck. One person may minister to others through his job as a nurse, manager, salesperson, or social worker, while another person may struggle just to endure a job they hate. If we find ourselves in the latter position, it's time to move on. Life is too short to work in a job for which we're not suited or for which we feel no passion. As we seek to live lives worthy of God through our jobs, one rule of thumb to ask ourselves that will help us see whether we're where God wants us to be in terms of our employment is this: do we consider our job to be a vocation (something to which we're called) or just an occupation (something that occupies our time)?

Matthew 23:1-12 (first published 30 October 2005)

One of my students asked me the other day, "Why do Catholics call their pastors 'Father'? Doesn't the Bible say that we shouldn't call anyone on earth 'Father'?" Today's reading from Matthew does seem to say that at first glance, but then we have to look at the verse before and after verse 9. Verse 8 says that no one should be called "rabbi," either. That's not a problem for Christians, since the word is primarily used by Jews to refer to their leaders. However, verse 10 is a bit of a problem. "Nor are you to be called instructor," the NRSV says. According to my Greek dictionary, the word can mean a teacher or a professor. That's bad, since that's what I am. In fact, the root meaning of the word is simply "leader," so it can refer to anyone in a position of authority. The problem that Jesus is addressing in this passage is not the specific words that we use to address those in authority over us. The issue is how leaders of one kind or another act towards people over whom we have authority. If you are a manager at work, do you treat your employees with respect, or do you sometimes take out your frustrations on them, just because you can get away with it? If you are a teacher, do you listen to your students' opinions, or do you just assume that you know all the answers because of your educational background and your years of experience? If you are a minister, do you listen to the needs of your congregation, even those members who are sometimes hard to take, or do your eyes glaze over when they present their concerns to you? Jesus is not calling us to avoid having leaders, he is calling us to have leaders--and to be leaders--who are humble, who have the best interests of their constituents in mind at all times, and who are constantly listening for the voice of God to guide them.