The Words of the Prophets Are Preached in Congress’ Halls

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Readings: Isaiah 10:1-3 and Wendell Berry’s “Questionnaire”

If there is a single word that is most stigmatized in mainstream churches today, that word is sin. It is a word that the church has used and abused to such an extent that it has driven away countless lovers of God and created a stigma that arguably keeps otherwise interested seekers from the church’s doors. It has been a weapon to attack the marginalized, when it could be a tool to undermine the powerful.

Sin is a word that needs unpacking. Dictionaries define sin as “an offense against moral or religious law,” and in a more general sense as “an impaired state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God.” Now, while Jews and many Christians don’t ascribe to original sin (as I discussed last week), both religions see sin as something everyone does, an inescapable part of being human.

I talked last summer about the Black Church as America’s prophetic voice, about how its preachers have reminded us that “God’s message is a not only a message of comfort to the oppressed, but also a message of warning to the oppressor.” In calling out sin, prophets reveal God’s judgment. But it isn’t judgment at people individually for their private sins that prophets focus on; it is the way governments and heads of states and other elites violate God’s ethical requirements for leaders to protect their communities. God’s judgment in the prophets is on corporate sin, national sin. When the prophets call out sin, they are reminding the leaders and the rich that God’s economy is neighbor-centered, that the gold standard for decisions about money, property, and ethics is whether your action is good for all your neighbors, including the poorest, including the refugee and immigrant, including women and children who have no way to provide for themselves. We—by which I mean Western Christianity and Western culture in general—have transformed sin and ethics into something individualistic, a matter of who has sex with whom, or even whether you swear or how legalistic you are in following certain rules. But for the prophets, sin is the root of oppression. It is denying justice, passing bad laws, even just enjoying luxuries while not caring whether others starve: this is sin. “Woe to those who live in ease, who feel secure, who think of themselves as the elite class of the best nation,” Amos says. In Malachi, God says, “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who cheat laborers of their wages, against those who oppress the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and do not fear me.” Ezekiel pronounces on the sin that led to the destruction of Sodom: “See here—this was the sin of Sodom: She had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but did not help the poor and needy.” Micah says that the wicked “confiscate the fields they desire, and seize the houses they want. They defraud people of their homes, and deprive people of the land they have inherited.” When the prophets call down God’s judgment, the greedy say, “Don’t preach with such impassioned rhetoric . . . These prophets should not preach of such things; nothing bad will happen to us! God will continue to forgive!” But, says Micah, “This land is not secure! Sin will thoroughly destroy it!”

Nearly every single prophetic book identifies greed or idolatry as the root of sin. Even idolatry has its economic aspect, though; in stories such as those about Jezebel, the notorious Baal-worshiping queen of Israel, worship of other gods is linked directly to fraud and dispossession. The biblical scholar Leslie Hoppe writes that “idol worship provided ideological support for an unjust social system based on an elite who controlled the economic lives of the poor. [Israel’s God], however, is a God who takes the side of the poor against those who exploit them.” That is, in abandoning the worship of Israel’s God, sinners were choosing the easier and laxer ethics of a god who didn’t care so much about community. Say what you like about ancient Israelite theology, but it was profoundly different from the imperialistic and power-justifying theologies of its neighbors.

In the prophetic imagination, sin is what destroys countries. It ravages the poor in its unending quest for wealth. It starts wars that kill poor young people. It enslaves people, using them only for its own ends. It makes the people cry out, “How long,” as in Psalm 94, “How long will the wicked celebrate and be glad? They spew out threats and speak defiantly; all the evildoers boast. O Lord, they crush your people; they oppress the nation that belongs to you. They kill widows, immigrants, and orphans.”

While the prophets’ condemnation of sin is corporate, not individual, it would be a mistake to think that we are without sin because we have not personally done these things. Unless we are at the very bottom of our country’s social rungs, we are a part—even unwillingly—of the sins of our leaders. This isn’t meant to crush us with guilt—a counterproductive move, that would be—but to agitate our souls and fire us up to do something about the evils our country or its leaders are perpetrating. Most of us are able to call our representatives. Most of us can get to Montpelier to show our leaders we want to protect the rights of all the people of this land. Most of us—even the most interpersonally faint-hearted, of which I am one—can examine our prejudices, can say the words “Black Lives Matter,” can protest police violence. All of us here can pray, and pray fervently, for livable wages, for health care for all people, for an end to war.

Maybe the most important thing we can do as ethical citizens is to ask, like the prophets, whom do the policies of this country benefit, and whom do they betray? The first time I read “Questionnaire,” by Wendell Berry, it was like a punch to the gut. It made me literally breathless. In this poem, Berry baldly and shockingly peels back the layers of our economic and national self-interest to get at what we unthinkingly sacrifice. Sin is what allows us to rationalize the natural destruction, misery, and death we deal out as a nation. The prophetic understanding of sin shows that we are complicit unless we agitate, unless we insist on the goodness of God’s creation and the basic rights of all our human sisters and brothers. Sin—this worldview we absorb that teaches us that there are acceptable losses and collateral damage—is what tells us that change is hopeless, that there’s nothing we can do. Sin is what tells us subtly that our lives—and more than our lives, our comfort—is more important than the lives of other people or animals. Our comfort is more important than another’s health, or access to clean water, or freedom from fear.

The opposite of sin is righteousness, or solidarity—acting on behalf of others even when it doesn’t benefit oneself. Kathleen Norris writes that “righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care for the most vulnerable people in a culture.” In the unassailable logic of Berry’s poem, righteousness is pushing back against the conventional wisdom that values the Dow Jones above our own health; that values our need for cheap fossil fuels above valleys like this valley and hills like the hills that surround us now; that values abstractions like national security above children like our beloved children—the babies and grandbabies and nieces and nephews we can’t imagine losing. Sin always tells us that goodness is impractical, that justice is too expensive, that peace is unrealistic; but righteousness knows that what’s unrealistic is to imagine we can create a just world when we only think of ourselves.

This week a protest of clergy members were arrested outside the offices of Mitch McConnell. And among them were the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who preached: “It’s time to stop calling God by other names when you really want to call God capitalism! It is time to stop cloaking your greed in religious language! I am here to tell you that there ain’t nothing that is right about the religion happening in these halls! [this is almost verbatim the words of Jesus before he pushes over the moneylenders’ tables and chases them out of the Temple with a whip, by the way] This should be where we come for help, and yet we are coming—crying out on behalf of the people—to stop some of the most egregious legislation that we have seen in a long time.” “Health care is a righteous issue,” she said.

And also the Rev. William Barber: “It’s time for us to go down to the house of power, and challenge the way power is being used.” “This bill and the attempt to use power to take away health care is sin. It’s immoral,” he preached.

It may be easy for some to dismiss these words, and the actions of the protestors, as political rather than religious. I hope I’ve shown today that they are completely inseparable, that sin and righteousness are political categories, and that prophets of all times remind us that God is on the side of the poor and vulnerable. God’s judgment is an idea that has been abused, but that should never be thrown out, because we need God’s judgment to remind us that the ways we judge good and evil are often warped. We need God’s judgment to point us away from corporate sin at all levels and inspire in us a passion for solidarity and a vision of righteousness. We need God’s judgment wherever we put the comfort of the rich above the rights of the poor, the comfort of abusers above the rights of their victims, the idolatry of security above the very lives of other human beings.

As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” The words of the prophets take the perspective of God and of the poor and those abandoned by society, because God is with the poor and God is with the people who’ve been abandoned by society. To look at anything from the point of view of God is to look from the point of view of the poor. Today, if we’re paying attention, we may read and hear the words of the prophets in editorials, on Twitter, outside the Senate Majority Leader’s office getting dragged away in handcuffs, in the halls of Congress being ripped out of wheelchairs. Yesterday, the words of the prophets were being preached outside the offices of the NRA and on the steps of the Department of Justice. The words of the prophets are Black Lives Matter and Water Is Life and Kill the Bill! The words of the prophets are hard to hear; most of us never wander the subway walls and tenement halls where they are written. Most of us don’t attend the town meetings addressing the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration that is ravaging Black neighborhoods, most of us even in this agrarian state don’t know who’s milking the cows or picking the lettuce we consume. Moreover, everything in our society tries to paint or shout over the words of our modern prophets, tries to tell us that the prophets are anti-police, anti-white, anti-American, anti-Christ.

But Christ, who was executed by the state for nonviolent resistance, killed because he was righteous and loved by the poor, Christ is our model and our guide. Miraculously, his words and the words of the prophets he built on—terrifying though they were to the authorities and elite of his time—have come down to us. They’ve been preserved under the weight of time, of interpretations that have tried to explain his meaning away. In a time of blatant hypocrisy, greed, and the unraveling of our political structures, this is the call we need to hear: If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life?