Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Back to Basics: Advice for Christians in the Trump Era

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade presenting at the Teach-in, Lexington Theological Seminary, Jan. 20, 2017
On January 20, 2017 -- Inauguration Day -- the seminary where I teach, Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, held a Teach-in entitled "Now What?  Empowering the Church in the New Political Age."  We had planned for around 20-30 participants, but were surprised when the room filled with nearly 50 with 10 viewing the event online.  LTS President Charisse Gillett, Richard Weis, Jerry Sumney, Emily Askew, Barbara Blodgett, and I planned the event to foster a discussion on how Christians who are concerned with justice and goodwill should live out their faith in the current political environment. The feedback we received from participants is that more guidance is needed from church leaders going forward.  Because this is a new country we're living in now.
A full house for the Jan. 20 Teach-in at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Then and now I start with a little pastoral-care check-in.  Because, let’s face it – this has been a rough couple of weeks, and in fact, a tough couple of months.  Have you been experiencing any of these since the election (and maybe even before)?

Anxious.               Unsettled.           Distracted.          Unfocused.         Angry.   Confused.
Afraid for yourself or someone else.         Wondering about your own sanity.            Overwhelmed.

Maybe you haven’t felt any of these things.  But whether you consider yourself to be a blue dot in a sea of red, or a red dot in a sea of blue, the events of the past year have left very few untouched.  You may have noticed that no matter how hard you’re trying to be positive, make a contribution to the good of the world, and align yourself with acts of resistance to the evil at hand, you just can’t shake this feeling that something is off, something is amiss.  If you’re feeling that way, you’re not insane, and you are not alone.  Because something is terribly wrong. 

Fortunately, we have solid biblical and theological resources to help us understand what is happening.  Consider this passage from Deuteronomy which was the lectionary reading in many churches on Sunday, Feb. 12:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 -- See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

These verses come at the end of Moses’ speech to the Israelites before he is about to step down and allow Joshua to become his successor.  They are getting ready to enter the land of Canaan, and Moses is giving them the laws of God – the commandments –  that are meant to guide them, help them manage the boundaries of rights and responsibilities, and to provide the basis for their relationships interpersonally and as a community of faith.

At the end of this very long set of instructions come these words:  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you.  But if you turn away . . . you shall perish.”

My friends, a great turning away has occurred in this country.  A turning away from the most fundamental commandments of God has gotten us to this point where something vital to our very survival is perishing.  When something or someone perpetuates harmful stereotypes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or country of origin; messes with your sense of reality; manipulates your perception of truth; and uses techniques and strategies to disorient you to the point where you question your own sanity – and does so in a way that affects an entire nation, this means that something wicked is at work. 

The Israelites understood what it meant to live in a time when something wicked was a work, when things were fundamentally not right.  Deuteronomy was actually written after the time of Moses.  The book was written over a period of 200 years when the Israelites were reeling from the conquest of two hostile conquerors – first, the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians.  The Israelites knew what it was like to have a foreign government messing with their sovereignty.  They had first-hand experience with polarization amongst their people.  They knew what it was like to live in a time when lies become normalized and reality itself seems to crumble around you.  They knew what it meant to live with brutality. 

Now we, too, are living in a time I call The Age of Disintegrationism.  Because what we’re experiencing in our country and our culture is like an auto-immune disorder, where the very systems that have served human society (flawed though they were) have turned against humanity itself and are resulting in self-destruction.  Something sinister has overtaken us and is attempting to unravel the fabric of human community, like a flesh-eating disease that is attacking us at the cellular level. 

The Israelites were also subjected to that kind of societal unravelling.  And so the authors of Deuteronomy knew it was important to write down Moses’ words – these commandments of God – and teach them over and over again to the people. Because the ancient commandments were in danger of being forgotten and lost in the midst of a very chaotic time.  So they set down this fifth book of the Torah to keep the traditions alive because they were essential for revitalizing their nation and restoring the foundation upon which their society could function. 

My friends, we have a Deuteronomic task before us today. It’s a big word because it's a big job. The Christian church has duty and a responsibility to remind ourselves and our society of these things:

There was once – and still must be – a moral and ethical center.
There were – and still are – standards for responsible leadership.
There was – and still is – accountability to truth.

Our Deuteronomic task in the face of this latest iteration of chaotic wickedness is commensurate with Moses' instructions to choose life and resist death.  We need to do two things: 1) re-establish a moral and ethical center based on resistance to evil and, at the same time, 2)  support life-giving values shared with other religions and non-religious people of good will.   

In other words, we have to get back to basics – the basics of the Ten Commandments that give us the non-negotiables when it comes to human decency and what it means to live without fear of the strong overtaking the weak. The basics of the teachings of Jesus that give us the bottom line of radical integrity, and a sacrificial love that puts your life and your body on the line to protect those most vulnerable.  The basics of prayer and worship and service in order to neutralize this evil and begin to return ourselves, our churches, and our world to a place of centered sanity and re-integration. 

This means that when we hear “alternative facts” and fake news – we have to call that what it really is: lying.  And what commandment is it breaking?  You shall not bear false witness.

And when executive orders are handed down that will endanger the lives of people, we have to remind the Powers that the commandment, You shall not kill, means we must resist when they are trying to push through legislation that is, in fact, life-threatening. 

Not only that, but we are being held accountable by heaven and earth itself.  In verse 19, God calls on heaven and earth to bear witness to the choice – obedience and life, or turning away and perishing – that God has set before us.  The skies and the planet itself are watching to see if we obey God’s commands.  And I have to say, if we were in a cosmic courtroom, I cannot imagine that any reasonable resident of earth would say that dumping coal pollution into streams that feed the drinking water for human and other-than-human communities is choosing life.  That choice leads to perishing. 

I cannot imagine the rivers of Pennsylvania where I used to live, and the rivers of North Dakota where they want to put pipelines with dangerous, toxic gases and oil – I cannot imagine the rivers are testifying that we are choosing life.  No, the choice leads to perishing.
Sissonville, WV, Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture, Explosion, & Fire
If the atmosphere itself could take the witness stand, I can only surmise that the testimony provided would let the record show that the human species polluted this planet with enough carbon dioxide and methane to drive it into a raging feverish demise.  This is not choosing life.  This choice leads to perishing.

And so over and over in Deuteronomy we hear the words command and obey reiterated again and again.  Obedience – it’s not a word we use very much.  It’s not a word we like very much.  Obedience is a word that has accumulated a negative aura because we don’t like be told what to do, that we must obey.  Obedience – isn’t that what we expect of dogs and children? 

But the Hebrew word has much deeper spiritual and religious sense.  The word is shama, which means to hear, to listen deeply, and to let the voice of God resonate so profoundly within you that you can feel your very soul resonate with the truth that is being proclaimed. 

When is the last time you felt the truth of something so profound and so real that it made your body just hum with resonance?

For me, it happened on January 21, just a few weeks ago.  As I stood among the crowd of 5000 people gathered in downtown Lexington listening to the speakers calling for justice and equity, looking at all the different signs, and marching in solidarity with people I had only just met but I knew shared my values, I felt my whole being resonate with the down-deep-in-the-bones realization that the Spirit of God was still at work in the world.  And when I came home that evening and saw that what I experienced was actually one of hundreds of marches all over the country – all over the world – I felt the resonance vibrating me to my core.  I felt for the first time that the world was taking on the Deuteronomic task of choosing life, standing against the forces of tyranny and standing for their fellow sisters and brothers, and even with Earth and heaven, standing for equality and justice, especially toward the weaker members of society.  This command – to stand on the side of life – is one I am happy to obey.

My colleagues in faith, our Deuteronomic task is not an easy one.  You will get push-back.  You will be mocked and smirked at and patronized and politely dismissed.  And some of us will feel the wrath of the powers because of our work for justice.  But you will be heard.  Because you do not do this alone.  Your voice, speaking for the voiceless, is being amplified across this nation.  You are following the command of God to choose life, answering the call to justice.

So be encouraged in your Deuteronomic task today. Know that you stand in a long line of faithful people who take their religions and traditions outside their houses of worship and out into the world, helping to create on the outside what we preach on the inside.  Attend to your Deuteronomic task with confidence, good humor, with purity of thought, word and deed as Jesus commanded us, with perseverance, fierce advocacy for justice, and great joy knowing you have colleagues in this place, and in houses of faith, and in the homes and classrooms and on the streets and in the forests and across the skies to support and encourage you in doing this Great Work of our time.  Amen.

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

1 comment:

  1. Amen Pr. Leah! It was a glorious Sunday serving as your Assisting Minister and "wing man" at Faith Lutheran Church yesterday! Amen to your message!


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