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Ten years ago today, rock star Bono delivered an amazing address at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, with President George W. Bush sitting nearby. Bono, lead singer of the … Continue reading Bono rocked the world 10 years ago with words about poverty, justice
We Christians still have a problem faced by the first disciples of Christ. We have a hard time, a very hard time, casting out evil.
In the New Testament, this is recorded in Matthew 17:19-20. The disciples could not heal a boy, and they did not understand why.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it [an evil spirit] out?”He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of amustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (NRSV).
Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a memorable sermon from this story in Scripture. He did not go into all the varied questions and implications of the verses, but he used it to make a broader point about our inability to get rid of the evil we encounter in the world. The sermon is “The Answer to a Perplexing Question,” and it is available online and in a book of MLK’s sermons, The Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012)
The question: “How can evil be cast out?”
King said people usually pursue “two paths to eliminate evil and thereby save the world.” Some people try to remove evil through their “own power and ingenuity.” They think science, reason, and other human efforts alone can combat evil.
A second approach relies only on God to remove evil. People who adopt this perspective wait “submissively upon the Lord,” believing “God alone will redeem the world.”
King said the “Reformation wrongly affirmed that the image of God had been completely erased from man.” Taken too far, and Christians may sit back and wait on God to fix the problem of evil in the world. “By ignoring the need for social reform, religion is divorced from the mainstream of human life.”
The idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks him for anything, and God becomes little more than a “cosmic bellhop” who is summoned for every trivial need. Or God is considered so omnipotent and man so powerless that prayer is a substitute for work and intelligence. . . .
God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence. Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute. . . .
Man is no helpless invalid left in a valley of total depravity until God pulls him out. Man is rather an upstanding human being whose vision has been impaired by the cataracts of sin and whose soul has been weakened by the virus of pride, but there is sufficient vision left for him to lift his eyes unto the hills, and there remains enough of God’s image for him to turn his weak and sin-battered life toward the Great Physician, the curer of the ravages of sin.
King said the proper approach to combatting evil in the world is a joining of the work of God and humankind. God and God’s people, “made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new and drive out the deadly cancer of sin.”
Faith “opens the door for God to work through man.” King talked of two types of faith. The “mind’s faith” involves the intellect. The “heart’s faith” involves a “trusting act of self-surrender.” “To know God, a man must possess this latter type of faith, for the mind’s faith is directed toward a theory, but the heart’s faith is centered in a Person.”
All people, as sinners, have their own personal battles with evil, but there are social evils to be addressed. “Man filled with God and God operating through man bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives,” King said.
King focused much of his attention on the social sin of racial injustice. Justice, he said, “will come neither by our frail and often misguided efforts nor by God imposing his will on wayward men, but when enough people open their lives to God and allow him to pour his triumphant, divine energy into their souls.
(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)
Now may be the time to revive a tradition from the early days of the New England colonies — the “election sermon.”
“The annual election sermon was a Puritan phenomenon that lasted for well over two hundred years, from 1634 through 1884,” writes Nancy S. Taylor in the Fall issue of Yale Divinity School’s Reflections journal. It came after an election and provided an opportunity for elected officials to hear a word from the minister.
On May 30, 1694, Samuel Willard mounted his Boston church pulpit to address the region’s recently elected rulers: “His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England,” all of whom are sitting in the pews that day, Taylor says.
Willard’s sermon was called “The Character of a Good Ruler.” This sermon had particular significance because it came in the wake of the Salem witch trials of the two previous years. Willard had successfully stood in defense of some members of his church who had been accused. Taylor writes:
“Now, a year later, Mr. Willard preaches the election sermon to the region’s freshly elected magistrates, reminding them that ‘the Weal or Woe of a People mainly depends on the qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are Governed …’ Surely the Witch Trials are a raw wound to these would-be rulers and Mr. Willard’s words salt. As a pastor it is the weal or woe of the people that matters to him. Will the colonists’ wants and needs be heard? Can they entrust their safety to these leaders? Or will they again be subjected to the foolishness and agony of such tyrannical injustice as blighted the years 1692- 93, leaving thirty-two dead from state execution and almost no New England town or family unscathed?”
With the injustices of the witch trials fresh in everyone’s minds, Willard “insists that civil rulers should be just men. It is not adequate that they understand the law. Surely the justices who presided over the executions in 1692-93 understood the law. That is not nearly enough. They must themselves be just.”
“Ignorance,” Mr. Willard declares, “is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it.” Injustice will beget injustice and ignorance will beget yet more ignorance. Those invested with the privilege and responsibility of ruling their fellow human beings “must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness,” for “if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.”
Finally, Willard said a ruler “must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests.”
In today’s American political environment, many politicians seem more driven by ambition and covetousness than by desire for the public benefit. I use “many” and not “all” intentionally.
I wish there was a way for us to choose our public officials without allowing them to campaign for office themselves. It is impossible, I know, but it surely would be nice if we could decide who the most capable leader is and pursue him or her, rather than having ego-driven men and women decide they are the best and pursuing us. Of course, we did have that in George Washington. The first, I believe, was the best.
It does us little good, however, to indulge in wishful thinking, except to the extent that it reminds us that ambition and covetousness should not be the primary qualifications for our leaders. Ambition, of course, doesn’t have to be bad. For instance, ambition to pursue the benefit of all is a much higher aspiration than ambition to pursue the benefit of self and one’s friends.
As Willard said, “A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People, and just as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so is there an answerable Reckoning which they must be called unto. …”
Taylor, now senior minister of Old South Church in Boston where Willard once preached, also offered a warning to today’s pastors who desire to preach an election sermon. “[R]eligious leaders have no business holding our political leaders to moral account or challenging their characters if we have not attended to our own characters and our own moral fortitude. We, too, must be just.”
Samuel Adams came along almost 100 years after Willard and was a member of Old South Church, as well. Adams maintained “democracy depends on a common commitment to key principles,” Taylor writes.
“He conceived of these principles as an interconnected triad of virtue, piety, and love of liberty (not only one’s own liberty, but everyone’s liberty as a God-given, “unalienable right”). By contrast, when democracy is reduced to liberty alone – liberty unhinged from the rigorous disciplines and high principles of virtue and piety – everything gets off-kilter. Today’s politicians routinely give tremendous attention to liberties and liberty, but when was the last time you heard a politician wax passionate on virtue or piety? Perhaps that is where we come in – ensuring a healthy balance to that symbiotic relationship between political and spiritual leadership, each challenging and inspiring the other, each embracing responsibility for the greater good, each serving different functions in a greater whole.”
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has issued a critique of the global financial system this week that parallels many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are surfacing around the world, including through the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.
E.J. Dionne Jr., a self-described liberal Catholic writing in a Washington Post opinion piece, brought this to my attention. He writes:
“In a knock against those who oppose government economic regulation, the council emphasized ‘the primacy of politics — which is responsible for the common good — over the economy and finance.’ …
“But Vatican officials were careful to say that their report was not a direct response to the worldwide demonstrations. ‘It is a coincidence that we share some views,’ said Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the council. ‘But after all, these are proposals that are based on reasonableness.’
“Indeed, and that may be a larger compliment to the ’99 percent’ activists. This document got more attention than it might have because the demonstrators have heightened concern about the problems it addresses.
“Moreover, the Vatican office’s intervention shows that those protesting against a broken and unjust financial system are not expressing some marginal point of view. They are highlighting worries shared by many, including the Roman Catholic Church. To challenge what the global markets have wrought is not extreme. It reflects, as Toso said, ‘reasonableness.'”
It is indeed reasonable to expect an economic system to function fairly and equitably for all people — the rich, the middle and the poor. It is even more than reasonable for those of us who fly under the banner of Christ — it is right and it is essential. I write this as a Baptist.
It appears, however, that not not all Catholics agree with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writing on a National Review blog, said:
“Bottom line (so to speak): This brief document from the lower echelons of the Roman Curia no more aligns ‘the Vatican,’ the Pope, or the Catholic Church with Occupy Wall Street than does the Nicene Creed. Those who suggest it does are either grossly ill-informed or tendentious to a point of irresponsibility.”
Weigel points out that, as stated by council officials, the document was intended to “make a contribution which might be useful to the deliberations of the [upcoming] G-20 meeting.” It was intended to “suggest possible paths to follow.”
Now, the reason a conservative like Weigel is so upset is that the document proposes more than what I mentioned above. It suggests the need for a “world political Authority” in the light of increasing globalization. That is a rather frightful proposition to many people, not just conservatives.
Without accepting the “world political Authority” portion of this proposal, many more of us can accept its broader premises. The document says:
“The economic and financial crisis which the world is going through calls everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural and moral values at the basis of social coexistence. What is more, the crisis engages private actors and competent public authorities on the national, regional and international level in serious reflection on both causes and solutions of a political, economic and technical nature.”
Two points: There is a crisis, and we all need to be engaged in addressing it. Those of us who follow Christ need to bring the voice of our Savior to the world table. It is a voice that always proclaims in defense of those most in need in our world. It is a voice that challenges all of us to be stewards of the resources at our disposal and not simply consumers. It is a call to love others as we love God.
The Arab Spring has come to America, and its banner flies under the name Occupy Wall Street and its many Occupy offspring around the country. This year, 2011, may become known as the Year of the Masses.
Most in America cheered in the Spring as people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria rose up against the powers that had suppressed them. Some of those people who cheered the Arab Spring are not cheering Occupy. We can be thankful the American version has not turned violent, but we can thank our democratic form of government for that.
The reality is that people will be pushed down for only so long, then they rise up. Those who think they can accumulate power and wealth without responsibility for those who do not have power and wealth live in a world of delusion.
Umair Hague, writing in the Harvard Business Review, has made the connection between these various upheavals.
An orchestra played in my bedroom this morning, and the music was beautiful. Amazing! And even more amazing is the fact that presumably all of the musicians are dead.
Technology has indeed given us something special in recorded music, and the little iPod that laid on the bed beside me has moved that “miracle” to an extraordinarily portable container.
I was listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late Charles Munch. The compilation, titled “The French Touch,” was part of RCA Victor’s Living Stereo series and was recorded in 1957, 1958, and 1962. I remember first encountering the Living Stereo series when an uncle had a recording on reel-to-reel tape. I suspect this series was also on regular 33 rpm record albums. I eventually came to own this recording on CD, but it’s now also available in Super Audio CD. Yet, for ease of listening, I most often hear it through my iPod.
So I can now carry a full orchestra and dead musicians with me wherever I want to go. It’s so easy to take this for granted, but this morning I was not. I found myself being appreciative of the composers, musicians, conductor, recording technicians, electronic inventors, and recording company who made my pleasure possible while I sat in a house in the middle of an East Texas hay meadow.
My great-grandfather, who bought the land I now live on, may never have heard an orchestra in his life. And he would not have heard much simpler music, except at church. The world has changed. Music has become a part of our everyday life. Some of it is degrading, demeaning, and downright evil, but much of it is beautiful and helps the spirit to soar.
I thought of these things this morning because of something I read last night. Timothy Keller, in his book Generous Justice, was talking about beauty and justice. It seemed an odd combination to me, but the point was interesting.
“It takes an experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness and induce us to become just,” Keller writes.
Surely, this morning, the beauty of the music knocked me out of my own self-centeredness and made me appreciate people who never knew me and things I had no part in creating. And getting outside oneself is a key to living a good life, not to mention a just one.
Keller’s basic point, however, goes far beyond the beauty of music; it goes to the beauty of God, who loves us enough to send His only son to live and to die and to live again for us. That, indeed, is a divine beauty. It brings us to worship, and that makes us see that justice is good and right and must be pursued.
Jesus “stood in the place of all those of us in spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) and paid our debt,” Keller says. “Now that is a thing of beauty. To take that into the center of your life and heart will make you one of the just.” (p.188)