I am better versed in Bible passages than in political slogans, but for many years I have been fascinated and in agreement with a comment by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008) was a Russian novelist, philosopher, historian, short story writer and political prisoner. Solzhenitsyn was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and Communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag labor camp system.
Here is the phrase I am referring to: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956
These words came to my mind as I sat up late on Sunday evening, watching the reports of demonstrations, looting, arson, and various other sincere and/or criminal activities throughout our nation. While we might have hoped against hope, I am afraid the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was so horrendous that we had to anticipate some sort of response. Most unfortunately, this response has become a significant problem in and of itself and has endangered countless people, caused the deaths of too many and the destruction of the livelihood of more men and women than we can even imagine or fathom. In anticipated fashion, everyone is pretty busy finding the ‘real culprits’ right now. And, of course, every ‘side’ insists that ‘we are better than that’ and that ‘this is not who we are’. These riots, on top of a pandemic and an economic slow-down with massive unemployment, have created a perfect storm in our nation. We can only weep for all who are treated with contempt, all who think violence is their only recourse, all who stand by helplessly and watch their livelihood go up in flames, all who endanger their own safety to protect others. We weep!
I invite you to think with me about all this at our “faith level”. For you see: this disconcerting life as we are living it right now is not outside of our relationship with God! Who we are as people of faith at 9:30 am on Sunday morning must have a relationship to the people we are on Thursday at 11:15 pm. It is a misunderstanding of both, the separation of Church and State and our Lutheran theology, to insist otherwise. This is about faith in the world, not politics in the pulpit.
The church is to have a prophetic voice! People like me are called to issue prophetic words – in season and out of season – and speak, if needed, truth to power. That has always been an important task of the Body of Christ.
We just celebrated Pentecost. We know that via the power of the Holy Spirit God promises to make all things new through individual believers as well as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church from where God’s love, righteousness and justice will permeate all of life, all nations on earth. Through his death and Resurrection, Jesus has made us righteous with God, our relationship is restored, our sins are no longer the endless, deep chasm between us and our creator they once were even as we continue to struggle with ‘missing the mark’ (see my devotion from last week).
In Scripture the word for ‘righteousness’ also has the meaning of ‘justice’. Of course, we all want justice, especially when we know that we have been wronged. We also have a communal sense of justice – which is exactly what we are experiencing right now as a country.
Lutherans have a so-called “Two Kingdom Doctrine”. Without turning this into a lecture, this is what Luther meant and what we still teach: Luther states that the children of Adam fall into two groups, those who belong to the kingdom of God and those who belong to the kingdom of the world. To the kingdom of God belong all who believe in Christ and live under Him, for Christ is King and Lord.
But beside this spiritual kingdom God has established another, the kingdom of temporal authority. This exists because evil exists. God instituted authorities to check violence and injustice, and to maintain peace and order. Rulers, parents and teachers are all set up as walls against evil. Yet, it should be noted that it is God Himself who rules in both these realms. God never drops the reins. To speak of either is thus to speak of a kingdom which is God's, and it is with Him that we deal in matters spiritual and temporal. We are sometimes in danger of looking on the temporal as something profane, as if God were active only in the spiritual. The temporal is not foreign to God, and Luther does not regard it as such. To him there is nothing which is profane, and no sphere in which God is not at work.
Translated this means what? The authorities God has put in place right now are in charge of establishing justice and peace for the George Floyd’s of this world and for all those who are harmed in any way by the riots we have seen. All wrong-doers need to be held to account. As well we need to hold to account those who are entrusted with the responsibility to establish justice. They too answer to God! They too are always in danger of solving injustice with greater injustice yet. While we honor and respect men and women for the sake of their office and pray for them (excellent Lutheran imperative!) we do not follow them without question in blind obedience. Together we answer to the author and giver of life.
And, as children of God, living in the spiritual realm of God’s amazing Grace, we know that true justice does not come by electing the ‘right’ leader or by reading certain newspapers or by appointing judges of a particular ‘bend’. True justice comes only when we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, realize that this Spirit is “convicting the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 17:8).
I have always loved to preach on the Book of Amos, one of the ‘minor prophets’. There is nothing ‘minor’ about Amos, in my mind. I often wish that God would endow me with the spirit of truth and conviction as it was given to Amos.
You too know some of his most famous words: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Now, Amos spoke a long, long time ago but looking around, not too much seems to have changed in the hearts of people. The insistence that we ‘are better than that’ (often heard from pulpits as well) is answered by me with: No, we are not! I am not! You are not! Just check in with Jesus on that one! We are still sinners and we still look out for ourselves. We still do not love God and our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t! We still take what is not ours. We continue to treasure our own life more than that of the next person.
Now, before you throw your first ripe tomatoes at the parsonage: of course, not all of us do all of that all the time!!! But, all of us do some of that often enough that it has an impact on what we pray: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We always are in this struggle to get on the side of the angels, for that is where we wish to be.
The words of Amos are not only reminding us to do works of justice and righteousness. This is a roar of outrage from a God of justice who looks around and sees injustice everywhere, injustice committed by even God’s own people. It is also a cry of sadness from a God of grace who grieves over what humanity has done. In so many places, that stream of justice and righteousness has slowed to but a trickle. That is why God came into this world, taking on flesh and living among us. Jesus was a prophet, yes, like Amos, calling God’s people to lives of justice and righteousness; but he is also so much more than that, he is our Savior, Emmanuel, God with us.
This is a God who realized that if it was left up to us alone, we would never find our way out of the mess that we have created. Even our best efforts are not enough. We humans need a different way. We need a God who first sets us free from the old ways of life, and then walks alongside us as we live into the reign of God. That God is precisely what we are given in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we are given a glimpse of the promised future, when the fullness of God’s justice and righteousness will be upon all people and all lands. It is Jesus who makes justice roll down. Jesus, who brings justice to us and through us out into the world. And thanks be to God for that. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit: may that realization be given into our hearts and minds. Amen.