Ferguson has become a Rohrshock test. We all see what we want to see… or even more scary, what our life experience has conditioned us to see. But can we view it as a teaching moment for each of us? Can we find a lesson that applies with equal force to both sides of this divide? I think we can… and I’d like to suggest a passage in the Bible written by a black man 2800 years ago … which I think will become more and more relevant as events like Ferguson draw us into a web of conflict.
Zephaniah 2:3 –
3Seek the LORD,
All you humble of the earth
Who have carried out His ordinances;
Seek righteousness, seek humility.
Perhaps you will be hidden
In the day of the LORD’S anger.
Zephaniah was written during the reign of King Josiah, roughly 700 BC. Though it had relevance then, the scope of Zephaniah’s language is worldwide … it is an end times prophecy.
One of Zephaniah’s themes is the “day of Jahweh’s anger.” In my view this is a codeword, not for fire and brimstone and planetary destruction — but for a measured economic and geopolitical upheaval — an era of teaching by God — when people will have their attention drawn to major issues of justice and morality.
Another of Zephaniah’s themes is the “gathering of nations”. In chapter 3 it is called “assembling the kingdoms”. In order to make sense of the “Lord’s anger”, they are brought into a collective conversation, an international consciousness as never before. Today we call it globalization. I believe Zechariah was talking about the 21st century. Issues anywhere are the concern of people everywhere.
Another theme is the universality of God’s proposed rule of earth. As Zephaniah describes it, “All the earth” is encompassed in his vision. All the earth gets its teaching moments, and all the earth will in due time get the blessings of God’s grace.
In my attempts to understand the Bible I find it useful to recognize that “the earth” in prophecy is often a metaphorical description of the stable, powerful portions of society worldwide. Zephaniah’s phrase “All the earth will be devoured” means that society — social and governmental institutions — will melt and lose cohesion as a result of the intense heat and pressure of social and geopolitical change. Peter used similar language when he spoke in 2 Peter 3 of melting elements. He wasn’t talking about chemistry. That word, everywhere else in the New Testament, is used for the first principles, the kindergarten issues that children learn in primary school.
Another prophetic theme is special blessings promised for Israel, an acknowledgement of the sins of Israel but a promise of divine correction and healing. In Zechariah’s vision there will be a worldwide hatred and affliction of the Jews that will prevail for a time, before ending in worldwide acceptance of the Jewish people. Zephaniah states that the Jewish people will become “a praise in every land where they have been put to shame”. (3:8, 17, 20) So far, we are seeing increasing fulfillments of the shame, but not of the acceptance that will follow it.
If the “fierce anger” of the Lord is being played out right now on the world stage, what is God angry at?
- Needlessly perpetuating poverty. If Isaiah 58 and Ezekiel 16:49 provides any hints, one big area to pay attention to would be the way the poor are treated. While poverty has always been a human problem, the immense increase of wealth of the last century has created opportunities — and responsibilities — for alleviating it. Ezekiel called it “not strengthening the hand of the poor and needy.” While I cannot disagree that many forms of welfare fail to strengthen the hand of the poor and needy, there is no doubt that we know enough to create programs that would do a better job of doing just that. We understand the value of education, the need of food and shelter, the value of freedom from worry about basic necessities. Is it not the duty of society to work protect its citizens? To give due process for the poor as well as the rich? Today wealthy individuals, churches, and nations of the world could make a much bigger impact — if they have the will to do what they can.
- Environmental degradation. If Revelation 11:18 is relevant — and I believe it is — God is angry at those who are destroying the earth. We are all complicit in the destruction of the earth in an ecological sense. But the powerful extractive, exploitive forces have in many cases grabbed the levers of power and use “democracy” to bring “progress” and “development” — code words for destroying the earth — forward in ways that only benefit their multinational appetites and shareholders. This behavior is creating consequences that will hurt all of us.
- Religions that present God as cruel and unjust. I think that God is not pleased with the reputation he is getting from mainstream Christian teachings. More on that in other posts.
I would submit that God’s anger does not reveal itself through torment or after-death horror … but through consequences of our actions coming to pass.
For example, we dump subsidized corn and wheat on countries that have farmers who would like to support themselves growing local food. They can’t compete with our agribusiness products … and if there is a just God, he is taking note. We sell poisons and high-tech seeds to third world countries, destroying their organic economies and making them dependent on our seed stocks and chemicals. We extract oil, minerals, and cheap commodity crops like coffee or beef from countries who can satisfy our appetite for these things … but don’t use our influence to make the companies who employ those workers pay a living wage and humane benefits.
We destroy wetlands, pump poison into aquifers, degrade the atmosphere, waste soil, destroy the natural cycle of life, turn mountains upside down to get coal or rare metals, and let the powerless people who thus lose whole counties to privileged greed live in the poison wasteland that remains. We dump pollution into the oceans — plastics and chemicals which are working their way up the food chain and putting toxins into our children’s brains. We overfish, overharvest, overuse, and overlook the importance of our role in all of that.
I believe that if there is a God, and if he is at all good, he has a burning anger about these abuses. And I see evidence that just such a God exists, and is pushing on the boundaries of our activities, and will soon box us into a very narrow range of options. Our denial of climate science, or our refusal to be moved by the desperation suicides of tens of thousands of Indian farmers due to the impact of chemical farming methods, will not prevent us from reaping the impact of our choices. Before long, we will have no way out, and society itself — all our institutions — will melt under the pressure of our own mistakes.
Which brings me to Zephaniah’s words of advice to all of the people who are alive during this world-wide chain of calamities. “Seek meekness, seek righteousness.”
We fought the bloodiest war in our history over the issue of slavery. But did we all learn the lesson? Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon documents how we put economic shackles aided by community policing … vagrancy laws … into place almost immediately to prevent true economic equality from gaining a foothold. Blacks continue to feel the results of our forefathers’ practice of treating black men like animals valued for their brute strength and breeding capacity, black children as economic assets to be torn from their mothers as soon as they were weaned, and black women as baby factories and nursemaids. The systemic destruction of every trace of family memory, language, culture and geography by self-righteous “Christian” Europeans continues to haunt both transplanted Africans and indigenous Americans. Like the salt that the Romans sowed in Carthage, two centuries of enforced ignorance created a barren cultural soil that struggles to find an identity of learning and curiosity that more privileged classes take for granted. The flourishing of black colleges and the renaissance of black erudition that has occurred in the last century and a half are not because of, but in spite of all the economic and cultural impacts our dominant culture has inflicted upon the black race … I so I view the progress of blacks in our society is a miracle. But could the healing and growth be greater? I believe so, and I believe the bruised reeds need to be helped.
When Zephaniah wrote his prophecy, he called us to meekness and righteousness. What, specifically did he mean by “righteousness”? It is a Hebrew word, tzedakah, which means fairness or justice. In the Hebrew traditions of Zephaniah’s day, slavery was a significant part of the economy of the time. The law on their books called for a complete forgiving of debts every 7 years, and a complete redistribution of land among the historical Jewish settler families every 49 years. Justice to Zephaniah meant egalitarianism — the notion that shared citizenship meant blood ties that transcended economics, and broke cycles of dependence through mandatory sharing and forgiveness of debts.
I think these ideas have special meaning today, at a time when extremes in wealth distribution have never been greater — especially in the USA. If we seek justice or fairness, we will not consider it acceptable for extreme poverty to coexist with extreme wealth. And so a true love of tzadakah will lead us to a kind of humility that is anathema to the privileged classes — especially the Christian Right — of today.
To catch Zephaniah’s spirit we will accept as part of our humbling the voluntary sharing in and shouldering of the burdens of the unfortunate masses who surround us. I’m not talking about perfunctory handouts but empowerment, training, and a commitment to building the standard of living of all peoples. Meekness will teach us to consider the poor as part of us, part of our family, part of our responsibility. Instead of responding to the poverty of surrounding nations and neighborhoods with a doubling down of the security apparatus, we will look for creative ways to alleviate the hunger and soul-thirst of our fellow human beings.
A friend sent me the following link. He is a Christian whom I greatly respect, but I don’t see the following clip as particularly helpful to understanding what is going on in Ferguson:
Words of Jonathon Gentry
I think that Mr. Gentry’s words, well intentioned as they may be, have the effect of patronizing conservative folks, while ignoring the fact that there was no corresponding “swallowing of pride” going on among the police and justice system in Ferguson. Jonathon’s words, and the words of the Fox commentators I have seen, are not meek words. They are angry and incendiary. Jonathon’s “righteous indignation” adds the heat of anger and the flame of finger-pointing to the conflict that is brewing in America’s cities.
I’ve seen plenty of white rants on the social media … focusing on the criminality of an 18-year-old man, his hubris, his disrespect of the white policeman who stopped him that day. Even if all the details of the officer’s version of events were true, what is the subtext? What made Michael Brown so angry and unable to chart a more pragmatic course? What made Darren Wilson so fearful, so belligerent and so authoritative in his tone? My experience with human nature tells me that both men poured gasoline, and both men tossed in matches. But both of these men are products of a culture. They are no more free to choose their actions than any of us are free to will ourselves into consistency with the standards we ourselves recognize, or another year of life.
But what Zephaniah calls us to do is pursue meekness, fairness, equality.
Does anyone think very many blacks were won over by Jonathan’s rant? I surely don’t. And I can understand why. It’s because blacks are tired of feeling like intruders in their own neighborhoods. Granted, no blacks or whites should be shoplifting, selling drugs, engaging in gang violence, etc. But we need to understand the process that has fostered these sick social conditions.
Does anyone think that the whites who have welcomed Jonathon’s words are becoming more flexible, humble, and tolerant as a result? I personally doubt it. I think Jonathan simply became a useful cover for those who want to point the finger of blame at the black race, want to be satisfied that slavery is ancient history. We would do well to remember Lincoln’s words, and recognize that there may yet be wheels of retribution that are still turning toward a price that the great grand-children of slaveowners might have to pay:
From Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Zephaniah was a black man.
It’s interesting that Zephaniah was probably a black man… his father was “Cushi” — an Ethiopian. His message has a particular power when it is seen as an exhortation to meekness — and fairness for the poor.
Like it or not, the prophet doesn’t only ask the poor to be more meek. Nor does he ask only the more powerful factions to be more meek. Everyone is addressed… especially those who see themselves as the Lord’s people. Zephaniah no doubt had the Jews in mind, but I would apply it with equal or greater force to Christians today.
I believe that seeking meekness will mean that we will avoid violence of any kind in the face of perplexing challenges to our safety and property rights. While law and order is a necessity as long as fallen man is administering his own affairs, there are ways of softening the impact of the necessary firmness of the law.
On an individual level, the kind of softness I refer to will mean we will listen to angry outbursts from any sector without reacting aggressively. It will mean we will recognize, as Martin Luther King put it, that even riots have a message — “the outcry of the unheard.” It will look behind extremes of action and foolish behavior, and look for a way to understand the root causes behind it … and for ways we can help show a courageous level of forgiveness and generosity toward those who have been victimized in ways we have never personally felt. If we can meet even unjust anger and hostility with meekness, it may be that we will be hid in the days of the Lord’s just anger.
But even if we are not, and we become unjust victims, we should not worry about the ultimate outcome. A feast of fat things is around the corner. A new language will teach all people to serve God with one consent.