America's Presidential Election and
The "Public Face of God's Purpose"

For Sunday November 11, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17 or 1 Kings 17:8–16

Psalm 127 or Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:24–28

Mark 12:38–44

           "He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing." — Isaiah 40:23

           The lectionary readings for this week collide with the newspaper headlines in a marvelous mashup. As Americans vote for their president this Tuesday, the Spirit of God speaks to the church through the ancient poet: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing" (Psalm 146:3–4). The only place in Scripture where God laughs is at the pretensions of political power (Psalm 2:4).

           I'll vote on Tuesday, but with little enthusiasm or hope. It's hard to have hope when you see the financial influence of lobbyists and super-PACS, bipartisan bickering, the reduction of media to sound bites, and the corrosive nature of our civic discourse.

           Before I vote, I'll remind myself of Daniel Berrigan's "Credo."

I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.

I cannot be saved by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Pentagon. To think this way isn't defeatist, it's realistic. And in an age when politics define everything, it's also heretical.

           After I vote, I'll pivot to Walter Brueggemann's poem "Post-Election Day."

You creator God
who has ordered us
in families and communities,
in clans and tribes,
in states and nations.

You creator God
who enacts your governance
in ways overt and
in ways hidden.
You exercise your will for
peace and for justice and for freedom.

We give you thanks for the peaceable order of
our nation and for the chance of choosing—
all the manipulative money notwithstanding.

We pray now for new governance
that your will and purpose may prevail,
that our leaders may have a sense
of justice and goodness,
that we as citizens may care about the
public face of your purpose.

We pray in the name of Jesus who was executed
by the authorities.

           With so little hope for meaningful change, it would be easy to abandon politics altogether. But citizenship is a privilege and responsibility that we enjoy. We dare not abandon the public arena and the greater civic good. Thank God for all those who've served our city councils and school boards.


           Our ultimate "citizenship" is in heaven, says the apostle Paul. Thus, our allegiance to the gospel should be absolute and unconditional, whereas our allegiance to caesar will always be relative and conditional. Nonetheless, as citizens of the world, we care about what Brueggemann calls "the public face of God's purpose." The readings this week give us glimpses of what that public purpose might entail.

           "The Maker of heaven and earth," says Psalm 146, is biased on behalf of the oppressed. He feeds the hungry, frees prisoners, and heals the blind. He lifts up those who are weighted down, he defends foreigners, protects the orphan, and sustains the widow. These eight categories of people face different challenges, but what makes them similar is that they are all vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

           As if to reinforce this point, the readings this week tell the stories of five (!) widows.

           The book of Ruth is a story of three widows — the Israelite Naomi who fled Israel to Moab to escape famine, and her two foreign daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. After ten years in Moab, and despite Naomi's protests, Ruth returned with her to Israel. In Bethlehem, Ruth was the foreigner from an enemy country. She was childless. She was widowed from a mixed marriage. But she vowed to cling to Naomi, her Hebrew people, and to their God. Ruth secured an economic livelihood for her mother-in-law by gleaning fields among the hired hands. She ingratiated herself to Boaz, the owner of the fields she gleaned. All Bethlehem knew this foreign widow as a “woman of excellence” (Ruth 3:11).

           Like Ruth, the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 lived at a pivotal juncture in Israel's history. In his book The Kings and Their Gods (2008), Daniel Berrigan interprets 1–2 Kings as self-serving imperial records that portray Israel's kings as they saw themselves and wanted others to see them — God favors my regime and hates my enemies. There's one political imperative in the book of Kings, says Berrigan: extra imperium nulla salus, "outside the empire there is no salvation." The kings employ many pathological means to this end: untrammeled imperial ego, political retaliation with absolute impunity, military might, revisionist history, manipulation of memory and time, grandiose building projects, economic exploitation, virulent nationalism, and, sanctioning it all with divine approval, legitimation by religious sycophants.

           A few dissenting voices objected to imperial power, but they were silenced as unpatriotic and seditious. The prophet Elijah was one such exception. Elijah was a lonely prophet, alternately manic and reclusive, who faced down the political powers of his day. His story begins with a foreign widow from Zarephath in Sidon who at great personal sacrifice cares for him during a severe drought, and who in turn is cared for by Elijah.


           This narrative of a nameless, alien widow and a Hebrew prophet offering each other mutual care across nationalistic boundaries assumed such central importance in Israel's sacred story-telling that Jesus repeated it a thousand years later. The impact was the same — the listeners were outraged at the role reversals. "I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time," said Jesus, "when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of [enemy] Sidon… All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this" (Luke 4:25–28).

           The fifth widow epitomizes the reversals and subversions of political power in God's kingdom. That God cares for widows, and that his people should too, are prominent themes throughout the Bible. The Greek word for "widow" occurs about twenty-five times in the New Testament.

            In this story, though, it's the nameless widow who's the extravagant benefactor instead of the vulnerable beneficiary. At the temple Jesus observed "many rich people" making large donations. In stark contrast, a poor widow's gift amounted to "only a fraction of a penny." But whereas the rich give out of the convenience of their surplus, said Jesus, "this poor widow has given more than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on" (Mark 12:38–44).

           So what is the "public face of God's purpose" to which God calls us? Proverbs 31:8–9 puts it this way: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."

Image credits: (1); and (2) Alt Film Guide.