Since there are six Sundays in Lent before Easter, we’ll look at one of these forms of social evil each Sunday. They’re listed in your bulletin, too so you don’t need to get all of these down right now.
What if we gave up each of these during Lent? Now that would really be something, wouldn’t it? What if, like Jesus tempted in the wilderness, we gave up evil for Lent?
In the wake of the industrial revolution and on the heels of the first World War, Walter Raushcenbusch said, “When evil is organized the prophets suffer.” (p.247 in A Theology of the Social Gospel)
Rauschenbusch cried out against the ways in which people used political power to serve their own ends instead of the needs of the many. Rauschenbusch said, “Those who are in control of the machinery of organized society are able to use it for selfish and predatory ends, turning into private profit what ought to serve the common good.”(p.250)
The U.S. is a great country, and yet has a history of propping up military dictatorships to facilitate access to natural resources. Central America is a good example. The US government helped establish and support Central American governments who would be good partners with the US. It’s no accident that they are often referred to as banana republics. Their rain forests were cut down so that companies like United Fruit could plant bananas, pineapples, sugar cane and coffee. Transforming the countries into what we call desert economies. They produced for export things that would go on our desert tables. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama all had military dictatorships paid for with our tax dollars so that we could continue to have fruit on our tables and coffee in our cups. When the peasants rose up to demand food or land that had been stolen, they were often killed or simply disappeared. FDR once said of the Nicaraguan Dictator Anastasio Samoza, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” It’s in this context that companies like Dole, Shell, Chiquita, Dow Chemical and others can spray the banned pesticide Nemagon across Central America known to cause sterility and other internal maladies. They do this because they believe that they are above the law, that yellow bananas are more important than decent health protection. The government dares not call out the fruit companies for fear that they will devastate an already fragile economy.
There is a military center in Fort Bennings, GA that trains people in how to use corruption, terror and political power to thwart revolutionary urges. It’s called the School of the Americas. People like Manuel Noriega was trained there, as were the leaders of the Somoza’s Nicaraguan National Guard, the Contras and the Guatemalan and Salvadoran death squads. Our tax dollars at work. There was a time when Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Ferdinand Marco and a host of others were on our payroll. When evil is organized, the prophets suffer.
I was at the capital on Thursday with the good people from the JRLC and a coalition of homeless activists and veterans. We were lined up outside the house chambers asking the members of congress to not get rid of the GAMC, or General Assistance Medical Care. This is the medical care for the indigent, the mentally ill, the poorest of the poor, the forgotten among us. This medical care was unallotted by the governor last June and runs out at the end of March. Without this care, the people will have to fend for themselves and many will end up in the emergency rooms of an already overburdened health care system. The governor wants these people to buy health insurance—a more expensive and less effective form of care. The dollars don’t add up. It would actually cost more to have the GAMC folk on Minnesota Care. To the credit of the legislature, they cut the cost of GAMC and worked out a compromise so well that they were able to get buy-in from an almost unanimous House of Representatives to save GAMC. But the governor vetoed this and is now pressuring his party to not override the veto. I fear that people are making decisions based upon what are going to score more political points than they are about what is going to help people the most.
When evil is organized, the prophets suffer.
This is just one example, and just so you don’t think I’m partisan here, 16 years ago the Clinton Administration passed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy for serving in the military. If you are gay, you can serve in the military, as long as you lie about who you are. Once someone is outed, they lose their jobs, their pensions, their ability to serve their country with dignity—all because it served political ends to do this. And it is the minority, the voiceless, the scapegoat who pays the price. When evil is organized, the prophets suffer. The good news is that this policy is soon to be history.
But think about it, for political gain, people have been left out. In our great constitution, people of African descent were defined as 3/5ths of a human being. Women were denied a vote. Native Americans were denied their land and birthrights because it conflicted with the desires of those in political power. When evil is organized, the prophets suffer.
And this is nothing new. Some theologians think that the real reason Jesus was crucified was because he cleansed the temple. You remember this don’t you? Shortly after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he went up to the temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the angry prophet Jeremiah he declared, “My house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it into a den of thieves.”
Remember that in Roman occupied Jerusalem, the temple held a precarious and fragile place. It was a small enclave of Jewish life that the political powers of Rome let them have—kind of to placate them. And the priests, the Jewish leaders didn’t want to upset the Romans. So they struck this indelicate balance that no one dare mess with for fear that the peace will fall apart like a house of cards. Now, the temple had a different currency. So, you needed to change your Roman money into Hebrew money. You needed Hebrew money to buy animals to be sacrificed as part of the Jewish festivals. It was a lucrative business for the moneychangers. They could tell by your accent which town you were from. They could set their own prices with no regulation. The ones who got the choicest seats, we can imagine were the ones who had the most influence with both the Romans and the Priesthood. Maybe the rulers even got a cut of the proceeds.
Jesus was a threat. His willingness to upset the practice of graft looked like very good news to the poor but very bad news to those in authority. Jesus was a prophet of religion. The moneychangers and the people who put them in their place were exploiters of religion. If Jesus’ revolutionary questioning of systems was allowed to proceed, then the remnants of their own power would disappear. The result was that Jesus needed to be stopped. The Romans had the Jewish leadership in their pocket and gave the order to stop the insurgency. Crucify the agitator and the movement will stop. When evil is organized, the prophets suffer.
The social sins of corruption and political power conspired to kill Jesus. And they conspire to kill present-day Jesus’ too. Any of those who would stand up to the powers and principalities are destined to be the target of those of political powers that are too often corrupt.
Jesus was tempted with political influence and power. In the desert, Satan showed Jesus all of the nations of the world and said “To you I will give all their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please…all you need to do is worship me.” While we would never go so far as to say that political leaders these days worship Satan, we might well question whether money has taken the place of God in terms of our devotion.
The devil, evil, says Luke, has control and authority over all the kingdoms and governments of the world. How could we not have known this one with all of the wars and economic strangleholds that we heap upon each other—A world where two thirds of the population goes hungry every day. Jesus was offered authority over the nations if he would just worship the devil, if he would just worship evil and greed and warfare and hate, he could really succeed in this world, maybe even make something of himself. Nice guys finish last, you know…But Jesus said, “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God and serve only God.’”
Think about this, Psalm 94:20 "Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute?" The mischief of Wall Street was legal. Worthless mortgages were legal. Credit card usury is legal. War is legal. When evil is organized, the prophets suffer.
I think the key to this scripture and this day is the concept of power. Power is what it’s all about. And political leaders have deluded themselves in to thinking that they have ultimate power. And let’s face it, they do have some influence and some ability to make life good for some and miserable for others.
But do they have power?
I don’t think they do. They might be in positions of dominance, but they don’t have real power. They might have the best seats at the best tables and even be able to order the killing of a prophet. But they don’t have power. They might have privilege, but not power. The devil tempts Jesus with glory and authority, but not power.
Power comes from God. God is the one who grants power. And you know it is power because it is used for the good of not just the rich, but the poor, too. Power is the force that makes all things new, that renews the earth, that sets people free. It’s what we really need.
For decades, good peacemakers have sought to have the “School of the Americas” shut down, for it goes against our best beliefs about what our country ought to stand for. They are exercising power.
The JRLC lobbies to legislature from a faith-based perspective saying that all of us ought to not only have a place at the table, but rights must be extended to all people because justice is at the heart of the Gospel. They have power.
Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” When we demand freedom, we are exercising power.
Our job as Christians is to not settle for corruption and political power. Our job is to expose the corruption and resist organized evil. And while we do that we are claiming the power given to us by God. It is the power for good, not evil. It is the power for liberation not oppression. It is the power for hope, not despair. It is the power that Jesus had to resist the temptation in the wilderness because he saw an even better way to live.
The problem is that such a way led to his crucifixion. Corrupt political power brokers don’t like being called to task. And they will smear and defeat and destroy anyone who opposes them with all the force of military might at their disposal.
But we know a secret. It will not win. Ultimately, there is a greater power. The long arc of history bends toward justice. And as the old saying goes, the people united can never be divided. Mahatma Gandhi spoke about what happens when you tap into the soul-force, the power that comes from God. He said, first they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight against you. Then you win.
They underestimate the power that is in the church. They underestimate the power that is in the people who have been transformed by the Word. They underestimate the power of the people who are so aligned with God that they believe nothing is impossible.
Sisters and brothers, for this first Sunday in Lent, give up our blindness to corruption and unjust political authority, especially if that authority excludes or persecutes someone. But don’t just give up something. Take on something as well. Take on transparency and honesty. As the apostle Paul said, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Be as open and honest as you can and then call on those in positions of authority to be equally honest and transparent. Eschew corruption. It may cause some chaos, but creativity comes out of chaos. And that is good news.
Each of us can account for our own temptations. It is so easy for us to ignore the evils around us. As Henry Emerson Fosdick wrote,
Lo the hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ assail his ways
From the ills that long have bound us free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.
Sisters and brothers, through it all remember the power that is in you—the power that is in the church gathered. It is the hope that God has left for the world. The people of the word are the hope. Don’t abandon hope. Claim your power. It’s God’s power to set us free.
When evil is organized, the prophets suffer. But when Godly power is organized like a team, like a church, like a movement, then justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And we start to see the truth breaking free. And it is very good news indeed.