Today, I sit before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants. – Deuteronomy 30.14
The task that is laid before the people of every generation is whether or not they will follow after God. Will they build upon the good works and faith of the ancestors who have gone on before them? Or will they turn away from the path laid out before them and embrace chaos, destruction, and death instead, pushing the world further away from existence? Will they seek to redeem the despotic decision making of their fore fathers and mothers by fighting for justice and telling God’s good news about deliverance? Or will they, like their ancestors before them, persist in grinding the face of the poor for power and profit?
No matter the good done by those before, subsequent generations are expected to affirm their commitment to living a life modeled after God’s ideas rather than imperialistic obsessions with greed, evil, and death. While the idea of generational blessings has merit from a theological standpoint, this idea still clarifies the need for each generation to stand for justice and righteousness. No generation of people are exempt from having to make such a commitment, each is called to decide and declare its allegiance to God – most notably in times of transition including political and economic instability.
This is the challenge that the Israelites faced after being freed from Egypt. Three generations made distinctly different choices in their decision to follow after God. The first generation, or Moses’ generation, exhibited unfaith even though they witnessed with their own eyes God’s saving power. In spite of all that God had done for them – parting the Red Sea, dropping bread out of the sky, and so many other miracles – they complained, worshipped idols, and also simply refused to believe in God. As a result of their actions, they died out in the wilderness and failed to fully inherit all that God had for them. The second generation, Joshua’s generation, made different choices. Unlike their parents before them, or perhaps because of them, this generation inherited the Promised Land as a result of consistent, albeit imperfect obedience to God. The third generation, not knowing anything about Joshua or how God delivered the Israelites, pursued evil. The people of this generation, and even ones proceeding after it were consistently described as ones who did was what right in their own eyes and had little regard for God.
Similarly throughout the lineage of the Davidic Empire in Israel, each generation made different decisions in terms of how they would either follow God by pursuing justice, mercy, and humility or turn away from God. David, though an ardent worshipper, compromised his faith by pursuing prestige, power, and possessions – even those that belonged to other people. Although God gave his son Solomon the authority to build the Jewish Temple, Solomon greatly oppressed those within the kingdom to not only pull off the building of this great edifice but other visible institutions of the Empire. In addition, his pursuit of political power at the expense of his love for God cost him the intimacy that he once enjoyed with God. And Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, decided to further depart from God’s will instead of improving upon his ancestors weaknesses. Although he knew about how his father Solomon bought and sold people for the sake of expansion, and how David – his grandfather – was responsible for so much bloodshed, both within and without the kingdom, Rehoboam vowed to make things even worse for the people when presented with the opportunity to ease the burden of the oppressed: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (I Kings 12.11, NASB).
Yet, disobedience and departure from the ways of God came with a cost. In each instance when a generation chose to pursue injustice instead of embracing God’s shalom, there was catastrophe. Though this catastrophe was most often felt among those who were already oppressed – after all, vulnerable and marginalized communities often pay the most in times of civil and political unrest – there were consequences for every decision that squelched the opportunity for God’s love, peace, mercy, and justice to be felt among God’s people. Such was the case with Rehoboam – his persistence in following evil was a pivotal moment in Israel’s history that precipitated the downfall of the empire. Unfortunately, the kings that arose after him made similar decisions which only hastened the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of the people.
God always gives us a choice. Because He is patient and kind, not willing for anyone to perish, He consistently extends to each and every one of us the opportunity to chose Him. Not just to believe in Him or express faith in Him, but to back up what we believe about God by our commitment to pursue justice, love, and mercy instead of injustice, hatred and war.
Somehow we forget that this is what God is concerned about. We forget, or rather we do not know, that God’s heart aches for the broken and despised in this world. He grieves over the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner – people who have been made poor because of the systems of this world. Because He is concerned about them, He demands that we be concerned about them. Over and over and over again throughout the biblical text, He raises our consciousness on the plight of these and asks us to choose: Choose life so that you may live. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Liberate those in prison. Preach good news to those who are hopeless as a result of their condition.
God’s Clarion Call Today
Once again, we are at a point in history where God is asking us – and by us I want to specifically address Christian believers and also recognize that He extends the same invitation to the rest of the world – to make a decision. I call out the Church specifically because, unfortunately, we have a track record of ignoring social problems – if not condoning them – for the sake of comfort and security. In our time, right now, people across the globe are suffering tremendously because of the United States’ obsession with power. Because of power, we wage war against nations with impunity. Because of power, we consume the world’s goods – without care for who or what we are dispossessing even if the one that is being dispossessed is the earth itself. Because of power, we make allegiances with nations who are bent towards evil and ignore the plight of nations that are suffering because of our policies.
And that is just what we are doing to people outside of our nation’s borders. The things that we are doing to our own kin are just as atrocious and despicable. Although this nation has always despised Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color (BIPOC), we are now seeing this hatred at a heightened level. The policies that were arguably covert since the Civil Rights era are now overt making it nearly impossible to deny that racism and white supremacy not only exist, but are still preferred weapons of war against non-whites. Will we stand to see stand to see Latinos deported, Muslims targeted, Blacks criminalized, American Indians lose even more land, LGBTQ persons increasingly discriminated against, and the poor of all races and cultures pitted against each other as the nation hoards more and more resources? Or will we stand and say no? Will we make a clear, unequivocal statement saying that we not only support these moves but will resist them through civic engagement, advocacy, civil disobedience, and prayer?
In recent history, the Church was called to make a similar decision. This time, the location was Germany and the people who were being persecuted were the Jews. As Nazism increased in the country, there arose a strange marriage between nationalism and Christianity, where the church produced anti-Semitic literature, banned Christians of Jewish ancestry from membership, and defaced the sacred scriptures – throwing out the Old Testament and amending the New Testament scriptures to erase Jesus’ connection to Judaism.
In his book, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, Dr. Curtiss DeYoung writes that in spite of the fact that church leaders were bothered by these moves, many refused to speak against Hitler. “They were encouraged at how the Nazis were reviving the nation’s morale and economy. And Nazi anti-Semitism was far from foreign to much of Christianity, which had a long anti-Semitic history, based on church teachings that Jews were guilty as a race for the death of Christ. (Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice p 30).”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few pastors – let alone Christians – who took a stand against Hitler noted how incapable the church was in standing up for justice, in spite of the teachings of the Jesus who advocated for such a witness against evil empires and oppression. For Bonhoeffer this “revealed the problematic character of its entire past: its veneration of and obedience to the state, its support for the traditional class system, its resistance to social change, its indifference to the plight of workers and the poor, and its opposition to socialism and working class politics” (ibid, 35). Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer was not just referring to the church in Germany but the entirety of Western Christian witness noting that delegates at the World Council of Churches held in Denmark of 1934 were resigned to the reality of war in Europe. At such a critical time in world history, Christians failed to speak and exercise the gift of the Holy Spirit working on the inside of them.
Listen, I’m not equating what’s going on in our nation and conspiring nations to what happened to the Jews – although there are strikingly similar comparisons that we must stay vigilant about. However, regardless of the scale of evil – whether it is concentrated in one region of the world or widespread across the globe – as Christians, we must speak out about it. We must speak if it affects us directly and we must speak if it does not. As a result of the church’s failure to speak, millions of people died in the Holocaust – Jews, blacks, people with disabilities, and anyone Hitler found a political threat, including Bonhoeffer himself. As a result of the church’s inability to extend compassion, love, and justice to others, millions more in our own life times are living lives under siege. Will we ignore their suffering and turn a deaf ear to their cries as did the church in WWII? Or will we choose life so that we, our descendants, our kin around the world, may live?
Oh, I pray that we choose life. Today, in this moment, let it be said that this generation chose life. Let it be said that we resisted. That we prayed. That we gathered around the dispossessed. That we extended God’s love to those who are near and far. That we refused to hide behind comfortable Christianity and took a chance on love, took a chance on God. That we welcomed the kingdom of God among us as we provided for the needs of those who are without. That’s my prayer for you, that’s my prayer for all of us as we embrace this New Year.