Living faith, justice, and the earthly city

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By R. William Carroll

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,

and the rod of anger will fail.

Those who are generous are blessed,

for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,

or crush the afflicted at the gate;

for the LORD pleads their cause

and despoils of life those who despoil them

.

–Proverbs 22:8-9, 22-23

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

–James 2:14-17

Four years ago last month was the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of the city of New Orleans on August 29, 2005. My memories of Katrina revolve around students of mine from that city, as well as some of the people who fled to the hills of Sewanee, Tennessee, where we were living at the time. In fact, I’ll never forget one woman’s sobbing plea in our parish church during the Prayers of the People. Here was a woman who lost people she loved—and everything she had.

No doubt, some of you remember how some Christians at the time suggested that this horribly destructive storm and the suffering it brought were signs of divine judgment on a Godless America. In one interview, Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on abortion, claiming that God was causing “the land to vomit us out,” because our society permits the “slaughter of the unborn.” In another, John Hagee argued that God struck New Orleans because it was “planning a sinful…homosexual rally.”

Now, even if I agreed with these two men about Christian ethics—which I DON’T—I would still have trouble believing in their kind of God. I speak as someone who believes in the wrath of God. Wrath is what God’s love looks like to us when we are drowning in sin. We feel our separation from God, and it is terrifying. But do we really believe in a God who would punish a whole city, including the innocent, for the sake of the imagined sins of a few? And do we really believe in a God who manipulates the weather and keeps lists of enemies? That’s not the God I know and love.

And yet there’s truly a sense in which we reap what we sow. We can’t be sure in this case (or in any particular case), but I don’t think it’s farfetched to blame Katrina on the changes we are causing to our climate. Surely, this kind of extreme event is becoming both more common and more severe. Moreover, we can be certain that the disproportionate effects of the storm on the poor and on people of color are a direct result of choices we’ve made. We failed to heed the warnings. And the people of the Ninth Ward in particular suffered from poor housing to begin with and a pathetic government response once the storm hit land.

In a recent interview, Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana called New Orleans “the place where the façade of American progress has been washed away.” He went on to observe that “Many would be happy if we could again apply the ‘make-up’ to the wound that affects us all, but such will not be the case. This wound is evident around our nation, but in New Orleans it has been exposed as the flood washed away the veneer.” In the same interview, Bishop Jenkins cited remarks Martin Luther King made about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a famous sermon at Riverside Church in 1967:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

In that very sermon, preached exactly one year before his martyrdom, King also called for a “revolution of values” in light of the Gospel and the common good. To date, different values have guided our response to Katrina. Over a million people were displaced; some will never return. We dare not forget that the storm affected the entire Gulf Coast region, but it is New Orleans (and in particular the Ninth Ward) that has become its enduring symbol. New Orleans is indeed the place where “the veneer of American progress has been washed away.” It is a visible and outward sign of the rot and decay beneath the shimmering façade of our society.

Now, with the present economic crisis, we see it more clearly. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, and lost jobs. Failed businesses and a banking system that nearly collapsed have made it clear that much of our economy was a house of cards. Yet will we see any real restructuring? Will we move beyond well-intentioned efforts to relieve the symptoms to the real medicine it will take to cure the disease? Will we transform the Jericho Road, so that men, women, and children will not be beaten and robbed there and thrown into ditches?

Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, in the book of Proverbs, we are warned:

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,

and the rod of anger will fail.

Those who are generous are blessed,

for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor,

or crush the afflicted at the gate;

for the LORD pleads their cause

and despoils of life those who despoil them.

In ancient Israel, the city gate was where people went for justice. In a democracy, the responsibility to create justice rests with each and all of us. As a society, we can’t afford to build prisons instead of schools. We can’t afford to pay people less than it takes to provide for their families—and to force immigrant workers into the shadows. We can’t afford to keep buying cheap, disposable junk on easy credit. And, no, we can’t afford to deny healthcare to millions—and watch others get squeezed for every last penny. Nor can we keep relying on fossil fuels as the fragile lynchpin of our entire way of life.

As a nation, we used to want more. The reality often fell short, but we used to aspire, at least, to be a beacon of liberty—a bustling, creative democracy with broadly shared prosperity and a wide-open welcome to strangers:

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

But now, it seems, that door is shut. Our gated suburban communities, with their private security firms, reflect the image of Fortress America and the mercenaries who help fight our wars. How is it possible for a nation that lives like this to seek justice and the common good?

To be honest, our churches are complicit in the problems. Too often, we preach what Dietrich Bonhoeffer named “cheap grace”—grace that soothes our consciences without calling us to repent and follow Christ. We may not all have bought into the false Gospel of the prosperity preachers and peddlers of hate. But which of us can say our faith is as alive and vibrant as it ought to be?

Beloved, we are at the beginning of a new year. With the arrival of fall, we are about to embark on a new season of mission in our dioceses and congregations. As we do so, my prayer for us is that we’ll keep our eyes on the prize and our hands on the plow. For God calls us not just to believe in Jesus but to follow him—to reach out with his hands of love, so that ALL might know his saving embrace. God indeed commands us to build an earthly city where beggars are unknown. And God has chosen us—even us, brothers and sisters—to show the world the Way.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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