Stop Kicking the Can or Perish

I was reminded the other day of how strong denial can be in getting humans to face obvious but difficult realities. An obituary in a local newspaper reported that a person who was under hospice care had died “unexpectedly.” Seeing others in denial is worth a chuckle, but it’s also a reminder to check the mirror for any logs in our own eyes.

When I played “kick the can” as a child I never could have imagined what a dangerous political game it would become in the 21st century. The most recent federal fiscal fiasco has me reflecting on what the Judeo-Christian heritage has to say that can help save my grandchildren and their children from paying for the short-sightedness of my generation. This is not a new problem. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures we are warned that the sins of one generation are visited upon their off-spring “to the 3rd and 4th generation” (Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:9). Even though it’s bad theology to blame bad consequences on a vengeful God punishing children and grandchildren for their ancestors’ disobedience and foolishness, the simple wisdom that actions have consequences is indisputable and needs to be applied across the board to liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, to complex problems like balancing the budget and global warming.

My first thought about political short-sightedness is often about climate change and the refusal of many conservatives to take seriously the mountain of scientific evidence that indicates we are damaging mother earth’s eco-system in a multitude of ways that will have irreversible long-term effects for much longer than 3 or 4 generations. When well-meaning politicians and business leaders say we can’t afford environmental regulations on businesses because of the short-term impact those laws have on employment and economic development, the Scripture that comes to mind is Proverbs 29:18. The King James translation of that verse I learned as a youth says, “Without vision the people perish.” More recent and better translations of the Hebrew text say, “When there is no prophesy (or prophetic vision) the people cast off restraint.” Modifying “vision” with “prophetic” is a critical distinction because short-sighted goals that favor the bottom line at all costs are still visions, but they lead to long-term disaster. Faithful, prophetic visions however take into consideration both the short-term and long-term consequences of our decisions for the well-being of all God’s children, even those yet to be born.

Two word-study comments are in order: “Prophesy” in biblical terms is often confused with simply foretelling the future, but that key theological concept is far more complicated that simple crystal-ball gazing. The Hebrew prophets were not psychics but those anointed by God to speak God’s word of truth to those who need to but usually do not want to hear it. A common phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures is “the law and the prophets” indicating both the need to know God’s laws and codes of behavior represented by such passages as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), but also the practical interpretation and application of those general rules for living to specific circumstances. The latter critical thinking is what prophets do. The second phrase in Proverbs 29:18 that is worthy of comment is “the people cast off restraint.” The other use of that phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures occurs in Exodus 32:25 where the Hebrew people make and worship a golden calf even while Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew words there are translated as describing the Hebrew condition as “total loss of social order,” “out of control,” or “laughingstock.” It seems to me those terms could easily be applied to the polarized political situation in the U.S. today.

Here’s my latest take on the common problem on both sides of the political debate, i.e. short-sightedness or lack of prophetic vision. On one side we have the simple mathematical facts that (1) spending billions more than we have is a sure-fire formula for disaster and (2) our current system of providing resources for our increasingly older population, i.e. Social Security and Medicare, is not sustainable unless it is reformed. Everyone acknowledges those elephants are in the room and getting bigger every day, but no one so far is willing to pay the political price of picking up that hot potato and making the painful decisions necessary to address the problems. “Kicking the can down the road” has become the catch phrase for passing the buck, which means visiting the consequences of our short-sighted denial of these problems onto the 3rd or 4th generation.

Another major issue demanding solution is the environmental survival vs. economic growth impasse. This issue is so critical for humankind that it cannot be an either/or partisan debate that results in stubborn refusal on both sides to do anything or we will indeed perish as Proverbs predicts. Prophetic vision demands courage on both sides of the political spectrum to lead us out of denial to a willingness to make whatever political and economic sacrifices must be made that will not be popular with anyone but are necessary for the long-term survival of our nation and our planet.

For Christians this season of Lent is a perfect time to reflect upon the necessity of sacrificial living. None of our current societal problems can be solved with a competitive win-lose mind set. Every citizen and political faction must be willing to compromise and find common ground instead of the perpetual electioneering we now have. The Hebrew prophets can serve as models for that kind of servant leadership. Biblical prophets never won any popularity contests or elections because they spoke truth instead of party platitudes or ideology. They put integrity and facing uncomfortable truths ahead of personal goals and comfort. Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and we need leaders today who are willing to do the same today before it’s too late.

Jesus followed in the footsteps of those Hebrew prophets. He took upon himself the role of suffering servant and prophet described centuries earlier by the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem in the final months of his life and nothing could deter or detour him from his destiny on the cross. His disciples repeatedly urged him to bail and take an easier path, but Jesus knew what was required of him and put God’s truth and justice above all thoughts of personal comfort or glory. My prayer is that God will raise up leaders again today with that kind of courage and that all of us will have ears to hear and courage to follow instead of just kicking the can down the road to some other generation.

For this Lent 2013 with sequestration, budget cuts, climate change and a host of other challenges, I find inspiration and guidance in the words of a great hymn by S. Ralph Barlow, “O Young and Fearless Prophet.”

“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

We marvel at the purpose that held Thee to Thy course
While ever on the hilltop before Thee loomed the cross;
Thy steadfast face set forward where love and duty shone,
While we betray so quickly and leave Thee there alone.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway;
Forbid false love of country that blinds us to His call,
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.

Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth,
While others starve and hunger and plead for work and health;
Where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread,
Who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or brain, or soul,
And longs to bind God’s children into one perfect whole.

O young and fearless Prophet, we need Thy presence here,
Amid our pride and glory to see Thy face appear;
Once more to hear Thy challenge above our noisy day,
Again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.”

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