“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, Lectionary text for 8/29/21)
There are 29 references to “widows” and 16 to “orphans” in the NRSV of the Bible. They are mentioned so consistently throughout Scripture of course because without a male protector they are the most vulnerable people in patriarchal biblical society; and that means they need the most help. I get that, but sometimes I just need a rest from the Social Gospel.
This is one of those weeks. Call it compassion fatigue, burn out, or just too pooped to participate. This week’s 24/7 news cycle has gone over the top with natural and human catastrophes. I’m sorry, Lord, but I’ve just had to turn the news off. One more report of a hurricane on top of an earthquake, wind and wild fire, one more gut-wrenching video of Afghan refugees climbing on to a moving aircraft to flee their homeland, one more story about school-age kids and teachers being caught in the political theater of the absurd about masks and vaccines for COVID may just be the final straw that pushes me over the edge.
It’s the blame game that is wearing on me the most right now. In the midst of all this chaos instead of joining forces to solve any one of these crises our state and federal leaders are redoubling their tug of culture war to find some political advantage in the worst situations. They seem oblivious to the reality that we are entering COVID 4.0 because the whole pandemic was politicized from Day 1.
Maybe the first step for people of faith or political leaders should be “First, Do No Harm” from the Hippocratic Oath. Not only are we failing miserably in taking care of widows and orphans, self-serving decisions have produced more poor, more widows and orphans left behind by the 623,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID so far. One headline today said, “Couple from LaMarque, Texas Who Didn’t Trust the Vaccine Have Died Leaving Four Orphans Behind.”
With all the resources the United States has, leading the world in the number of COVID deaths is beyond inexcusable. Scoring political points has trumped the use of time-tested public health tools like masks and vaccines to protect the most vulnerable.
Sure some of the finger pointing and political posturing goes with the territory because we are all caught in the matrix of a never-ending campaign cycle. I remember thinking last November after the election that I would get a breather from requests for campaign donations bombarding my inbox! How naive I was! And the requests just keep growing, coming from all over the country, not just from my own state. Perpetual campaigning leaves no time for actual governing! It is madness, not to mention an obscene waste of time and money. And the constant struggle for power and influence by the wealthy class is threatening to erode the very foundations of our democracy. How absurd is it that we may still be litigating the election results of 2020 when it’s time to cast votes in 2022.
Back in 2005, a time that seems so quaintly simple compared to the 2020’s, my wife and I participated in an intensive personal development program offered by Klemmer and Associates in California. There were many great life lessons we learned experientially in those workshops, but there is one gem that stands out for me, especially in a time like the one we are in now.
The focus of that program was learning how to set SMART goals for oneself and learning skills to overcome the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them. The blame game is one major hurdle most of us have to overcome to change a habit and get unstuck. To lose weight, to risk pursuing a new career, to be vulnerable enough to take a significant relationship to a new level of intimacy, whatever the goal may be one commonality is that blaming others for why we cannot achieve a dream or a goal is totally counterproductive.
The most helpful advice I learned from Klemmer is that instead of blaming others or circumstances for whatever we want it is much more productive to ask three simple questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? What next?” How different might the current catastrophe in Afghanistan look if we asked those pragmatic questions instead of just trying to pin the blame on somebody else. There is more than enough blame to go around for 20 years of killing and mayhem in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even count the equally bad track record the Russians and the British had there before us.
Just like COVID war produces widows and orphans. For what? Victory? How does one keep score in the game of war? The long bloody trail of human history should have taught us long ago that there are no winners in war. Each war begets the next ad infinitum. What might it mean for Americans to ponder what it means that World War II was the last war where we can count any kind of victory? Could it be that war has finally outlived its usefulness 2500 years after Isaiah and Micah both dreamed of the day when we would “beat our swords in to plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)
Isn’t that the word that James wants Christians to be doers of? Talk is cheap. We pay lip service to pious platitudes about loving our neighbors and even our enemies, but who among us is really brave enough to walk that walk?
What have we got to lose? The way we have been trying to use “power over” others, especially in a toxic version of masculinity, simply isn’t working. Gun violence, raping the very planet we depend on for life itself, bitter partisanship instead of collaboration to solve problems that threaten the existence of the human race itself are all symptoms of humanity’s terminal illness.
Is it to late to be doers of the word instead of just hearers? Maybe a better question is are we even listening to the Word any longer? Do we have ears to hear? Are the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of greed, consumerism, zealous nationalism, and rugged individualism so loud they drown out the “still small voice of God?” (I Kings 19:12).
Matthew Fox describes our plight quite well in his Daily Devotion from August 9: “A prime idea of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is its very straightforward critique of misuses of power. From the very beginning, the Bible undercuts the power of domination and teaches us another kind of power: powerlessness itself. God is able to use unlikely figures who in one way or another are always inept, unprepared, and incapable—powerless in some way. In the Bible, the bottom, the edge, or the outside is the privileged spiritual position. This is why biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. Powerlessness seems to be God’s starting place, as in Twelve-Step programs. Until we admit that “we are powerless,” Real Power will not be recognized, accepted, or even sought.”
I love the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It seems to me we’ve about exhausted “everything else.” Maybe we’re about ready to be doers of God’s way – collaborating, sharing, caring more about all of humankind and creation than our own bottom line? That’s what James calls “pure religion.” Others call it the peaceable kin-dom that God has put within each of us. That beloved community can only emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis if we can learn to be unstained by the deadly values of the world.
The other very familiar verse from James is 2:26 which says “Faith without works is dead.” Without a major shift in our values, so are we.