The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The Election Question
At just ten days out from the US elections, I'm assuming that the readers of these Notes have made up their minds about which candidates they will support. (Some of you have been quite explicit and persistent in sharing your enthusiasm for one of the candidates!) You are a well-informed, thoughtful and decisive group, and I trust that you have been prayerful in bringing your values into the choices you make.
The last-minute flurry of campaign ads and political commentary tends to bring out the worst in our political process. We see reporting that has much more to do with the "horse race" of polling numbers than with substance. We're enduring ads that attack and malign instead of inspire and inform.
This seems like an opportune moment to pull back from the personalities and policies of the election, and to remember the encompassing vision that -- I hope -- guides our voting this fall, and our advocacy in the years ahead. (However the elections turn out, we will need to keep at our political work, locally and nationally.) As people of faith, what sort of society do we seek, and what sort of vision guides our political decisions?
My favorite answer to that question comes from an obscure and delightful passage of scripture. I often do a short Bible study on Zechariah 8 to illuminate the theological and ethical principle of shalom -- of God's peace with justice for all creation. In just a few verses, written about 2,500 years ago, we find a vivid and compelling image that speaks to our time about the most essential qualities of a good society.
The background for the prophet's message is important. They were spoken in about 520 BCE, after the time of exile in Babylon. The leaders of the Hebrew people had returned to Jerusalem, and found the city in shambles and impoverished. The temple was destroyed, life was hard, and hope was scarce. Zechariah offers encouragement by describing what the city will look like in the coming days.
Here are the key lines from Zechariah, chapter 8, about community life. (I've cut out the repetitive prophet-talk of "thus says the Lord of hosts" that can hide the core message!)
Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.
In the group setting of a class or workshop, it is great fun to tease out the meaning of those five sentences. The richness of the imagery and the surprising implications of the scene emerge in conversation. The contrast to the despairing society that was Zechariah's audience highlights the meaning. What are the qualities of God's shalom?
There is health. Those old people are living past their prime, and children are not dying in infancy. The kids are playing in the street, instead of working in the fields. There must be adequate food for this sort of scene to exist. The community is vibrant, with all ages gathered in the streets instead of sheltered indoors. And, there's an explicit message that always surprises me from that long-ago time. Old men and old women, boys and girls, are part of the community. It is fully inclusive of women.
It hasn't always been that way. "Before those days" -- probably when the prophet was speaking -- there were economic limits and very real dangers. People and farm animals were not being paid for their labor. I love that line! "No wages for people and for animals" carries an assumption about animals as members of the community who have rights. In God's shalom, though, all of the workers will be paid a decent wage, and the community will be safe from their foes.
In the prophet's vision, the natural world is productive and predictable. The rains come in their season, and the fields provide sufficient harvest. (As the "global wierding" of climate change takes hold in our day, there will not be "a sowing of peace" when rain and temperatures are disrupted, and crops do not grow.) There is good news, too, that the people -- rather than an occupying military -- will possess all these things.
In this blessed community, the social norms and the legal systems will be fair. God's shalom is made present through the proper function of institutions and shared values, in addition to individual choices.
In Zechariah's marvelous description of God's shalom, we find a community where all needs are met, and where justice prevails. It is a hopeful and joyous vision, inclusive of age and gender, with sufficient food and shelter for all, and with social systems that meet the common good.
At the end of the Bible study sessions, I often ask, "What else is needed for the good life?" The thoughtful silence that usually follows suggests that Zechariah has summed it all up very well. We don't need fast cars, vacation homes, the latest fashions or round-the-clock entertainment. We find joy and fulfillment when our communities share in health and sufficiency, inclusive and joyous relationships, justice in the courts and in the economic realm, and harmonious relationships with creation's critters and systems.
In five simple sentences, we find a description of God's shalom that offers us hope and guidance -- and that critiques the failures of our modern world. In just a few words from a long-ago time, we find what pre-election TV ads and campaign literature have a hard time expressing.
My choices for candidates and ballot issues this fall have been guided by a simple standard. Among the available -- and imperfect -- options, will this person or this policy edge us closer toward God's shalom?
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As our country and communities vote this fall, I affirm my usual closing prayer:
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