The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Shalom vs. Kavanaugh News
It has been an extremely difficult week in the United States. The turmoil around the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court -- moving forward but still not decided after this morning's procedural vote -- has engulfed us all in emotionally powerful questions about sexual abuse, personal character and political power.
In what was already a highly conflicted setting, Mr. Kavanaugh's angry, disrespectful, partisan, and probably dishonest statements to the Judiciary Committee last week pushed the tensions to an explosive level. As many commentators have noted, this battle has inflicted long-term damage on the US Senate, the Supreme Court, and US politics overall.
I grieve the brutal, hyper-partisan, win-at-any-cost style of governance that now seems to be normal in this country. This vote on a court appointment is simply the most recent and most dramatic example of deterioration in our political culture, nationally and in the states. We see parallel problems in the vicious attack ads against candidates of both parties in the upcoming election. Honesty and vision give way to distortion and slogans.
Politics is never pretty. It is about power and winning. But we're in a world without statesmen or stateswomen who speak for the good of the whole. We're in a world where thoughtful compromise and civility and respect seem to have been lost.
In my distress of the past few days, I keep coming back to one verse from an obscure passage of scripture. In re-reading Zechariah 8, I find myself centered by the hopeful promise of shalom. Let me take you back to one of my favorite sections of the Bible.
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The first half of the eighth chapter of the book of Zechariah (the next-to-last book of the Old Testament) has the most vivid and concise exposition that I have found of the rich theological idea of shalom, of God's peace with justice for all creation. It is vision of hope and promise that stands in contrast to the mess of current politics. This picture of shalom is a stark critique of the policies from the Trump administration that sacrifice ecological health and social justice for the sake of economic growth and individualism. It offers contrast to the style of current politics.
The background for the prophet's message is important. These words 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 impoverished and in shambles. 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 six 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, to some significant degree, 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 coming shalom, all of the workers of all species 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, we do not see "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.
Then comes the line that called me back to Zechariah this week. "Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace. Do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for these are things that I hate, says the Lord." In the blessed community of shalom, the social norms and the legal systems will be fair. God's peace 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 word of promise about our life together, not about individuals. 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.
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The recent news, especially about the Supreme Court, leaves me feeling stressed and sad and angry. I struggle to find strategic options that lead to a more honest, respectful and principled form of politics.
So I give thanks for Zechariah, who in six simple sentences offers a vivid picture of peace and community. I give thanks for the assurance that it doesn't have to be this way -- for his prophetic announcement that the style and policies of current governance are not acceptable.
These are difficult times. In the face of bitter conflict and distorted politics, may we be guided by -- and may we work persistently for -- God's shalom.
This week's Notes draws on "The Election Question" from October 24, 2008, when Zechariah was invoked for guidance before the presidential elections.
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