This advice is usually attributed to Theologian Karl Barth. It should be read and re-read by all laypersons who harass their pastors and complain politics has no place in sermons or church.
Barth’s advice makes good theological sense. If all Germans had interpreted reports of Kristallnacht from their Bibles, they might have banded together against the looming horror.
But does the advice still work in our electronic age? Can we detect God’s will by reading the Every Man’s Bible NLT on our iPhones while watching Fox News?
News reporting is not what it used to be. Walter Cronkite is long gone and journalists with his credibility are either dead or retired. Both network and cable news outlets tend to choose stories to increase ratings so it’s hard for serious viewers to separate truths from delusions. What would be Barth’s advice today?
There is, of course, a news program that raises its standard of journalism far above the current crowd – so far above, in fact, that it has to be fiction. That show was HBO’s Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin.
In Sorkin’s idealized but improbable world, news is not diluted by duplicitous efforts to be “balanced,” e.g., “Republicans said red, Democrats said blue, experts disagree…” Nor is news dominated by shallow celebrity shenanigans. The fictional network’s daily news budget is determined solely by which events withstand serious investigative vetting and will have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, the bibles we held in one hand weren’t doing us much good because the news media we watched on the other hand gave us little idea what the hell was actually going on. Each time a Matt Lauer pressed Hillary Clinton to shorten her answers on policy issues, or CNN spent an hour covering Donald Trump’s promotion of a new Trump Hotel, I yearned for Sorkin’s fictional news anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels.
Daniels had already played a character who jumped off a screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo to become a real man and I wished he could do it again. Will, I told myself, would not mistake a hotel promo for a news event and he would know it was disingenuous to compare Hillary’s email debacle with Watergate.
But it was one of Will McAvoy’s more memorable lines – a tribute to American democracy – that showed his flaws. “Every two years,” he told viewers. “we drive to a fire station and overthrown the government and there isn’t a policeman in the street.”
That idealistic claim was belied as soon as the Electoral College results were in.
This time when Americans drove to the fire station to overthrow the government, law enforcement was indeed in the streets to intervene in protests in Oregon, California, New York, and elsewhere.
The big news that emerges from the 2016 election is not who won, or why, but the fact that the United States is more divided than it has been in 150 years. And not just philosophically divided but viscerally divided. If Mitt Romney had been elected in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, or John Kerry in 2004, there wouldn’t have been a police officer in sight. Some people would cheer, others would frown and shake their heads, and life would go on.
Why did things fall apart this year?
I can’t imagine Will McAvoy resorting to any of the more hackneyed explanations of pundits on the left and the right: that both candidates were disliked by voters, that Hillary was not trusted and was the victim of misogyny, that Trump was not trusted and flaunted his misogyny, and more.
Nor can I imagine Will McAvoy not scoffing at theories that some voters thought Trump was more Christian than Hillary. Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, whose blog “The Pastor’s Pen” I follow, saw the candidates’ real faith distinctions:
“The confessing Christian, Hillary Clinton, who carries a Bible, forgave her one and only husband’s infidelities and says she stayed in her marriage because of her Christian faith, who regularly quotes Scripture with accuracy and familiarity, and who is an active member of the Methodist Church, lost. Politically, she’s liberal.
“Donald Trump, on the other hand, who has children by all three of his wives, who claims to have never asked God for forgiveness, who is an inactive Presbyterian who attended church with regularity only when his father took him as a child to hear Norman Vincent Peale’s messages on positive thinking, and who does not know the meaning of the bread and wine at church, won. Politically, he’s conservative.”Time will tell whether Trump is a bona fide conservative (and Norman Vincent Peale’s Church was affiliated with the Reformed Church in America), but Haggard opens the door to a Barth-like examination of the bible’s interpretation of the news.
The Revised Common Lectionary reading for this week points us in an interesting direction:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4After the exhortation to give the king God’s justice, the key words that attract our Barthian attention are “poor,” “justice,” and “deliverance to the needy.”
Also, in Romans 15:4-13 we read Paul’s reminder that Christ has come to all people, regardless of race, color, creed, or nationality:
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”
How do these verses help us interpret the news?
I think we may detect some dire warnings about the currents of events.
In sharp contradiction to the biblical assertion that Christ has come to all, the results of the 2016 election show deepening divisions between white and non-white Americans. Writers for Bill Moyers – a news source I trust – warn that the white racism that emerged after President Obama’s election has intensified.
Indeed, Trump’s upset in the presidential race has cracked wide open just how persistent and pervasive American racism has always been. This is a point that many black Americans have been making in the wake of the election. Whenever the United States has seemed to bend toward a more racially inclusive brand of democracy — from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the Obama era — what has often followed has been an equal and opposite push to reclaim a whiter status quo. We saw it in Jim Crow, and in Richard Nixon’s anti-civil rights administration in the 1970s, and we’re seeing it now. This is America, being America.The writers – Brandon Tensley, Michael C. Richardson, and ReJane Frederick – call for a righteous resistance against racism, and that resistance must involve all persons of faith.
There’s a long fight ahead of us. And as Linda Sarsour, the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities, drove home on the final day of the conference, it has to be all hands on deck. Our future may depend on it. “All we have is each other. Ain’t nobody got time for part-time progressives,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play in the movement.”
For bible readers who see God’s favoritism toward the poor and rejected, the designated leaders of the incoming administration offer little hope.
Vice President-Elect Mike Pence is a homophobic zealot who believes LGBTQ persons can be scared straight. Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon is a far right-wing media executive who has expressed virulently racist and anti-Semitic views. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has a background of unreconstructed Jim Crow racism. Education Secretary designate Betsy DeVos has no experience with and little interest in public education. Health and Human Services Secretary designate Tom Price would dismantle the Affordable Care Act and has set his sights against Medicare and Medicaid.
Persons of faith who favor the protection of God’s earth and who believe the preponderance of scientific opinion that humans are responsible for Global Warning will take no comfort in proposed candidates to lead the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom believe global warming is a myth.
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4
I used to actually preach sermons like this before I retired as lay pastor of North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. The saints there were very open-minded and tolerant of my occasionally eccentric theology.
I imagine they would receive these sentiments today in much the same tolerant spirit.
But I also realize these efforts to sync bible passages with news events would be anathema in most churches. I’m sure pastors and thoughtful persons of faith can see the connection. But in many cases, I doubt they could point it out from the pulpit without ominous political consequences.
Barth probably knew that reading the bible and the news simultaneously would lead to awkward and sometimes dangerous circumstances.
So let me propose this:
Let us pray as the psalmist commands for the President-Elect. Let us pray for his wisdom and good health and open mind.
And let us pray that God’s justice and God’s righteousness be bestowed upon him.
And let us pray that he will rise to defend the cause of the poor and accept his call to give deliverance to the needy.
In the name of Christ, who came into the world as a helpless baby charged by God to bring salvation and justice to all people.