I read the story this week of an Iranian-American woman. She was riding home on the bus after work one day in Chicago when a white man dressed in a suit and tie began to attack her verbally, shouting anti-Islamic names at her. After several minutes during which she quietly tried to get him to stop, he spit at her, told her to get off the bus, leave the country because it wasn’t hers. All this time, on a crowded bus, no one said anything. Finally, she’d had enough. She shouted at him at the top of her lungs. It was then that others intervened and the bus driver stopped and forced her attacker to leave.
We live in dangerous times. Sometimes, I think we may be at a tipping point. After months of hearing Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric toward Hispanics and other marginalized groups, he outdid himself by suggesting an outright ban on Muslim immigration might be necessary; that the US might need to inter them. His comments have been repudiated by many, although most elected officials in his party have not said whether they will vote for him if he’s their party’s nominee.
In spite of his inflammatory, hateful rhetoric; in spite of pundits announcing now for months that he would lose his support in the polls, Trump’s comments have only helped his standing. National Polls out this past week have shown him extending his lead among Republican voters. It should be clear to everyone by now that his language and opinions are tapping into a deep reservoir of anger, hate, fear, and xenophobia among the American populace. That fact—the implication that as many as 30% of our nation’s population may share Trump’s views should frighten us to our very core. Some people draw analogies to Germany in the 30s. I’m more inclined to see the rise of these views—their becoming respectable in American culture—a sign that the sort of anti-Immigrant, nationalist sentiment that has become popular in Europe, is also now a reality in American life.
But there’s something else I think we need to come to terms with. It’s not just the anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise, that incidents of the sort described above, demonstrations, even fire-bombings at mosques are occurring. What bothers me most is the response of the other commuters on that bus. No one intervened until the last minute. No one came to the woman’s defense or offered criticism of her abuser’s actions. Apparently, they were perfectly content to let the situation play itself out. Had she left the bus quietly, perhaps no one would have said or done anything.
It is time for those of us who have a different vision for this nation, who desire a pluralistic democracy and a society where people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds are equally welcomed, equally valued, and have equal opportunity to thrive and flourish as individuals and as communities; it’s time for us to stand up, make our voices heard, and with our actions show clearly what our values are.
At the same time, it’s important that we offer a deep critique of all of those tendencies in our religion and nation that contribute to violence and extremism. We need to repent of the sins committed in the name of Christianity and of the United States. For example, it’s not enough to say that advocating for the internment or expulsion of Muslims is wrong—we also have to acknowledge and repent of actions like the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. That is part of our history; and anti-immigrant sentiment has a long history in our nation. It wasn’t invented in 2015.
Today’s gospel reading offers insight into both the extremist rhetoric in the Christian tradition as well as into the best of its ethical perspectives. We hear from Luke a rather lengthy description of the preaching of John the Baptist. He was, by all accounts, an apocalyptic prophet and his sermon begins with fiery language condemning his listeners and foretelling destruction:.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John’s language is both threatening and seductive. Depending on our perspective, we might be filled with fear and trembling at his message, or we might, if we think we’re on his side, be eager to see the destruction of our enemies. Our attention may be so focused on the powerful imagery that we don’t notice the rest of the story. We don’t realize the significance of the crowd’s response. They don’t fall on their knees in terror, begging forgiveness. They don’t run away in fear. They engage the prophet. They ask him, “What then should we do?”
It’s an obvious question but John’s reply isn’t exactly what one might expect. Remember John abandoned the civilized towns and cities of Roman Palestine. He went out into the wilderness. He dressed in camel skins, and from the wilderness, he preached repentance and predicted destruction. One might expect that his response to the question, “what should we do” would be to tell them to come out and join him in a counter-cultural movement that could be pure of the immorality of the cities. But he didn’t.
John’s advice is rather straightforward, ordinary advice, well within the range of possibility for most people.
“If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have food, do likewise.” That’s what John says to the crowds, to all those who ask. Luke has other people, specific groups come to John and ask the same question. And to them, John responds in much the same way. Tax collectors ask him what they should do, and he replies, “collect more than the amount prescribed to you.” And to soldiers, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone, be content with your wages.”
Now, as you probably know tax collectors and soldiers in the Roman Empire were not simply government workers. Tax collectors made their income by taking a percentage of what they collected. Soldiers supplemented their meager wages by extracting money from the people they protected. In other words, they were both part of a deeply oppressive and profoundly unjust system. Yet John did not demand they leave that system.
Instead, he gave them relatively simple and easy-to-follow advice. Don’t game the system, he said. Do what you can. In fact, it’s not a message of fear at all, but rather of hope. He gives to his listeners a way of living in a corrupt and evil society. The only options are not to either flee from it or to make your peace with it. Instead, you can live within it and do our best. It’s a message many of us might find appealing as we try to make our own way in a difficult world. How many of us find us in situations, in jobs that present us with difficult alternatives, in jobs that are dehumanizing or exploitative, making decisions that are far removed from the ethic of love espoused by Jesus.
Our response is often to ignore the ethical implications of those decisions, to say to ourselves that what matters in the end is keeping the job and taking care of our families. But such decisions, such jobs, can eat away at us. In such cases, John offers us a way through. Do what you can, act as justly, as ethically as possible in this corrupt and evil system.
It may be that John’s words of advice are especially appropriate during this Advent of 2015. To share our wealth and bounty with those in need is both obvious and worth repeating when so many in our community and city are struggling to make ends meet, worrying about where their next meal might be or where they might find shelter at night.
But it might be even more important to remember that our voices need to be heard in our climate of fear and hate. To speak out on behalf of the victims of demonization, to challenge bullies, fear-mongerers, and peddlars of hate, may be precisely what we should do now. To challenge those who are trying to turn Christianity into a religion of hate and violence is also important. When we raise our voices and take our stand on behalf of love and justice, we proclaim to the world, to our nation, and to our neighbors the good news of Jesus Christ’s love and we help to make that love incarnate in these dark and fearful times.