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The Politics of Scripture

Hope, and Hard Boards—Psalm 36:5-10

Psalm 36 reminds us that hope is grounded in God’s very nature, that it rests in the hesed of the LORD. Today, despite the fact that the work we undertake remains unfinished, we can rest in God’s hesed.

5Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
6Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
7How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
10O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany is also the Sunday that precedes the famously pseudoscientific “Blue Monday,” often touted as the year’s most depressing day.[1] Setting aside the silliness of that particular idea, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us are beginning to feel a kind of ambivalence about the year set in around now.

We’ve celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, we’ve rung in the New Year (perhaps a little too raucously), and now it’s just about time to start giving up on our resolutions. The dewy-eyed optimism of the first days of another year is starting to clear a little, and we begin to realize that the work to which we’ve committed ourselves is still mostly unfinished.

That may be the work of local activism, attempting to make sure that every voice is heard, and every vote counted. That may be the work of effecting policy change, or of public education. That may be the work of shepherding a congregation through confusing and difficult times, and of helping a Church realize the importance of its influence on the world. That may simply be the work of the citizen, trying find some reason to care about politics at all.

I know a local bureaucrat who works in a municipal government. Her job is to create and implement policy on environmental sustainability, and she is frequently frustrated by that task. The constant stress of the relationship between what must be done and what can be done creates confusion about what should even be attempted.

I have another friend who balances grad school, a local pastorate, and teaching at a religious college. She experiences challenges and conflict that are entirely outside of my experience, simply because she is a woman in a conservative religious environment. She is constantly faced with the choice of how hard to push in any given moment or context. Is this the time she’ll push too hard and get herself fired? Or is this the time she’ll let fear hold her back, and an opportunity to change a student’s mind will be missed?

Both of these people are trying to effect change in big and small ways, and both are responding to what they feel are direct divine mandates for their lives. My guess is, it’s still pretty damn hard for them to even want to suit up some mornings.

In the midst of these kinds of ongoing frustrations, many of us feel a degree of ambivalence toward yet another spin around the Sun. For anybody who feels this way, the words of Psalm 36 offer hope, and a necessary reminder. The psalmist here declares the steadfast love of the LORD. “Steadfast love” is, of course, an attempt to translate the term hesed into English.

Normally, I discourage my students from loading up any given Hebrew word with too much weight, and tell them instead to focus on translating based on context. Hesed may be one of the very few exceptions to this rule. Especially in the psalter, this term is used to refer to God’s determined fidelity to the covenant with Israel, and is grounded in both past action (e.g., the Exodus), and ongoing support and care, whether for the covenant people or for the individual (as with Psalm 36). This is a core characteristic of the LORD, and as the psalmist sings, it is precious beyond all things.

In Psalm 36 we read of the extent of the LORD’s hesed. It extends beyond the heavens, and to the very clouds. It is more steadfast and dependable than the very mountains, and deeper than the sea itself. It is shelter for all and sundry, and it is a feast that sustains and delights every guest. The hesed of the LORD is the water of life and light itself. For the ambivalent and the frustrated alike, here are words of true comfort.

It was Otto von Bismark who said that “politics is the art of the possible.” My friend Bryce Ashlin-Mayo once told me that politics is just another word for making decisions that have consequences. Those may be somewhat bleak ways of conceptualizing the political task, but both ring true to me. Our theological choices have real world consequences, which play out in our political actions.

But, as we all begin to realize sooner or later, our political actions are complex and multi-faceted, and interact with the world in ways that defy idealism and naïveté. It is only the one who never tries to change the world, who believes that the world can easily be changed, or changed without compromise.

However, without hope in the possibility of a better world (which itself feels almost always like a form of naïveté), there is no drive to do the work that is necessary. As Max Weber said, “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”[2]

Consider the consequence-laden tasks that God has set in your way. There is little chance that you will fulfill them entirely today, or this week, or this month. For many of those tasks (like resisting a corrupt political leader, or reforming a broken government organization, or changing a dangerous and problematic denominational structure) this may be the work of years. We cannot survive the lean years of such slow political change on bread alone. We need to be fed by hope, in order to combat cynicism.

Psalm 36 reminds us that this hope is grounded in God’s very nature, that it rests in the hesed of the LORD. When we work for justice, grace, and mercy in the particular corner of the world where God has placed us, we participate in that covenant fidelity. Combined with a sober realism, this hope in the fidelity of God lends strength and passion to that necessarily realistic perspective. Only a person so equipped has the drive to press through inevitable disappointments and pain, and to grind out the process in pursuit of the goal of the Kingdom of God.

Today, as you go about the real, consequence-laden work of God, rest in the hesed of the LORD. Even as you determine what it is that is possible, even as you bore at the hard boards, rest in the shadow of God’s wings, drink from the river of God’s delights, and see the world as it could be, by God’s own light.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2012/jan/16/blue-monday-depressing-day-pseudoscience

[2] “Politics as Vocation” in From Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, 128. Naturally the quote also comes via Jed Bartlet, who paraphrases Weber in S4E17 of The West Wing.

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