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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Righteousness—Zephaniah 3:14–20 (Stephen Dawson)

In the wake of an atrocity such as the San Bernardino shooting or the attacks in Paris, the choice between the politics of righteousness and the politics of fear will press upon us with a renewed urgency. However, it is righteousness—justice and ethical probity—that is the only genuine answer at such a time.

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

Zephaniah 3:14–20 is a joyful proclamation of God as the triumphant warrior who delivers Israel’s final victory over its foes. In many respects it is not unlike the ending of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Both the film and this week’s liturgical reading end on a uplifting, even joyful, note that leaves readers and viewers hopeful and optimistic, if not exultant, about the future.

The glorious destruction of Israel’s enemies follows the dark day of the Lord, described earlier in Zephaniah as a “day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (1: 15). This is a time when the blood of people will be “poured out like dust” (1:17). Some of this description is eerily familiar to watchers of CNN and network newscasts: “I have laid waste their streets so that no one walks in them; their cities have been made desolate, without people, without inhabitants” (3:6). One thinks of the bombed out Syrian cities of Homs or Aleppo; the streets of Paris (or at least parts of Paris) on the night of November 13; and now the streets around the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, on December 2.

Zephaniah condemns official Jerusalem for their inactivity during these dark times: “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! [. . .] The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law” (3:1, 3–5). Those who are in positions of leadership fail at this crucial moment, Zephaniah suggests, because they are corrupt. Their corruption, however, goes deeper than the usual Chicago-style criminal malfeasance: accepting bribes and kickbacks, abusing the powers of one’s office for personal gain, a general failure to act in ways that are beneficial to the common good rather than to a select group of cronies or supporters, and so on. The officials, judges, prophets, and priests—the Establishment, an old hippie might say—fail not simply because of their corrupt actions, but because of their fundamental unrighteousness.

Righteousness is like a perennial that is always in bloom in the various books comprising the Bible. Depending on the context, the meaning of “righteousness” is often something like justice and ethical probity. Righteousness is considered an attribute of God, and so to the degree that one’s actions are righteous, one can be said to be a holy person. The sort of holiness denoted by righteousness should be carefully distinguished from the florid religiosity of those excoriated by someone like the prophet Amos: festivals, solemn assemblies, offerings, and songs of praise. Instead, Amos advocates letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Righteousness—justice and ethical probity—is thus the best response to times of crisis, especially in times such as ours in which there are multiple failures of leadership.

Righteousness as I am discussing it can be contrasted with self-righteousness. Righteousness is divine insofar as it affirms the humanity of all involved. Practicing justice and ethical probity means, for example, to judge fairly under the law, to care for the less fortunate, and to accept refugees and others in need. To be righteous means to affirm the humanity of the criminal in the act of judgment, to affirm the humanity of the poor in the act of bestowing charity, and to affirm the humanity of the refugee in the act of welcoming. In comparison, self-righteousness degrades the humanity of all concerned by demonizing the Other—criminals are now less than human and deserve the meanest and most punitive living conditions this side of international conventions outlawing inhumane treatment of prisoners. The poor are humiliated in any number of ways merely by undergoing the process of applying for assistance (testing for drugs and sexually transmitted diseases is always a popular proposal by candidates for political office). Refugees, as we have recently experienced, are simply turned away. Some American political leaders and pundits claim that they are not real refugees—they’re simply trying to immigrate illegally in order to apply for government assistance. Opportunists, they are said to be, not refugees. Some American religious leaders, in turn, claim that they are not the right sort of refugees—perhaps Christian refugees can be allowed to enter, but not non-Christians (and absolutely not Muslims). This sort of self-righteousness is a species of the more general fundamental unrighteousness attributed by Zephaniah to the political and religious establishment in Jerusalem in his time. What’s important to keep in mind is that the practitioners of self-righteousness are degraded by the inhumanity of their actions no less than those who experience inhumane treatment first hand.

A close to home—close to my home, at least—example of this sort of self-righteousness occurred last Friday (12/4). Liberty University, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, is the place where a particularly fundamentalist sort of evangelical Christianity is mated with a deeply socially conservative version of Republican Party politics. Its success is such that politicians at both extremes of the political spectrum are drawn there like moths to an outdoor porch light. At the Friday convocation, LU President Jerry Falwell, Jr., exhorted the student body to apply for concealed weapons permits so that they could bring their firearms to campus, creating an ersatz armed fortress awaiting the advent of violence not unlike Estragon and Vladimir waiting for Godot. This is how the Washington Post described the scene:

“It just blows my mind that the president of the United States [says] that the answer to circumstances like that is more gun control,” [Falwell] said to applause.

“If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now . . . ,” he said while being interrupted by louder cheers and clapping. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” he said, chuckling.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”[1]

In an interview with the Washington Post the following day, Falwell qualified his remarks slightly:

Falwell said that when he referred to “those Muslims,” he was referring to Islamic terrorists, specifically those behind the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino. “That’s the only thing I would clarify,” Falwell said. “If I had to say what I said again, I’d say exactly the same thing.”[2]

Certainly one way to respond to the existential threat of violence is to circle the wagons and start passing ammunition out. But it seems clear (to me, at any rate) that the ongoing battle with religious and political extremism is not one to be won primarily by force of arms, either by the overwhelming force of the US military or by the scattershots of legions of armed civilians. This is at a fundamental level a battle of ideas, but not a purely academic battle of ideas waged by speech. It is a battle of practices, or ways of living. We who live in liberal societies must uphold the practices born of liberal ideals such as toleration, equality, and freedom. The fact that we often fail to live up to these ideals does not invalidate them. Nor should we cast them aside out of fear in a moment of crisis. These are times that call for the politics of righteousness, justice and ethical probity; unfortunately, many of those in positions of leadership prefer to traffic in the politics of fear.

The rejection of the politics of righteousness by American political and religious leaders in favor of the politics of fear brings to mind W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”[3] This is indeed a time in which anarchy seems to be loose around the world, and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In the absence of righteousness we may well wonder with the poet, in the spirit of the Advent season, “what rough beast, its hour come round as last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

[1] Bailey, Sarah Pulliam, “Jerry Falwell Jr.: If more good people had concealed guns ‘we could end those Muslims’,” Washington Post, 5 December 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Yeats, W.B., Selected Poems and Three Plays, 3rd ed., ed. M.L. Rosenthal (New York: Collier Books, 1986), 89f.

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One thought on “The Politics of Righteousness—Zephaniah 3:14–20 (Stephen Dawson)

  1. Thanks so much for the insight into the word of God we really bless God for your heart Continue to do the work of Evangelist as he’s coming soon your reward will be great in the kingdom of God . God bless you.

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