Jeremiah 22.1-5

Acts 10.9-16, 34-35

Precedents & Prejudice

1969:  That Was The Year That Was

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States.  Here are three random memories I have of Nixon.  The first is one I’m kind of embarrassed to share:  I was in first grade in the fall of 1960, and our teacher Mrs. Drew, in a gentle attempt to introduce us to current events, invited  us to draw a picture of one of the two candidates running for president that November; the choice of whom was up to us.  I drew a picture, and underneath in an uncertain hand I wrote, “Mr. Nixon.”    I hasten to add that a year later my second grade teacher Mrs. Stowe invited us to write a letter to a famous person, I wrote one to President John F. Kennedy and even received a reply.  Whether that redeems my earlier gaffe, I leave to you.   My second memory is of October 15 1969, the very first time I participated in a public protest.  The date marked the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, a demonstration against Nixon’s escalation of the war in Southeast Asia.  I don’t know how many of us walked out of classes at Maloney High School that day, but it was a sizeable crowd and we gathered in the oval in front of the school offices and chanted slogans about ending the war.  School administrators were not very pleased, but fortunately none of us was suspended or expelled.  The third memory is August 9 1974 when a group of us went to the University Theater at Yale to watch a screening of “Casablanca.”  Just before the movie began, it was preempted by a live broadcast of Nixon announcing his resignation and, as you might expect of a Yale crowd, the audience went wild.  We stood on our theater seats cheering and high-fiving.  Richard Nixon was gone, and Humphrey Bogart waited in the wings.

This morning’s Old Testament passage from Jeremiah was a challenge to unpack:  “Thus says the Lord:  Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say:  Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David…  Thus says the Lord:  act with justice and righteousness… Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan and the widow.”  Plain enough, but – which king of Judah?  There were several during the career of the prophet Jeremiah.  And what was the message?  Well, if you need to be told to act with justice and not to wrong or show violence toward the alien, or the immigrant or refugee, to look out for the orphan, the widow and the innocent, then it’s pretty certain you aren’t doing any of these things, or at least you aren’t doing them very well.  In fact the case can be made that the object of the prophecy is practicing injustice, is oppressing the refugee and the immigrant and is making life even more difficult for those who already live on the margins of society, the widow and the orphan and the innocent.  So which of the kings during Jeremiah’s prophetic career would fall under such a summary judgement?  Reading a little further in Jeremiah 22 we discover the answer:  all of them:  v.11 calls out King Shallum, vv. 13-18 name King Jehoiakim and v.24 Jehoiakim’s son, King Jehoiakin.  And just for good measure, a glance backwards at chapter 21 indicts King Zedekiah as well.    And so the prophet of God hurls the word of judgement against an entire succession of political leaders – King Zedekiah, King Shallum, King Jehoiakim and King Jehoiakin - names their sin: violence and wrongdoing against the refugee and the immigrant, and neglect of the poorest among them, and calls them out.  Whenever I hear someone say that religion and politics should remain forever separate, I think of the Old Testament prophets, their scathing judgements against their own rulers and leaders, and smile to myself.  Speaking God’s truth to power was not only their holy calling, it is our lasting legacy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about injustice lately, about racial injustice in particular, and about racial injustice and prejudice as practiced by the rulers and leaders of our own day in minute particular, and I think of what the prophetic word to them might be.  Earlier this week we heard about a 1971 tape recording of the Governor of California, in a phone call to the President who took office fifty years ago, cursing and slurring certain African delegates to the United Nations:  Ronald Reagan said to Richard Nixon, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!”  To which the President added a hearty laugh, called a few other administration officials and repeated Reagan’s racist insult.

I expect the eventual 40th President knew he’d find a sympathetic ear with the 37th.  The 1968 Nixon campaign perfected what came to be called “the Southern Strategy,” a subtle way of appealing to the racist inclinations of many southern whites.  Here is how Nixon’s chief political advisor Kevin Phillips described the Nixon campaign strategy:

“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.  The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.  That’s where the votes are.  Without that prodding… the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”

Remember, these words are not mine.  They belong to Nixon’s political strategist describing the 1968 campaign.  This is why Reagan knew he could say what he did to Nixon, because Nixon’s campaign had set the precedent.

Remember, Jeremiah spoke, not just to one king, but to an entire succession of them.  When a succession of our own rulers and leaders decide it’s OK to use prejudice and racial division as a means of governing, then it is time for the Jeremiahs of the world to condemn the practice.  When one president employs racial division as a campaign strategy, when another one calls United Nations delegates “monkeys” because of the color of their skin, when yet another calls out Congressional people of color and tells them to go back where they came from, when an entire succession of national leadership abdicates its responsibility and obligation to represent every citizen and singles out a minority population as objects of scorn and derision, this is when you and I raise our voice and lift up our witness to say “No – this is wrong.”  Or in the words of the prophet, “If you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.”

Peter needed a little noodge from God.  He was under the impression that faith in Jesus made it OK to consider the Jews, who did not confess Jesus, as lesser people.  As inferior.  As unclean.  They may have had a good run with Moses and all that, but with the resurrection it was clear that God’s favor was redirected toward followers of Jesus.  It wasn’t like Peter actually persecuted any Jews, he just didn’t think they deserved a place at the table.  So God brought Peter a vision wrapped in a dream with an unforgettable message:  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane… [for] God shows no partiality, but among every people anyone who reveres God and does what is right is acceptable.”

So I decided to try a little exercise.  I wonder if we might apply a little Jeremiah or a bit of Peter to the racism lately tweeted from our own leadership.  Let’s try it:

“These are people who in my opinion hate our country… All I’m saying is if they’re not happy here, they can leave.”  “Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the refugee, the sojourner.”  “I mean, I look at that one, I look at [Ilhan] Omar.  I mean, I don’t know, I never met her, I hear the way she talks about al Qaeda… [she] hates Israel, hates Jews, hates Jews.  It’s very simple.”  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but among every people anyone who reveres God and does what is right is acceptable.”  “Elijah Cummings’ district is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.  If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place.”  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane… [for] God shows no partiality.” 

So let me ask the question now:  what does it say that the objects of the President’s rage are principally people of color?  What does it say that the precedents of Presidential prejudice include animus and derision toward our black and Latino sisters and brothers?

There’s something I need to say now that is not necessarily biblical or theological, but is something I have long believed – and as always, you are entirely welcome to disagree with me if you think I’m wrong – but I think all of us, simply by virtue of being human, harbor some kind of latent “-ism” within us.  There are times that I catch a bit of racism in myself, or a bit of sexism, or a bit of some kind of bias toward or against one different from myself.  But for me, the first step in dealing with it is to admit it, and to figure out how to correct it.  In fact, next week I’m going to tell you about three brief incidents where I caught myself doing just that, moments that I am not at all proud of.  But I have to be able to name it in myself before I am able to call it out in another.  To me, this is the first step.  But as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the long prophetic tradition of Jeremiah and his cohort, I do call it out in others, and name racism in every instance for the sin that it is.  And, reflecting on the horror of yesterday’s shootings, if racism is at the root of anti-Hispanic sentiment in El Paso, then it doubles the sin.  I will continue to believe the words of Acts, that “God shows no partiality, but among every people anyone who reveres God and does what is right is acceptable.”  This is God’s table, this and all the world, and there is a place for everyone.

Amen.

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