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Monthly Archives: September 2020

What happens when leaders listen to the wrong voices?

Every year for a century, Kimball Avenue church held an annual Thanksgiving dinner and fund raiser called “Harvest Home.” An offering was received at the meal in a wooden box with a hole in the top. It was referred to as the “Joash Box.” Some of you remember it. It still exists, stored in the parsonage basement, but it is falling apart.

It is called the “Joash Box” because according to 2 Kings 12:9ff, Joash, the King of Judah, set up a box with a hole in the top at the temple entrance to collect funds for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been neglected for decades. Joash took the funds that were placed in the box to pay for the materials and labor to repair the building.

When I hear about King Joash, I always think about the Joash Box and his commitment to the temple—not only to the building, but also to reviving the temple worship of YHWH. For years, God blessed the nation of Judah with peace and prosperity under the leadership of Joash. But what started out so well ended in the disaster we read about today in 2 Chronicles 24, when Joash ordered the murder of Zechariah by stoning. Zechariah was killed inside the Temple that Joash dedicated to the worship of God.

How did Joash go from a God-worshiper to state-protected murderer? It’s a story about leadership and who leaders listen to. Proverbs 11:14 says, “A nation falls where there is no wise leading, but it is safe where there are many wise men who know what to do.”

Joash became King of Judah at age 7. I don’t know any 7-year-old who is ready to lead a nation, but Joash was fortunate to have a wise advisor and mentor, Jehoiada, the high priest. With Jehoiada’s counsel and help, Joash was a good king and the nation was blessed. But after Jehoiada died, everything changed. A group of local leaders offered to advise Joash, and they counseled him to abandon the Temple and pursue idolatry. Idolatry always leads to injustice and oppression—acts God rejects. Despite warnings from God’s prophets, Joash refused to renounce the policy. The nation suffered. Finally Zechariah—the son of Joash’s childhood advisor, Jehoiada—was led by the Spirit to confront Joash and his advisors for abandoning God’s heart and God’s law. He announced God’s judgement on Joash and the nation. Zechariah spoke truth to power.

Because Zechariah spoke a truth that Joash had no interest in hearing, Joash took steps to silence God’s messenger. The leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and Joash gave the kill order.

That’s not the end of the story. Sadly, after Zechariah was killed, the nation of Judah declined. The peace and prosperity it had enjoyed disappeared. The nation was plunged into costly wars, economic collapse and political ruin. God abandoned Joash and the nation was thrown into chaos. And in the end Joash was assassinated.

What does God want us to hear from the story of Joash and Zechariah? The Apostle Paul wrote that the things that were written in the past, were written for our instruction (Romans 15:4). This story is a warning. When leaders listen to the voices of justice and righteousness, there is peace. Everyone thrives. However, when they listen to wrong voices, all hell breaks loose. When leaders surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear and use their power to silence opposing voices—especially those voices that call the leader to account and to doing what is just and right, the wicked are empowered to strut about. When leaders harden their hearts and close their ears and their eyes, the people suffer.

There are consequences to political arrogance and spiritual obstinance. Refusal to listen to the calls for justice and righteousness leads to destruction. God will not prosper the leaders that ignore the commands of God. God will abandon the leaders that refuse to seek God’s justice. God will bring judgment on the leaders whose hearts are hardened and who refuse to open their eyes and ears to the truth of God’s heart for the oppressed and afflicted. And ultimately, God will rise up and will depose the wicked and the proud and the arrogant who do whatever they please. It happened to Egypt and Pharaoh. It happened to Israel and Judah. It can happen now.

Like Judah, nations regularly come to a fork in the road – a moment of decision about what kind of nation we will be. Our nation is in a moment like that. There are voices that are advocating radically different futures for our nation. There are voices that advocate the revival of a glorious past that was built upon genocide, enslavement, oppression, militarism, racism, and unbridled greed. And there are prophetic voices calling for the establishment of a society built upon justice, equity, love of neighbor and morality. We can choose which voices we will listen to. We can also choose which future we will speak for.

The story of King Joash has a hero. His name is Zechariah – a man who boldly and publicly rebuked King Joash for abandoning his spiritual and moral responsibilities and leading his nation down a path of destruction. Though he lost his life for his boldness, his name is held up in honor. Jesus honored Zechariah as a hero and defender of God’s truth.

Our time has heroes too. Some names are familiar to us like Martin Luther King, Jr, who – like Zechariah – was silenced through murder, and John Lewis who survived attacks and refused to be silent. In the midst of a pandemic, we have heroes like Dr. Anthony Fouci who speak the truth while leaders lie and distort and deceive. In the midst of state-sponsored police violence, we have heroes like Bryan Stevenson and Black Lives Matter who speak justice while leaders use “law and order” rhetoric to maintain the status quo. In the midst of environmental destruction, we have heroes like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, protecting the water. In the midst of economic greed, we have heroes like Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir dancing on Wall Street. In the midst of political corruption, we have heroes like George Blakemore in City Hall, daily speaking truth to power.

Our nation is going to hell. But God is sending the prophets. God is calling the church to stand up, speak up and get in good trouble. Maybe yet, God will have mercy and deliver us from evil. If we will only listen.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the spirit is saying to the churches.

God’s Solidarity With Workers

In 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama, delivered a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she made the memorable statement: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Immediately, there were people who challenged her statement about slave labor, and fact-checkers rushed to get to the truth. It turned out to be true. The White House Historical Association released a statement affirming that slave labor was indeed involved in every aspect of the construction of the Executive Mansion, beginning in 1792.

Using slave labor to build an executive mansion is not a new thing. As you can see from the reading from the prophet, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:14-17), God condemned Judah’s King Jehoiakim for using forced labor to build his palace. Jeremiah added that refusing to pay his “neighbors” for their work was the equivalent of literally building injustice into the walls. Jeremiah makes it clear how God feels about withholding wages from those who do the work.

But lest we think that this issue of slave labor and God’s condemnation and things of the Biblical past or early American history, we need to consider that our nation is still using forced labor to build wealth.

But you may object and say, “But we don’t have slaves anymore! We abolished slavery and involuntary servitude with the 13th Amendment.” While it is true that the 13th Amendment ended slavery officially in 1865, there is a significant exception that was written into the amendment. Let me read it for you, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

As director Ana DuVernay has shown in her documentary, “13th”, this exception was immediately utilized after the amendment was ratified. In 1866, Southern states passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to criminalize freed slaves. These laws made everything from talking loudly in the company of white women to walking besides railroad tracks to not having a job a crime, and acts that were formerly misdemeanors were turned into felonies with prison sentences. According to historian Khalil Muhammed, the “Black Codes” resulted in an explosion of the prison population. In Alabama, for instance, the prison population shifted almost overnight from 99% white convicts to 85% black convicts. And because of the 13th Amendment exception, convicted freed slaves could be forced to work through “convict leasing.” Convicted freed slaves were leased back to their former owners to work the plantation fields—without pay.

We no longer have “Black Codes,” but convict leasing and convict labor is still big business. Every state except Alaska has “prison industries” or a convict leasing program. Convicted prisoners do everything from building church furniture in Iowa to making Victoria’s Secret underwear in South Carolina to putting eggs in cartons in Arizona to making Honda car parts in Ohio. The average wage nationally for convicts is $.87 an hour. But four states–Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas—pay convicts nothing. No wonder author Douglas Blackmon has called convict leasing “Slavery By Another Name.”

Convict leasing is just one way that workers are denied wages. Undocumented workers are often exploited with low pay and wage theft. Workers are routinely misclassified as “contract workers” so that employers don’t have to pay benefits. And during the COVID pandemic, essential workers have had to strike for hazard pay and proper protection, and unemployed workers have watched their income evaporate especially since the federal unemployment extension expired (and has failed to be renewed). In some states, unemployment benefits are less than minimum wage.

Low-wage workers are suffering during the pandemic, but the richest people in America have gotten richer—amassing an additional $685 billion since the middle of March.

This Labor Day is literally a matter of life and death. In 1931, union activist Florence Reece wrote a song, “Which side are you on?” God has chosen a side. And we must too. God’s law is clear, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) James wrote to wealthy employers, “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4-5) God doesn’t tolerate exploitation.

God always stands on the side of fullness of life. God stands with workers. And so must we. Just as God could not bless King Jehoiakim because of his exploitation of workers, God will not bless the nation that is built upon and maintained through worker exploitation and oppression. However, as Jeremiah reminded Jehoiakim that God blessed his father, King Josiah, because he gave justice to the poor and needy, there is hope that God will bless the nation that ensures that all workers the dignity and justice and the living wages they deserve, because workers should always be given what they need (See Matthew 10:10)

So, on this Labor Day as people of God, do something to stand on the side of worker rights and worker protection. Here are some suggestions:

Participate in Labor Day Moral Monday sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign online at 2:30 pm with Rev. Dr. William Barber.

Pray for Essential Workers – especially Chicago teachers and staff as they prepare for the first day of online school. Also remember child care workers, postal workers, farm workers, undocumented workers, and first responders.

Watch a documentary on worker justice and the origins of Labor Day. Here is one on the Haymarket Affair.