Without constitutional power to do so, I am declaring a national emergency.
It is not about “The Wall”; it is about a governing system so broken that underpaid government employees are facing eviction, collection agencies, family discord, mental health issues and anxious unknowing. They are paying the price – not the “essential personnel,” which I guess includes Congress, the military and the judicial and executive branches of government – for this irresponsible government shutdown. These sidelined workers are forced to choose what is most urgent to pay: utilities, mortgage or rent, school fees, medicines, child care, ad nauseum. That, in my judgment, is a national emergency, not to mention a national disgrace, as we enter the third week of this travesty.
Another part of the real national emergency is the exhaustion most Americans feel as we try to exegete varied sources of information, including the news cycles, threatening presidential rants and political interlocutors. This exhaustion is intellectual, emotional and spiritual. We try to put it into historical perspective, seeking not to conclude that it is “the worst of times,” yet we wonder. The connectivity we all participate in, however, makes it all more ubiquitous and unrelenting. As we become even more weary with the day-to-day heated rhetoric and lack of principled and nuanced governing, we are tempted to throw up our hands in disgust and abdicate our role as “we the people.”
“God may also wonder why we do not listen better to the prophets among us.”
In a Jan. 13 opinion piece in New York Times, two professors of government warn that “autocrats love emergencies.” Corrupt leaders, they suggest, fabricate a crisis “in order to justify an abuse of power.” That way they can avoid the labor intensive work of negotiation and concession that the democratic process requires. The constitutional balance is intended to foster each aspect of our government having its own domain of power and working collaboratively with the others. When the president declares a national emergency, he effectively bypasses the legislative and judicial branches. In their article, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt contend that our president may be joining the company of Vargas of Brazil, Hitler of Germany, Marcos of the Philippines and Putin of Russian, who grabbed power for self-preservation rather than national threat.
One of the lectionary’s scripture lessons for this coming Sunday is Isaiah 62:1-5. The prophets, those who keep watch on behalf of the well-being of others, cannot be silent when there is a threat to their people. Not only must they speak forthrightly of the dangers at hand, but they must give God no rest until the fulfillment of divine promises. Of course, those called to the prophetic vocation in this text are speaking for Zion’s sake, for the sake of beloved Jerusalem.
People of good will are their heirs today, and we must be no less outspoken in our warning and our petition to God. As the prophet writes, “You who invoked the LORD’S name, take no rest, give God no rest, until the Holy One makes Jerusalem a theme of endless praise on the earth” (Isaiah 62:6b).
“These insights summon dissent, resistance and actions borne of good conscience.”
I am not making any easy equation of the state of things in America with those in
Jerusalem as it recovered after destruction and prepared for many returning from exile; rather, I am suggesting that our time requires the same kind of perseverance in calling humanity and the divine to justice. Indeed, I imagine that the Author of Life wonders why we do not turn more frequently toward divine spiritual resources and why we fall silent. Refusing to “take rest” or “give God rest” expresses the energetic will to join God in bringing justice in the midst of desolation.
God may also wonder why we do not listen better to the prophets among us. There are many who challenge the racial disparities, economic divide, gender injustice and flawed immigration policies. In the name of all that is just, they call for mercy rather than judgment. They do not suggest that furloughed workers have bake sales, walk dogs and take on child care (all honorable, but with slim economic benefit) to supply the funds their families need. They call powers and principalities to repent and do their jobs.
Baptists still produce prophets. With fierce urgency they call us to recognize what is really going on around us. I mention only a few: prophetic preachers like Marvin McMickle and Amy Butler; prophetic writers like Wendell Griffen, Susan Shaw and Mark Wingfield; prophetic teachers like Emilie Townes and David Gushee; prophetic leaders like Kevin Cosby and Amanda Tyler; prophetic publishers like the Christian Citizen and Baptist News Global. These prophets – and articulators of an authentic Baptist witness to the Gospel – offer perceptive insights into the shifting landscape of American culture. In turn, these insights summon dissent, resistance and actions borne of good conscience.
I pray that the real national emergency will find resolution, and soon. Too many are suffering, and we must not fall silent. Our efforts can make a difference. As our Jewish colleagues put it, God calls us to help mend the world.