Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“Pride’s Feast”

Psalm 81; Luke 14:1, 7-14[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve seen over and over again that they have a lot to say about justice and injustice. In fact, a whole group of Psalms like our text for today is devoted to warning what will happen if people fail to practice God’s justice. And time and time again, the Bible identifies the central cause for failing to practice God’s justice as pride. It is described in many ways—refusing to listen, having a “stubborn heart,” or a “stiff neck”, “stopping” the ears. But it boils down to the same thing—bald-faced, arrogant, insolent pride.[2]

I think one of the best illustrations of stubborn pride in the face of injustice can be found in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. It’s a story about two FBI agents investigating the deaths of three young civil rights workers in 1964. Film critic Roger Ebert summarizes the theme of the movie: “In a time so recent that its cars are still on the road …, large parts of America were a police state in which the crime was to be black.”[3] The most offensive parts of the film are the depictions of the racist thugs who were terrorizing the black community. And perhaps the worst part is where the film portrays average people—who aren’t directly involved in the violence—perpetuating vicious racist slurs against the black community.

That kind of unmitigated, hateful, insolent, stubborn arrogance in the face of blatant injustice toward human life reminds me of the Nazis sending the Jewish people to their deaths in the name of national security. Mr. Ebert sums up the film well by saying, “No other movie I’ve seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell of racism.” It’s the look, the feel, the very smell of brutal, vicious, shameless hatred. Pure, savage, unbounded malice.

Of course, the really disturbing aspect of this film is that it is based on actual events. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested for speeding by the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi—whose county seat is ironically named Philadelphia. They were detained, they were denied a phone call, and then they were released about 10:30 pm. They were never seen alive again. The Sheriff actually claimed it was a publicity stunt, and no less than the governor of Mississippi suggested that the three might be in Cuba![4]

And during the investigation some 31 black churches were burned down by the self-styled “White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”[5] They claimed they were defending Anglo Christian Democracy—one of their ringleaders was actually a Baptist preacher.[6] But what they really were was a group of brutal terrorists. All they knew how to do was to vent their own self-hatred on everyone around them.

But their mistake was that they didn’t pay very close attention to the “Christian” teachings that they professed to be defending. Statements like, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Or, “The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:17). Or, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

And those who fail to practice God’s justice will reap the same consequences they did. William Shakespeare said it well: “He that is proud eats up himself.”[7] That’s pride’s feast—you devour everything around you and yourself at the same time.[8]

One of the worst mistakes we could make is to think, “How could those people have been so blind?” The fact is that we still have many forms of injustice in our communities today! Just ask the young people what they face every day at school. And make no mistake about it: confronted with the right “threat” we all have the capacity for the same shameless, arrogant hatred as the people of Philadelphia, Mississippi forty years ago. The target of hatred may have shifted, but the capacity for hatred is still there.

The irony is that Jesus’ words of warning offer hope to us all—the just and the unjust alike. The fact of the matter is that the only hope for those who exalt themselves is to be humbled. Only then can they see past their fears and their hatred and receive the grace and mercy of God. Only then can they find true repentance—a thoroughgoing change of heart. Only then can both the violent and the victims break out of the “vicious circles of death” that continually spin downward in a hopeless spiral of exploitation, violence, hatred, and destruction.[9]

We cannot escape God’s truth: Justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. What God desires from us is to heed his call for justice: justice that consists of compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable—the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the convict and the mentally ill, the “at-risk” and the neglected, the oppressed and the abused.

Will we listen, or will we go on indulging in pride’s feast?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/2/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 194-197, for a brief overview of the theological discussion of sin as pride; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II:49-51.

[3] Roger Ebert, Review of “Mississippi Burning,” Chicago Sun-Times December 9, 1988; accessed at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID =/19881209/REVIEWS/812090301/1023.

[4] “If You Try and Don’t Succeed,” Time (August 16, 1963); accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,894564,00.html. This was Paul B. Johnson, Jr., who tried to physically block federal Marshalls from escorting James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

[5] Wayne King, “Mississippi Burning (1988): Fact vs. Fiction in Mississippi,” New York Times December 4, 1988.

[6] Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of his role in the murders in 2005 due to the efforts of Jerry Mitchell, a reporter at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. See Joe Treen, “Southern Man: Klan-Busting Journalist Jerry Mitchell,” Mother Jones (January 24, 2007); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/news/update/2007/01/ jerry_mitchell.html.

[7] William Shakespeare, “Troilus and Cressida,” Act 2, Scene 3, Lines 154-7.

[8] See Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:59-62; he describes the process as one of “disintegration.”

[9] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293, 301-303, 329-335.

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