Principle First, Money Afterwards
"Principle First, Money Afterwards"
A sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo
30 June 2013
[TEXTS: Psalm 5, 1 Kings 21:1–20a]
This week’s Old Testament reading deals with the letters of injustice and secrecy, resulting in victimization of the innocent. I’d like to share with you some observations about victimization, not only in biblical times, but also in our own nation’s history.
I recently came across a letter written in the year 1850, by a free African-American in Boston. The author was Henry Weeden, a tailor by trade, and he received a coat to repair that was owned by the United States Marshal for Massachusetts. The Marshal was authorized under the infamous Fugitive Slave Act to round up any black – fugitive or free – for return to servitude in the South, and it seems the Marshal was actively engaged in doing so.
Here is what Mr. Weeden wrote to the Marshal:
“Your Coat came to me this morning for repairs. I take this method of returning it without complying with Your request. With me Principle first. Money afterwards.
“Though a poor man I crave the patronage of no Being that would volunteer his services to arrest a Fugitive Slave or that would hang 100 N[egroe]s for 25 cents each.”
Let us take a moment to reflect on the heart and faith of Henry Weeden—how opposed his open letter of principle is to Jezebel’s secret and heartless letter. How opposed his courageous letter was to the letters of apprehension that the Marshal probably carried from Southern plantation owners with descriptions of black people they barely knew. Let us participate in the resurrected life by reckoning how these stories of Naboth the vineyard owner and Henry Weeden the tailor are calling us to act.
We Presbyterians try to read the Old Testament historically and critically.
We try to understand the context of the Bible’s stories. The old unified Kingdom of David of 3000 years ago lasted two generations and split into two after Solomon’s death into a northern Israel with a capital in Samaria, and southern Judah with a capital in Jerusalem.
The southern kingdom traced its kingship through direct descendants from David for close to 500 years, the longest such single family line of kings known to history. The northern kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, underwent a series of usurpations of monarchy and finally was annihilated as a society by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.
135 years later, the Jerusalemites in the southern kingdom were finally defeated and carried off into exile in Babylon. In exile, scholars struggled to understand what had happened for God to have allowed this—for God to have left David’s temple and to have seemed to abrogate the statement to David in their scriptures that he and his line would have an eternal kingdom (2 Sa 7: 12-16).
An Historian in the exile would highlight that some of the Southern, Judahite kings sinned in the same way as their northern counterparts. Many of the southern kings had imitated the northern kings’ idolatries, their marrying of foreign wives, and their instituting rank injustices against citizens of faith who had inherited land that God had given them.
Today’s story of Ahab dispossessing Naboth of his inheritance, then, is the signal injustice of the Northern kingdom in the exiled Historian’s view. Its injustice mixes covetousness, false witness, conspiracy, and murder into a transgression so revolting that Elijah comes to inform Ahab and Jezebel that they will suffer a perversion of Jezebel’s Phoenician religion that held that dogs were healers. Instead, Elijah warned, the royal couple and their children will suffer the punishment of being attacked by dogs.
Victimization like Naboth suffers marks the history of humanity from the first family of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Victimization is the result, in human terms, of the willful, wicked action of humanity. God is absolved of responsibility in these stories of victimization: Ahab of Naboth, David of Uriah the Hittite, Cain of Abel, and various elites of the poor and the prophets.
Victimization is the signal heartlessness of humanity. Victimization is humankind’s Biblical legacy. God has no part in any of it except when God comes to take on the role of victim, and walks beside and vindicates the victim.
Today’s story of Ahab and Jezebel’s victimization of Naboth by taking his vineyard involves an even more monstrous matrix of sin than David’s plotting against Uriah the Hittite so that he can possess Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Ahab’s victimization of Naboth is something as monstrous as Cain’s cold-blooded dispatch of his brother Abel.
Naboth is known as a Jezreelite. Jezreel, a word related to Israel, is a town known for its vineyards. In January 2010 I traveled by bus through Jezreel and found that it continues to be a place of fertile agriculture, kibbutzim, and lush vineyards.It smells of dairy and sweet flowers,
it seems the land of milk and honey. Naboth understands that his vineyard is a sign of God’s blessing (Dt 26: 5-9).
Vineyards through the Old Testament from the time of Noah are a sign of God’s covenant blessing, and in Gospel parables, the vineyard is repeatedly the setting for Jesus to demonstrate how God interacts with humanity.
We are told in the text that Naboth is “living by faith” surrounded by the scoundrels and the courtiers of Ahab’s summer home. We may read Psalm 5 from today’s first scripture reading as Naboth’s prayer as he lives by faith, on the vineyard in the land given to his ancestors:
8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
9 For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.
11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
so that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover them with favor as with a shield.
Both Naboth and Henry Weeden lived by faith. Their hearts were conditioned by what ought to be in God’s world rather than what is in human society. Weeden’s faith like Naboth’s involves courageously refusing the commercial offers of government agents and trusting the Lord for life and provision. Naboth refuses a commercial offer from Ahab while Weeden refuses business from the U.S. Marshal. We know nothing of Weeden’s fate, but Naboth became a victim of secret, forged letters accusing him of treason and blasphemy, which led to the confiscation of his vineyard and thereafter to his execution. Naboth becomes victimized by a travesty of due process.
It is victimization of people like Naboth that moves through the historical annals of the Old Testament, augmented by the stories of the Prophets calling the powerful to account for their collective victimization of the poor by false weights (Ho 12:8; Deut 25: 13-14; Mic 6:11),
by trading the lives of the poor for silver (Amos 2:6) and by taking every last bit of grain from the threshing floor and fields so that the poor could not glean (Amos 8:6).
Yet the Bible is a story of the Living God who oversees justice for even the “least of these” (Mt.25:40) who adopt into their hearts and virtues the example of Jesus Christ--and that’s where the Gospel comes in as we struggle with these stories, not only because in the Gospel do we learn the story of the ultimate victim; we also learn in the Gospel that God uses victimization and weakness to defeat the ultimate power of the victimizers.
The oppressor’s power has always been manifested by the “shock and awe” of violence,
or the threat of it. Jesus’ heart, courage, faith and forgiveness, on the other hand,
are victorious over manifold victimization. Jesus’ victimization results in what we call the victory of the Cross.
Do we believe in the power of victims – do we believe in the victory of Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness of his victimizers from the cross? One way victimization might lead to resurrection in our hearts and lives today is if we adopt into our virtues Henry Weeden’s “principle first, money afterwards.” Weeden’s is a letter of faith that confronts victimizers.
The stories of Naboth and Uriah and others are memorialized in the eternal judgment and safekeeping of a God who favors and vindicates the victims of injustice,
indeed of a God who comes to share in the injustice as a victim, and who triumphs over that victimizer’s injustice through meekness and forgiveness. Thus justice leaves no one above the law and no one beneath its protection. Thanks be to God.
The United States of America has an ethic that no one is above the law, and in fact our Constitution specifically provides for “equal protection of the laws.” Yet high government officials have recently proclaimed that equal application of the laws is not currently feasible for banks and their traders which are “too big to fail or too big to jail.” Moreover, the Executive Branch is now claiming the power to imprison American citizens on American soil in military camps without due process and for a prolonged duration, notwithstanding their constitutionally guaranteed presumption of innocence and right to a trial. And as we found out this week, the Supreme Court decided that minorities in 14 historically discriminatory states will almost certainly suffer reduced access to vote compared with majority groups. Withdrawal of due process and unequal application of law undermines public trust, which should be our children’s common inheritance.
Now, we understand from history that such endemic injustice may escalate into revolt and even expiatory bloodletting, creating more victims. In my view, it’s not that God is violent.
Instead, I believe that God has built into humanity’s heart the cosmic foundation and expectation of justice, so that when a persecuting class denies justice to a victimized minority for long enough, even the majority revolts. The social bond and trust is destroyed-- and primitive, irrational, and cruel forces may too often be unleashed.
What conclusions can we make? Henry Weeden’s message of Principle First, Money Afterwards serves us in these dark times as we are increasingly confronted with autocratic financial and corporate power. When corporations or government agencies send us threatening letters or when the unchecked Executive police power dictates in the name of national security but in service to the narrow interests of fear, finance, and amassed property, we might take stock of the principles involved, as did Henry Weeden.
What are these stories calling our hearts to? Are we called by our faith to dispossess property and rights even if we can get away with it?-- to comply with National Security Letters to inform on our neighbors’ view of God and government--to act on fear and greed--or to act on principle and virtue?
It is, I submit, clear from history that Justice requires bold and principled responses that counters secretive and unjust demands. Ethical action will prevail over money and power if God is the God of Providence, to which our Reformed tradition testifies. We have 500 years of Reformers telling us that God’s providence supersedes the mechanics of money.
The violent and dispossessing powers of injustice, conspiracy, and secret letters are on the wrong side of history. It is not possible that they will thrive in the long term. Look to the example of Jesus who followed principle, meekness, and even the call of victimhood into the Lordship we confess.
Let us be resolute when confronted with autocratic power.
Let us be resolute when we are tempted to ignore or comply with conspiracy.
Let us be virtuous and principled in our speech and our letters and commerce.
For we take with us from this life into the next only our compassion and virtue.
May the Lord of resurrecting life triumph over dead injustice.
May the Lord of principle vindicate the victims of secrecy and renewed Jim Crow.
May the Lord come and triumph quickly in our hearts and in our world.
Naboth, Henry Weeden, and our Lord Jesus Christ would have it so.