The Last Straw

John the Baptist was aElizabeth_jennings_01 peaceful man, living a hermit’s life of prayer in the desert and eating a simple diet of locusts (they are kosher and quite tasty) and wild honey—until God called him to warn people to repent. The end of the age was at hand. Messiah was coming. John’s ministry involved him in baptizing, or mikvah: immersing a person’s body in water as a form of ritual cleansing—in this case, the cleansing of repentance and preparation for the coming rule and reign of God. People flocked to John by the thousands, but it seemed he wasn’t interested in building his own following. He was adamant that he was no messiah himself, just sent to pave the way and ready the children of Israel for the Promised One. Yet still everyone held their breath, wondering what this could mean? Could this really be the end? Was Messiah, Son of David, really coming? And when he came, would he restore the kingdom to Israel?

Then one day, Herod Antipas—a sort of petty king whom Rome suffered to rule over part of Palestine—brought home a new wife.  The Herodian dynasty had never been short of scandal. His father Herod the Great had had several wives and had not been shy about eliminating one, or even his own children, if they stood in his way or threatened the security of his throne. Antipas had a half-brother Philip, who ruled a neighboring kingdom, and it was there that Herod fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias, who was also his niece (another family habit). The two agreed to marry once Herod could divorce his wife. Since they could not force Philip to divorce his, Herod just took her. Now he was living openly with the wife of another man, his brother’s woman. That was too much to bear. John found the word of God burning inside him day after day, until one day he spoke out and told Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to have her.”

For all Herod’s failings—and they were many—he was not a completely hardened man. True, he was the spoiled son of a ruthless tyrant, and a bit of a tyrant in his own right. Yet somehow, there was still some spark of the fear of God left in him. He knew John was right, and perhaps in some way he regretted marrying this woman. Nevertheless, while Herod feared the judgment of God, he also feared what other people thought, especially his wife Herodias, who nursed a grudge against John. This “man of God” made her feel like a prostitute, and she didn’t like it. She was queen, after all. This dusty little prophet needed to learn his place. He would pay for his insult.

Comedian Charlie Chaplin once told in an interview about a role he had always wanted to play. It was the story of a man, a meek, milquetoast type character, who arrives at a posh dinner party, where everything starts to go wrong for him. The butler mispronounces his name. At dinner a guest drops butter on his coat, and a servant spills soup down his neck. Somehow he manages to bear each and every indignity with a patient smile, assuring his hosts that “it’s quite all right,” until the final humiliation is served. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Suddenly, this normally mild-mannered man goes berserk. He runs amok, smashing china and frightening the guests, and at last sets fire to the house.

Have you ever experienced a “last straw” moment? No, not in the sense of resorting to violence and mayhem, but in the spiritual sense of looking at the world around you—the sin, the suffering, the injustices? There comes a moment when patient endurance is not enough. You find you must take action, you must speak out, you must say something, do something. It is the last straw, and what you experience is a kind of holy rage.

Throughout Scripture we see various men and women of God, some leaders, others just ordinary people, experiencing just such a moment that forever changes the direction of their lives: Elijah, outraged by the power and influence of the prophets of Baal and Asherah in Israel, summons them to a showdown at Mount Carmel. Ezra, a priest and teacher of the law, learning of the unfaithfulness of his fellow priests and Levites in marrying foreign women, is appalled, publicly tears his clothes, and repents on behalf of the nation, an act which leads others to do the same. Esther, learns of a diabolical plot against her people and risks her life to plead with the king.

For John the Baptist this moment came when he saw the monarchy sink to a new low, making the little kingdom a laughing stock—and just at the time when the nation was supposed to be preparing their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. What a mess! Day after day, God’s word simmered inside him, until finally he spoke out. He spoke truth to power—which is always a risky business but no less a necessary one if we really claim to love God and our neighbor. Notice he did not insult or abuse Herod. He did not grab an assault weapon, or strap a bomb to himself. He did not even call the king a “sinner.” He just humbly and respectfully but firmly told the truth: “It is not lawful for you to have her”—that is, it is not lawful under Jewish law for you to have your brother’s wife, while your brother is still living. For goodness’ sake, there were basic laws of decency practiced even among Gentiles!

What makes you angry? Have you ever experienced a holy rage? I don’t mean the petty peeves we encounter daily, like people who drive 25 mph in the left lane or someone who squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube. I mean, what really grieves your spirit? What makes your heart burn?  Maybe it’s when you hear of a child who has been abused or neglected or abandoned, or you see a homeless person shivering on the sidewalk with passersby stepping over him as though he were a puddle, or something worse. Maybe you’re grieved by the drugs and violence of our inner cities where hope and opportunity are strange and foreign sounding words, or by the unbridled greed of corporate power working hand in hand with government to steal from the poor and give to the rich. Maybe it’s when you hear of a woman who aborted her child because she did not see any other way out.

Sometimes we ask ourselves, why isn’t anyone doing anything? And all we hear is an echo. When the only voice you hear is your own, guess what? Tag, you’re it! Sometimes it takes a painful event to bring an issue home to us, to put a face on injustice or wrong, one that could even bring us face to face with a major crisis in our world, a crisis so daunting that we wonder, what can one person do?

Many years ago, a friend of mine named Zack was just out of school and, like most young people, experiencing financial problems. His employer could not afford to pay him a fulltime salary, so he had to work another part-time job waxing floors. In December of that year, his part of the Midwest was hit by a massive storm. The city where he lived was flooded when a levee gave way and the river began pouring into the streets. Then the temperature suddenly plummeted and all that water froze. His car was trapped in a block of ice, and it took him days, using a pickaxe, to get it free. But it was too late. The water had damaged the engine, and he had to sell the car for scrap. Unable to buy another, he resolved to take the bus.

Zack had grown up in a privileged, upper middleclass neighborhood. It was probably the first time he had ever had to take a bus to work, or anywhere for that matter. As he looked at the faces of his fellow passengers that morning, his heart began to break. He saw a variety of expressions: some careworn with poverty, others broken by it; some looked angry or determined, others lonely and forgotten due to age or mental illness.

That Sunday, he took a bus to church and, arriving just in time for the service, sat in the front pew. During the worship, he felt his chest heaving. He began to sob hot, angry, projectile tears. The pastor, seeing this and knowing my friend’s economic situation, assumed he was only weeping over his lost car. Annoyed, the pastor said, “Some of you people need to grow up!”

“He thought I was crying about my car,” Zack chuckled when he told me. “I wasn’t. I was weeping over the poverty I had seen that morning. But the pastor was right about ‘growing up.’” It was the first time my friend had ever felt such anger and grief over the poverty around him. He found he hated poverty. He detested what it did to people: the human toll, on health, ignorance, the terrible choices people were forced to make, the way they were pushed around by those above them on the economic ladder. He was angry enough that day to try to do something. ”Lord,” he prayed, “I’m not sure what one person can do, but I’m willing to try, even if I fail or the impact is very small.”

Over the next few months he started a food pantry in his own basement. He also boldly asked the session of his church for a certain amount of their budget to be set aside each month to help the poor with rent, utilities, and medicine. They must have seen his passion because they gladly agreed. As the pantry quickly grew, he added both a clothing and job banks, trying to match the unemployed with local opportunities. “Probably most of the people’s problems were way bigger than my resources could handle,” he told me. “Yet I found I could still love them. Often we avoid or push people away because we don’t know how to help them. Well, I found I didn’t have to fix all their problems. All I had to do was listen. Listen and love. That was a start. Very simple, but it’s transformed me in ways I never would have imagined.” Funny how one little bus ride changed the course of his life.

Today that pantry has grown to be the largest in the city where he lives and it is staffed with scores of volunteers. Each month they give away literally tons of food. My friend is an advocate for the poor in his community. He is just an average guy, no special degree, but people come from miles around because they have heard he cares. It’s still just a drop in the bucket of the poverty problem in this country, but it is a start.

At other times, a holy rage has caused an individual to confront one of the major injustices in our society. In July 1854 in New York City, a young 24-year-old schoolteacher boarded a horse-drawn streetcar to get to work. It was Sunday, and she was late for her part-time job as a church organist. She boarded a car of the Third Avenue Railroad Company and was promptly asked to step off.  Most public transportation in those days was run by private companies, and they could refuse any passenger they wished. She was told by the conductor that the car was full, and she would have to get off. When she pointed out that that was not the case—there were still plenty of seats—she was then informed that the other passengers were “bothered” by her presence. Still she refused to move. At that point, she was physically manhandled, her bonnet pulled down, her clothing torn and soiled, but still she stood her ground, calmly but resolutely, until at the next stop police were called, and she was forcibly removed from the car.

You see, Lizzie Jennings was an African-American woman, and while this was probably not the first time she had encountered such prejudice, on this particular day, she had had enough. It was her last straw. She could not let it go. A movement was formed among leaders in the black community, a lawsuit was filed, and the following year a verdict was given. She was awarded damages, the judge saying that black people “had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”

It is amazing the trouble God will get us into—oh if we will only let him! This woman was not a terrorist. She was not the member of some subversive organization. She was a schoolteacher and a church organist. She was a Christian, like you and I, and one day she had simply had enough. She realized that to continue to bow to injustice and bullying was neither righteous nor loving, and that if no one else was going to do anything, she would. She was the Rosa Parks of her day.

Yet doesn’t Scripture tell us to “obey the authorities and every form of government?” Yes and no. When government fulfills its God-ordained role to maintain order, administer justice, reward the good and punish the wicked, then yes, we are to be model citizens. But when government arrogates to itself powers that belong to God alone, telling us what we are allowed to think or say, or worship; when instead of being guardians of justice, government itself becomes unjust, when the good are punished and the wicked rewarded; then we are called upon to obey God, not man. We are called on, not only to pray something, but to say something, to speak up, even to resist— peacefully, lovingly, but firmly and courageously. So the context determines which track we are to take. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

There is a cost to speaking out, of course; there is a price tag to taking action. Our holy rage brings us up against Satan’s kingdom. Whenever you push against the enemy’s kingdom, he pushes back. So we need to be both shrewd and prayerful. But then, there is a cost to everything we do, isn’t there? Whether we do something or nothing, there is a cost. Sometimes the cost of doing nothing is far greater than doing something, even if that something leads us to make the ultimate sacrifice. Over the centuries, yes, every single day, some believers are called upon to lay down their lives for the gospel, for truth, for justice, for what is right and decent.

When it came to speaking the truth, Kaj Munk was no ordinary man. He lived in Denmark in the first half of the twentieth century, and he believed that faith must find its expression in action. As a pastor, Munk also took his ordination vows seriously and, like his Master, tried to keep the wolves from entering the sheep pen. The wolves he fought so tenaciously from his pulpit and with his pen, were much the same as in John’s day or ours: fear, compromise, lies, expediency, racism, religiosity, materialism, greed. He spoke out against the exploitation of workers, against poverty and hunger, prejudice, the persecution of Jews, totalitarianism, the corruption of the state church, as well as the cruelty and injustice of the Nazis and their Danish henchmen.

In 1940 when the Nazis occupied his beloved country, Kaj Munk spoke truth to power and did it so eloquently and fearlessly that he seemed like another John the Baptist. “The goodness of God,” he said, “as we see it in Jesus is meek and long-suffering, but never compromises with evil.” So when the Nazis threatened to deport Danish Jews, he said to his fellow Danes, “To be silent in the face of sin is to speak the language of the devil.”

Compromise was certainly not in this man’s vocabulary. Even as they hung on his every word and gulped down his courage like interned prisoners ravenous for bread, his parishoners, friends, neighbors, and fellow Danes, living under a cruel occupation, knew Kaj Munk was not long for this world. Years ago I happened to speak to a Danish woman who had grown up there during the war. She said that Munk was so bold, so outspoken, everyone held their breath knowing he would be killed by the Gestapo, probably sooner than later.

Munk had experienced his last straw on a trip to neighboring Norway. The Germans had just invaded that country, too, and on the following Sunday he attended church there, expecting to hear an inspiring message of hope and courage. But the Norwegian preacher, perhaps out of fear, made no reference to these events. Nothing. Upon returning to Denmark, Munk wrote an article to a pastoral magazine, saying,

“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope, and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say—courage. No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature…we lack a holy rage—the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity… (“The Task of the Pastor Today,” 1941)

What is this holy rage? It is, as another preacher put it so eloquently,

“The ability to feel anger when justice lies prostrate on the streets…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world… against the ravaging of God’s earth…when little children must die of hunger and the tables of the rich are sagging with food…at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries… against complacency. To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.” (Allan Boesak)

I know what you are thinking. Recklessness? Rage?  Anger? Since when have these been considered cardinal Christian virtues? Yet I think we know what they are really talking about, do we not? Rage here is used as a figure of speech. They are talking not about physyical violence but righteous indignation, not foolhardiness but holy boldness. No not wrath, hatred and bloodshed, not anger out of control, but a call to action; that we would get angry enough to get up off the pew and do something, to be reckless—not reckless folly in the eyes of God, though certainly in the eyes of the world.

Did not our Lord’s heart burn when he saw the sick and suffering?  Did he not pour forth righteous indignation when he witnessed the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees? Did he not take a courageous stand when he saw the greedy corruption of the temple system? Did not his love and obedience lead him to the “recklessness” of the Cross? The world calls that “foolishness” and a “waste.” For the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world. As Paul states “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God stronger than human strength.”

It is a funny thing about this kind of reckless courage. Just like fear, it can be contagious. Munk was murdered, shot through the head by the Gestapo, his body dumped in a frozen ditch by the side of the road—a warning for those who would dare to stand up and speak truth to the forces of the Third Reich, which issued a further warning about staging any big funeral or mass demonstrations for Munk. The Danish Church, too, issued a formal warning to its members not to further antagonize the Nazis. Nevertheless, a few days later, four thousand Danes showed up to bury Kaj Munk. No violence, no screaming or shaking of fists, just four thousand Danes—men, women and children—standing in the bitter cold, with hats off, to pay tribute to their fallen brother, as if to warn the Nazis in return: “For every one of us you cut down, four thousand will spring up.” Instead of chilling the passions of national resistance, Munk’s death had the opposite effect, sparking outrage within the church and without. His laying down his life for the truth gave his fellow countrymen even more courage to carry on his work.

His courage in writing and speaking so boldly while he was alive helped to mobilize this little country. In 1943 within a matter of weeks, over 8,000 Danish Jews—often just a few at a time, in everything from cargo ships to kayaks—were spirited across the sea to safety in Sweden. Through this action 95 percent of Danish Jewry was saved from deportation to the concentration camps, and of that 5% who were sent to the camps, because of the persistent action and relentless pressure placed upon German officials by Danish leaders, 99% survived to return home after the war. It is one of the most amazing and courageous, corporate humanitarian acts in human history—ordinary Danes who felt, when push came to shove, that they must obey God rather than man.

Have you ever experienced a last straw? Have you ever felt this holy rage? If not, I hope that you will, and when you do, may the Lord give you wisdom. May he guide your hands and feet to make waves, and anoint your mind and lips to raise a gale on the self-satisfied seas of injustice.

And remember, as Pastor Munk once preached, “the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish…but never the chameleon.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Last Straw

  1. Kyle Petrowski

    I think the cost is not so much the “cost to speaking out” against the evil as it is the cost of the evil itself which gives rise to the question of who will be the one to pay this cost and who, if anyone, will be the one to reap the “benefit”?:
    -The strategy of the evildoer is to hoist this cost on the target. He is obviously motivated by selfishness.
    -If the target is also motivated by selfishness so that he is afraid for himself, then he has ensured that the evildoer can win via intimidation and, in allowing the evildoer to win, provided the motivation for continued evil.
    -But if the target is not concerned for himself so that he is not afraid for himself, then he can bear the blows of the evildoer while simply refusing to cooperate, thus, both absorbing the cost of the evil and simultaneously denying the spoils which feed the evildoer’s motivation. Then the evildoer cannot win because the worst he can do to his target is kill and, thus, deny himself the benefit of continuing to do evil.

    So, as demonstrated by Christ, self-sacrifice is an insuperable strategy and, with respect to our government, we can follow the advice of the most brilliant lawyer of our age, Mohandas K Gandhi (aka “Mahatma” Gandhi), who early in his practice came to the amazing insight that, at least in the western tradition of law, no one is compelled to yield to any governmental decree so long as he is willing to suffer the punishment so prescribed. So a truly selfless individual does not need to worry about being restricted by the laws of governments and earthly powers because he cannot break the law so long as he’s following the law of the Cross.

    So I don’t think it’s necessary for us to reach the last straw or ask if “government arrogate[ed] to itself powers that belong to God alone” in order to remain wholly obedient to our own consciences at all times because even if we are mistaken in our refusals to cooperate with authorities we are still obedient if we accept whatever punishments they deem just to inflict upon us. To “Caesar” belongs, not the right to control, but rather the right to punish and that much we can always give.

    Then perhaps, if we expect to bear the consequences of evil ourselves regardless of whose fault it is, we will be less likely to lazily point the finger and more likely to act now before these costs escalate.

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