This is why God does not open His hand; because we have closed up our hearts to our brothers and sisters. This is why the fields are arid; because love has dried up.
St Basil, In Time of Famine and Drought (1)
It is not hard to find finger-pointing from both sides of the political fence as to why the American economy is a shell of its former prosperous self. Even with a lower than expected unemployment rate, people’s salaries don’t stretch as far as they used too. Entire industries have been greatly reduced and will not quickly be resurrected, if at all. As said in one movie, the American dream only seems to happen when you sleep. And in a brief scroll down a Facebook home page or internet surf, one can find several memes about Obama’s failures, Bush’s blunders, Clinton’s set-ups, and Trump’s doomsday plans. The more I read Basil and the Bible, the more I can’t help but to believe that our problems and solutions are not political. Our nation fails because our Christianity (and even in Orthodoxy) has failed to put the needs of people before personal profits. And as long as we continue on this path and look toward Democrats, Republicans, and Third Party elected officials to make things better; nothing will improve. In fact, I fear, things will only get worse.
Ever since the settlement of North America, there has been this strange idea that earthly wealth and power were signs of God’s blessings. In the scriptures, we find where Egypt was blessed with seven straight years of abundance. But, God gave this ancient land this gift not for its own self-indulgence. Under Joseph’s leadership, the Egyptian surplus and wealth was given by God to spare them and the Israelite people during times of drought. Joseph didn’t use his position for domination and vengeance against his brothers. He used his power and status to be reconciled with the kinsmen who hatefully sold him off and the foreigners who lied to have him thrown in prison (2).
Rather than follow this Biblical pattern, we American Christians supported breaking land treaties with the Native people to expand our power, enslaving Africans to work the land, contracting immigrants and prisoners to perform the most dangerous industrial labor until we rose to become a great super power. And now we whine about how we aren’t as prosperous as we were in the 1950’s? There is no more land for us to grab (3), oppressed people have taken their rightful citizenship (4), and automation and technology have made many human labor task obsolete. Because of our abundant human and natural resources, our nation is still highly productive and remains the most powerful and influential. But, unless American Christianity rejects the culture of greed and self-indulgence and embraces repentance and compassion, the United States may fall into a tailspin of decline that will make the times we live in now seem wonderful.
Basil and the scriptures show us how the people of Nineveh were made aware of its sinfulness at the preaching of Jonah (5). In response, everyone from the king of the city to the poor man’s kid goat fasted. They wore sackcloth and sat in ashes while crying out to the God of Israel even though they weren’t Israelites. Each one turned away from his wrong doings giving God more than lip service, they actually changed their ways. These things were done not with a divine promise for prosperity and long life. They did this extreme repenting only on the possibility that the Lord may change His mind. In his sermon entitled In Time of Famine and Drought, Basil graphically describes how even nursing mothers denied milk to their babies and suckling animals were not permitted to go to their mothers. God saw how every person condemned themselves, had mercy on them, and spared the city (6).
On Thursday, May 4th, religious leaders have proclaimed a “National Day of Prayer.” I am skeptical that such an event will have any positive effect on the state of the nation. A few prominent evangelicals will simply drape the American flag over a cross; bemoan abortion, poor race relations, and our over sexed society. Then they will ask for protection and victory over Islamic terrorism, North Korea, and some other threat. The events will end with a pep rally mixture of faith and patriotism so that the participants will have the proud feeling that God is on our side.
But the word of God is clear that pride comes before destruction (7) and those who exalt themselves will be humbled (8). Every empire and nation had to learn this lesson the hard way one way or the other. For Judea, it was only less than 50 years from the time Jesus declared Jerusalem’s downfall to their loss to Rome in the Jewish wars. Emperor Basil II’s Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire rotted from his death 1024 to its falls to Western Crusaders less than 200 years later and the Ottoman Turks about the same time after Constantinople was free again. If we Americans believe that somehow we are exempt from history and the scriptures, we are kidding ourselves and doomed to a failure just as great, if not greater.
Perhaps Nineveh’s example is a bit too harsh to expect people to embrace all at once. Wise men throughout the ages have taught that we should take on a discipline a little at a time. Each of us should take on a few minutes of reflection and self-examination. A small dose of self-condemnation is a solid step in correcting our wrongs on a personal and national level. As time goes on, we add more corrective disciplines to ourselves as a weightlifter adds more plates to a bar. We will come to a point where our muscle fibers of our hardened hearts will tear and yearn for relief. And as we reach this point of spiritual failure, God will restore us and make us stronger. Sackcloth and Ashes aren’t comfortable reference points for those who feel that they and their nation isn’t as bad as the other guy down the street or across the waters. But, we must take Nineveh’s example seriously and confess and change from the heartless and mindless evils we make excuses for. After all there is a greater kingdom that we seek to be a part of. In order to gain citizenship there, we must repent (9).
- St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2009, pg. 76
- Genesis 37:12-36, 39 – 50
- Isaiah 5:8-10
- Genesis 27:40(b)
- Jonah 3
- Basil, pgs. 76-78
- Proverbs 16:18
- Luke 14:11
- Matthew 3:2