Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Chronicles 24) transports me to a changing of the guard in America’s land of milk and honey, circa 1932, when both milk and honey were in short supply, causing the woeful administration of Herbert Hoover to be trounced by FDR. The new leader immediately started work putting policies into place to bring the country out of Depression. Two important features of the New Deal: increasing revenue through taxation, and putting people to work through the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. Many thought FDR’s policies didn’t go nearly far enough; this was a period when the prophets of socialism were gaining in popularity. This was true in church life as well, as the social gospel movement was on the rise; here in the mountains this was felt in the presence of Southern Baptist theologian Walt Johnson, who for many years gathered church leaders from across the region to strategize on ways to infuse radical biblical principles into the economics of our land. In the periodical Johnson edited, The Next Step, he and others praised the economic foundations of Russia’s revolutionary Bolsheviks, and saw sharing of wealth as the foundation of biblical stewardship. There is not enough space here to analyze all the reasons why Johnson’s brand of Christianity and the socialist movement were effectively killed off in American culture, but by the 1950s the McCarthy hearings demonstrated that they were not a welcome voice in the marketplace of ideas.
I thought of this period in our history when reading today’s Passage, set in the land of milk and honey at a time when milk and honey were drying up, eight centuries before Christ. There was a changing of the guard, as the woeful administration of Athaliah gave way to the reign of good King Joash. It didn’t take long for the boy wonder to start instituting policies that would restore the good fortunes of the covenant community, and interestingly enough, his policies foreshadowed FDR’s: taxation and a WPA type program, putting people to work to rebuild the infrastructure of the temple. There was even a National Endowment for the Arts type program instituted out of the surplus revenue raised from the taxes, employing artisans to ply their crafts to bring things of beauty into the public sphere. The religious influence behind these progressive policies were embodied in a Walt Johnson type figure, namely chief priest Jehoiada. But, good things come to an end, and over time, after the good priest’s death, the people abandoned the way of God, and took to worshiping the poles (the polls?), lifting their fingers to the wind and following every cultural trend that blew their way. It wasn’t long before the radical covenant policies voiced by Jehoiada were effectively killed off. The spirit of God took possession of the priest’s son, Zechariah, who railed against the people for forsaking God’s ways, letting them know that God had forsaken them in the process. For his efforts, Zechariah got stoned in the public square. God avenged his death by rounding up a small rag tag band of Arameans to come in and thrash the Israelites. The God forsaken people then killed their king and buried him in disgrace.
It’s always dangerous and misguided to draw straight lines between the power politics of ancient days and our contemporary campaigns for the hearts and minds of the body politic. But perhaps we can draw some wavy lines and find some parallels that can instruct us as we endeavor to let America be America again and live up to its storied principles. The first thing we can understand that in the great faith history we claim as our foundation, levying taxes and stimulating the economy through public works projects was described as right in the sight of the Lord. Second, when people forsake God’s radical ways, the voice of the radical prophets are generally unwelcome. And third, there is a judgment day; being God-forsaken sometimes includes God stirring up some Arameans to come in and wreak havoc.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith?