What we mean when we talk about “tolerance.”

Here’s something that has happened regularly every so often since I was a kid: A bigot who happens to be a conservative says something bigoted, and liberals object to it.  The bigot then points to this as an example of liberal hypocrisy, because liberals claim they want tolerance but they’re not being tolerant to him!  (You can find bigots in any political group, but liberal bigots have different defense mechanisms when called on their bigotry.)  (Also, it is AMAZING to me how hypocritical bigots themselves are.  They believe they have a right to spew any kind of nasty things they want about people they don’t like, but if you point out their own flaws and how nasty they are being, why, you are a horrible person for being so mean to them.)

No, tolerance is not hypocrisy.  But the fact that this is a regular argument is proof that a lot of people (mostly, but not all of them, conservatives) really do not understand what tolerance means when used by liberals.  (Either that or they do understand, and they are purposefully trying to mislead people about it.)  The situation is not helped by the fact that many liberals may have an emotional or gut-level understanding of tolerance, but often have trouble explaining the concept in a clear and concise way.

Tolerance does not mean “anything goes.”  It never has, and it probably never will.  Let me repeat that: Tolerance does not mean “anything goes.”  I know a lot of the more polemical conservatives like to claim it does, so they can whip up emotional reactions to “those immoral liberals who are ruining our nation and who are also hypocrites” but this is not true.

Since it has come around again in current political discussions, I thought I would explain the concept with the two main models liberals are generally working from: tolerance as morality, and tolerance as a peace treaty.

Model One: Tolerance as a Moral Principle

Believe it or not, this does not mean that tolerance is the moral principle itself; rather, tolerance is how the principle is expressed in practiceThe moral principle involved is that all human beings are people with human rights.  All human beings, no exceptions.  (As a Christian, I believe this because all people are created in the image of God, but you don’t have to be a Christian to believe in this particular moral principle.)  Race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, age, physical ability, neurotype (i.e. whether their brain works “normally” or not), and any other category you can think of are irrelevant.  All human beings are people, in the most fundamental sense possible.  Now, you may find this obvious to state, but the thing is, when you get right down to it most people don’t think all human beings are people.  In their gut, there are “people (those who are like me and my family and friends)” and there are “others” who aren’t really people, but rather stereotypes and cardboard cutouts and possibly objects to possess.  If you’ve ever wondered how people can do terrible things to other human beings–bullying, torture, rape, viciousness, all the horrors one human being can do to another–the answer is that they don’t really see their victims as people.  This is also where the bigot’s hypocrisy over not being able to handle other people calling them out on their bigotry comes from.  They believe they themselves are people, so anything that hurts them is bad.  But the people they hate are not real people, so hurting them is just fine.

If you see all human beings as “people” no matter how different from you they are, then it is a LOT harder to treat them badly.  They have human rights, dignity, worth.  They matter, and not just as faceless masses, but as individuals and communities.  Once you have taken this step, the question becomes, “how do we treat people in a way that reflects their inherent humanity?” The answer is “Tolerance.”  Yes, people may be very different.  They are still people!  People may live in ways that I would not want to, do and think things that are foreign to me, and guess what?  They are still people, with a right to live the way they choose.  Even if I would never, ever, EVER choose to live that way?  They are human beings, who have the fundamental human right of choosing how they want to live.  Think of it this way: would you want people from another culture who didn’t understand you to come in and judge you or attack you for not being more like them?  No?  Then don’t do it to other people!

Tolerance is not a moral principle.  Tolerance is a guideline for living out the moral principle that all human beings are people with human rights.

But it still doesn’t mean that anything goes and you make no moral judgments.  Because one of those fundamental human rights that all human beings possess is the right to live in safety.  The right to not be oppressed or abused.  So therefore, oppressive and abusive forces are bad.  Violence and things that hurt people are bad.  They should be stopped.

But Anna, you say, what about times when the violent abusive thing is part of another culture?  How does tolerance work then?  Well, first off, remember that the inherent moral principle at work is that “all human beings are people.”  They’re not savages to be uplifted and civilized, nor children to be disciplined and patronized.  And we all have biases and blind spots, and a tendency to assume that different=bad.  So the first step is to make sure that the thing you don’t like is actually hurting people (and not just making you uncomfortable because it’s different), and the second step is to support those people within that culture who are already working against it, instead of taking point yourself.  For example, are there misogynistic aspects to some Muslim teachings?  Sure!  There are also misogynistic aspects to some Christian teachings.  And a lot of Muslim feminists (and yes, they exist!) argue very persuasively that women covering their hair is no more inherently oppressive than the Western beauty ideals that require huge amounts of time and money for makeup, hairstyling, clothing, and other things in order not to be judged as a “slob.”  The point is, if there is something genuinely harmful and oppressive in a different culture, the best way to help is to find the members of that culture who are already working on the issue, and then listen to their perspective instead of assuming that you know more about things than they do.  Everyone has a right and a duty to work against the negative parts of their own culture.  We don’t have a right to assume that our culture is automatically better than everyone else’s and our way is best for everyone and we can solve all their problems by making them just like us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t make moral judgments about those who are different from us, but it does mean that we should be careful and humble about doing so.

But back to the bigots claiming “liberal hypocrisy” when liberals call them on their bigotry.  “They claim to be soooo tolerant, but then they get in my face when I say what I want to!”  Remember, tolerance is not the moral principle.  Tolerance is a way to live according to the moral principle that all human beings are people with human rights.  And if you are spewing racism, misogyny, classism, ableism, homophobia, etc., etc., you are directly attacking the humanity of the people you are bigoted about.  You are creating the conditions that lead to all sorts of horrors.  Systematic oppression–everything from Jim Crow to slavery to concentration camps–requires first that you convince everyone that some human beings are not people.  Words matter.  And if you are doing things that directly hurt people, especially if you’re doing it just because they are different from you?  That is, again, a DIRECT ATTACK on the fundamental moral principle that all human beings are people with inherent dignity and human rights that should be respected.  And if you are a “normal” American, then what I said earlier about respecting different culture doesn’t apply, because you are a part of our common American culture and you are actively making that culture worse.

It is not hypocritical to temporarily set aside a guideline (such as tolerance) to deal with a threat to the deeper moral principle (that all human beings are people with inherent dignity and human rights).  In fact, you know what would be hypocritical?  Setting aside the moral principle to cling to the guideline.  Saying “We know this member of our culture is saying and doing things that hurt people, but we have to tolerate everything, no matter what, so I guess they can go around hurting anyone they like.”  (And, believe you me, there are plenty of liberals who are steeped in this hypocrisy.  But, since it is convenient to bigots, it’s not one the bigots ever notice.)

That’s one model of tolerance as used by liberals in America.  But there is another.

Model Two: Tolerance as a peace treaty

The other model of tolerance is not a moral principle at all.  This is tolerance as a peace treaty.  Basically, it works like this.  Most people can agree that living in peace is better than being at war with one another, yes?  Whether that is literal (two countries fighting) or figurative (two groups within the same society fighting).  To prevent wars, we have these things called peace treaties.  Which, when you boil them down to their most basic level, say “you don’t attack us and we won’t attack you.”  We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to approve of each other, we just have to say “you do you, I’m going to do me, we’re not going to fight about it.”  When we’re talking about different groups and people within the same society, that peace treaty is called tolerance.  It is designed to keep people from being at each others’ throats so we can all live in peace.  ‘Tolerance as a peace treaty’ is not a moral principle; it is a practical guide for lowering conflict in society.

But the thing about peace treaties is, they aren’t shackles to prevent self-defense.  If countries X and Y have a peace treaty, and Country Y starts talking about how horrible those people over in Country X are, Country X has a right to object.  If Country Y starts massing troops on the border, Country X has a right to go on a heightened state of alert and get pretty loud about objecting.  If Country Y sends in the troops, Country X has a right to defend itself.  In this scenario, Country X and Country Y are fighting, but only one of them (Country Y) has broken the peace treaty.  It would be completely nonsensical to look at Country X and accuse them of hypocrisy and breaking the peace treaty.  They did not.  Country Y did.  Country X is defending itself.  And if both Country X and Country Y have peace treaties with other nations, and some of those other nations decide that Country Y has broken those treaties and so they decide to help Country X?  Those countries are not hypocrites, nor are they breaking any treaties, because the attacking country already broke the treaties.  Self-defense is not hypocrisy.  Nor is defense of your friends and allies.

On a social level, bigots spouting off verbally against the groups they hate can be the equivalent of anything from saber-rattling to massing troops on the border, depending on the circumstances.  Enacting laws and policies that hurt the group they hate is the equivalent of invading.  So is physical attack or police brutality or anything like that.  And people have a right to defend themselves and their communities.  And this is not hypocrisy.  The bigots, by their words and actions, have already broken the peace treaty of tolerance.  They don’t get to claim that they can attack anyone they with immunity, but anyone who defends themselves or others is a hypocrite.

These two models are the basis for how liberals think about tolerance.  I hope this helps you understand the underlying issues.  It would be wonderful if everybody could figure this out and so we wouldn’t keep going around and around with the same argument we’ve been having since I was a kid, but I hold out no hope that it will go away any time soon.


Anti-Semitism and racism in America

There is a wave of racist and anti-semitic hate sweeping America.  As Christians, we worship a God who created all people of all races, loves all people, and died for the salvation and reconciliation of all.  Bigotry and hatred are not Christian–in fact, they are anti-Christian, in that they work directly against the reconciling and loving work of God in Christ.

For those of you who haven’t been aware of the sharp rise in bigotry and hate crimes, I encourage you to take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center.  They are dedicated to documenting and combating racism, anti–semitism, and every sort of bigotry and intolerance, and so they have information both on general trends and specific incidents.

I’d like to point out the case of Tanya Gersh, a Jewish woman who has been targeted by American neo-Nazis and faces huge amounts of unbelievable harassment.  The SPLC is suing the man who started and directed the harassment.  They have sent threats by every possible method.  Some of the milder examples include the following:

“Day of the rope soon for you and your entire family.”  Pictures of Tanya being gassed (just as Jewish people were gassed during the Holocaust).  Images of ovens with threatening messages sent to her twelve-year-old son.  (Remember how the bodies of millions of Jewish people were cremated in the ovens of Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.)  Christmas cards with threatening messages.  “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened.”  “You have no idea what you are doing, six million are only the beginning.”  “We are going to keep track of you for the rest of your life.”  Hundreds of letters, texts, emails, phone calls, all designed to terrify and hurt Tanya and her family.  These are the milder ones.  Most were much worse.

Why was Tanya targeted?  She’s a real estate agent in Whitefish, Montana, home to the mother of Richard Spencer, one of the country’s most prominent white nationalists, and until recently Richard Spencer’s own home base.  After Trump was elected, Spencer spoke to a crowd of white nationalists calling them to “Hail Trump!  Hail our people! Hail victory!” to which the crowd responded with Nazi salutes.  A video of this went viral, and many good citizens of Whitefish were shocked and disturbed to hear that their home town was associated with neo-nazis.  Not wanting their town to be used to support Spencer’s work, they wanted Spencer’s mother to sell the commercial property she owned in the town.  Tanya was the real estate agent working to broker a peaceful and fair solution.

Enter Andrew Anglin, founder and owner of the largest white supremacist website in the country.  It’s called the Daily Stormer, named after a 1930s Nazi tabloid.  Anglin, who calls Trump “Our Glorious Leader,” wrote article after article urging his followers to harass Tanya, her family, and other Jewish people in Whitefish.  He published pictures of them and contact information and encouraged people to go to Whitefish to attack them in person.  And the flood of hatred and evil began.

This is not Anglin and The Daily Stormers’ only effect in the last seven months.  They were emboldened by Trump’s election, which they call “the ascension of our Glorious Leader.”  Anglin regularly encourages his followers to intimidate Muslims and “any foreigners you see” so that they will “be afraid.”  He’s organized 31 chapters in the US and more in Canada, energizing and radicalizing people so that they commit acts of intimidation, terror, and violence.

Dylann Roof, who massacred nine African Americans at Emmanuel church in Charleston was a regular user of The Daily Storm.  So are several others who have killed or attempted to kill black men and women in recent months.  One even killed a member of the British Parliament.

The SPLC lawsuit, if it is successful, will take a bite out of his organization.  It won’t restore Tanya’s peace of mind, but it will pay for treatment for the trauma she and her family have endured, and the loss of income from clients driven away.  And, hopefully, it will discourage people from doing this kind of vicious evil.

I hope you are as horrified by the neo-Nazis, the so-called “alt-Right”, as I am.  And I hope you will join me in speaking up whenever you see racism, anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry.  If you are a Republican, this is especially important given how the white supremacists have attached themselves to the GOP’s coattails.

This kind of vileness is not okay.  It is anti-Christian and makes a mockery of both our faith and our nation’s ideals.

For further reading:

The SPLC case docket

The man behind the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website is being sued by one of his troll storm targets.–(warning, this Washington Post article includes some of the more explicit and horrifying harassment.)

Suing the Trolls: A woman’s lawsuit against a neo-Nazi’s “troll storm” could change how to fight back against online harassment.


All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season where we prepare for the coming of Christ among us.  On the most obvious level, we are preparing for Christmas, the day Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.  And so we sing Christmas carols and decorate the church and put on Christmas pageants.  But we are also preparing for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  As Christians, we live between the promise made with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fulfilling of that promise when Christ comes again.  Which is why our readings for this first Sunday of Advent  are about the adult Jesus telling his followers to be ready for him to come again, and the prophet Isaiah telling us what God’s kingdom to come will look like.

As I was reading and studying the texts for this Sunday, and listening to the news, I kept coming back to the first reading, and the image of the nations streaming up to the Lord’s house—all people from across the world coming to it and walking in God’s paths.  It’s such a beautiful image of what God’s kingdom will be like.  In fact, every time the Bible discusses who will be there, the various writers make the point that it will be all people, from every nation and tribe.  In other words, not just “us,” whoever “us” happens to be.  And that’s a crucial point: humans by nature like to divide people into categories and exclude those who aren’t like us.  We tell ourselves stories to justify why we’re good and they’re bad.  And then we only notice the things that fit those stories.  We are hyper-aware of differences, and those differences can’t just be differences—they are signs that we are better because there is a right way and a wrong way and obviously, we’re right and they are wrong.  This is something all humans of every continent, race, religion, and ethnicity are prone to do.  It comes and goes in waves, and right now there is a wave of racist thoughts and actions sweeping our country.  In the last few months, some North Dakotans have used the conflict over the pipeline as an excuse to harass and attack Native Americans.  In the last few months, some Americans have painted swastikas on Jewish homes and businesses.  In the last few months, the number of hate crimes against blacks and Latinos have escalated in this country have escalated.  In the last few weeks, neo-Nazis have held open rallies in American cities and an alt-right spokesman went on CNN to debate whether Jews were really people.  All of this traces back to the idea that some people matter more than others, that some people are better than others because of the group they were born into.  This is something humans do, in this broken, fallen, sinful world.  We look for reasons to hate and divide ourselves up and attack one another.

But it’s not something God does.  In fact, God spends significant time throughout the Bible combating that type of thought whenever it creeps up.  It starts out in the first chapter of Genesis when we are taught that all people—of all nations, all genders, everyone—was created in God’s image.  White, Black, Native American, Asian, Latino, everyone is a beloved child of God created in God’s own image.  And when God gave the law to Moses, God repeated many times throughout the law that outsiders should be protected, not condemned or ostracized.  And when the Israelites strayed from that teaching and discriminated against outsiders, God reacted.  For example, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites made laws forbidding their people from marrying non-Israelites, forcing divorces where such marriages already occurred, and throwing out any mixed-race children.  There were also laws forbidding non-Israelite participation in society.  But in that same period, two books were added to the Bible directly criticizing that.  The first, Ruth, tells the story of a foreigner—a pagan—who came to God and married an Israelite and became the grandmother of the great King David.  In the middle of prejudice and xenophobia, God sent God’s Word to tell a true story of a foreigner as an example of faithfulness, and to remind God’s people that David, their great hero of the faith, was himself of mixed-race.  The second book is Jonah, which tells the story of a prophet who was sent to proclaim God’s word Israel’s enemy, the city of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t want to go, but God forces him to.  The point of the story is that Israel’s enemies are just as much God’s children—just as beloved to God—as Israel was.

Jesus spent most of his time ministering among the Jews, but he also went to the Greeks and all the other ethnic groups in his area, and held no distinctions between them.  When his disciples tried to impose their society’s ethnic boundaries, Jesus rebuked them.  And when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, the first thing it did was give them the ability to preach to all sorts of different people in their own native tongues.  Why?  Because God loves all people of every land, and they are all God’s children, and they all need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, who became truly human, who is coming back to judge the world and to save it.

And in the early Christian church, too, people started to try to discriminate: they based worship practices on separating out rich people from poor people, Jews from Greeks, and women from men.  Paul wrote to condemn such things, because in Christ there is no distinction between ethnic groups, genders, or economic class.  All are one in Christ.  And when we try to separate people out and discriminate against some, we deny that.  We exclude and hurt people that Christ died to save.

In Revelation, there are many images of what God’s kingdom will be like, and Revelation, just like Isaiah, tells us that all people, from every tribe and nation, will be there in God’s kingdom, and that there will be no distinction between them, for all will be united in Christ.  So if you ask me “what the kingdom of God looks like,” and ask me to put together a picture from all the different images and visions of God’s kingdom in the Bible, I can tell you a few things.  1) it’s going to be a great party where there is no suffering or pain or grief, and 2) it’s going to be intensely multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, the Greek word usually translated as “nation” is “eqhnos”, which is where the word “ethnic” comes from.  All nations—and all ethnic groups—are equally beloved of God, and all will be part of God’s kingdom.

But we human beings, we keep coming up with reasons to hate, reasons to fear, reasons to discriminate.  We tell ourselves stories about how terrible other groups are, and then we tell ourselves it’s not really bad to discriminate against them because they really are like that.  We take every bad example of other groups as the norm for them, while pretending our own bad apples don’t exist.  An example of this is the police department of Fergusson, Missouri.  That police department focused most of its attention on investigating and harassing black people.  When accused of racial bias, they said they focused on black people because black people committed more crimes.  After the protests in 2014 the Federal Government launched an investigation.  They found that the police were wrong: black people in Ferguson were no more likely to commit crimes than white people were.  But the police of Ferguson believed that blacks were criminals.  So when a black person committed a crime, they took it as evidence that black people were all prone to criminality.  When a white person committed a crime, however, they thought he was just a bad apple.  Everything they saw and experienced was twisted to fit into the story they told themselves: that black people were criminals and white people were good people.  The story wasn’t true, but they genuinely believed it.  And so they acted unjustly, harassing innocent citizens because of the color of their skin.  They broke up and separated their city, and hurt a lot of people—black and white—in the process.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about race that aren’t true.  We tell stories about Black criminals and thugs, when black people are no more likely to commit crimes than whites are.  We tell stories about immigrants who steal American jobs, when immigrants actually are far more likely to start their own businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens are.  We tell ourselves that other races are lazy, they’re bad, they’re wrong.  And then we look for things around us that confirm those stories.  But those stories are not reality.  And, most crucially, those stories are not God’s story.  God’s story is that every person of every race was created in God’s own image.  God’s story is that each and every human being is equally valuable and beloved, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, or any other category.  God’s story is that when God’s kingdom comes, all violence and conflict between groups will cease, and all people of every tribe and nation and group will come streaming to God, and all people will love one another instead of finding excuses to hate and fear and discriminate.

So when we break down ethnic or racial barriers, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we challenge ethnic or racial biases, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we make the world a little bit more equal, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  On the other hand, when we allow racism and bigotry to flourish, when we see it and do nothing, when we pretend it isn’t there, we are working against God’s kingdom.  When we see discrimination and prejudice and shrug and walk on by, we become complicit in a system that is directly opposed to God’s wishes.  We allow things to get less and less like the good and just kingdom that God is trying to create.  It doesn’t mean we’re horrible people—like I said, this is something all humans do—but it does mean we are not being faithful to God.  It means we are seeing through the eyes of the world, not through God’s eyes.  It’s not easy to challenge bias and racism; it’s not easy to challenge something that so many people believe.  Yet to be faithful to the vision of God’s kingdom, we have to do it.  May we have the courage and the wisdom to see the world through God’s eyes, and God’s story, and not the human stories that divide us.


The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Here’s a trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.