Sunday, March 24, 2019

Judging Victims | Third Sunday in Lent 2019

ICMA Photos | Natural Disaster Damage | (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Growing up in the Midwestern United States, I usually saw death come for people through heart attacks, cancer, or car accidents. I didn't have a lot of near-term fear of the former two, but that last one had me worried, especially after I started driving. It was always on my mind before I set out to go any significant distance that I might not make it home. Before I graduated high school three classmates died in accidents. In the five years after graduating, five more former classmates died in car accidents. I could make quite a list of all the people I knew growing up who met their end in a car accident. It's a curious thing about accidents like those, that when they happen, everyone looks for a reason and isn't satisfied until they find one. That in itself isn't odd. What gets me is how we feel better when we think the people involved made a mistake that we wouldn't. Somehow, we're 'safe.'

The young woman was raising to beat an oncoming log truck before it reached the one-lane bridge. She didn't make it. The young man had been drinking heavily, and rolled his car. Since he wasn't wearing a seat belt, the force threw him out and the car landed on him. Coming back from a long, eventful vacation with friends, the driver was exhausted. He was distracted or nodded off, the car ran off the road, and everyone in the car died.

Since I wouldn't be so foolish as to drive while drunk or run at full speed into an oncoming truck, I must be safe. As for driving while tired...I've done that, but if it were too bad I'd know to get off the road. Right?


"At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, 'Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.' Then he told this parable: 'A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13:1-9 NRSV)
It's human nature to look for reasons to explain the bad things that happen. This includes events beyond mortal control, like a tower falling. Nowadays if a building falls and hurts people nearby, there would be an investigation, fines, and quite possibly criminal prosecution. If national leaders commit war crimes, at least some of the time these will be dealt with in an international court. We try to understand so we can avoid danger, and we seek justice to prevent further risk to ourselves and others.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus' main point isn't that bad things can happen to anyone, although that's understood as well. What he's driving at is that Israel had failed in what he considered its divine purpose, had never really listened to the prophets, and was now facing virtual annihilation if it didn't change course. Ultimately, in 70CE, the Roman army did indeed destroy Jerusalem and scatter the Jewish nation. Not everyone who died or was exiled was guilty, but all suffered.

Through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, the United States has been slowing moving towards disaster while appearing to make progress. We made some significant gains in civil rights, took serious measures to protect the environment, and made incredible medical and technological advances. On the other hand, climate change ignorance has become a point of political pride for some, immigration laws became more byzantine and adverse, taxes were lowered to nearly nothing for the wealthy, and corporations were granted the status of full personhood so they could finance politicians favorable to their industries.

It might look bleak, but there is hope. The word 'apocalypse' is popularly associated with an end of the world scenario. Nuclear war, the rise of zombies, or a meteor triggering a worldwide mass extinction event are examples of what this word brings to mind. This is valid to an extent, but we need to remember that in its origin this word had to do with uncovering something, like taking the lid off of a pot. From this perspective, it might not be all that bad to live through an apocalypse.

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and, predictably, he brought all the worst people out of the woodwork. Racists, misogynists, homophobes, and so forth have not only been vocal supporters, they've even been part of his administration! The many white male faces he surrounds himself with has put white supremacy on full display. His adamant backers among evangelical religious leaders are revealing themselves for the hypocrites they are. It's as though a rock was lifted and now we're seeing all the horrible creatures underneath, scuttling around.

Resistance is not futile, and the people have risen up time and again over the past two years to speak and act out against the human rights violations and destruction of our natural world perpetrated and perpetuated by the present administration and the wealth corporations and individuals who sponsor it through political contributions. There have been losses, but also gains, as the light of day is cast on all that's been wrong with the United States for a very long time. These are things that activists have been telling us about for years, and we (mostly white people) refused to listen. As long as we felt safe, there was no need to rock the boat.

A polar vortex or a particularly severe hurricane strikes, and we say it's a shame victims didn't have a better furnace or live someplace where there isn't severe weather. Climate change denial lets people avoid responsibility or make any changes to minimize the destabilization of our ecosphere. A multi-billionaire launches rockets and we thank him for his contribution to society, never considering that if he were taxed more adequately society could carry out those and other projects in space more effectively, and for the ultimate benefit of all.

The time to do something is always now, and that begins with a self-check. Are we victim blaming? Are we pointing fingers in the wrong places? Are we not seeing the big picture. Then, from there, action to help the victims and to reduce the possibility of there being more. This is collective and this is personal, and it is incumbent on all who would consider themselves decent human beings to be a part of it. If not, future generations will be judging us.