I preached my first Episcopal sermon this last Sunday at St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church. I was robed (not robbed….fortunately!) from head to foot, and it was a lovely experience. It is a small congregation, which is definitely to my liking. I felt very comfortable and really appreciated the opportunity to share.
The liturgical scriptures focused on the commandments of God. One such passage was found in Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is a rather odd passage, at first glance. You have a poet waxing eloquent about….God’s commands, no less. So, pointed out in my sermon how odd it would be if you gave someone a command and they said something like, “Oh how I love your law!” or “My soul delights in that command!”
My suggestion is that the commands of God were a part of the link that held the community of ancient Hebrews together. The commands were mostly concerned with how people treated one another, things like: respecting elders, reconciliation for damaged property, restoration for offenders and criminals, dietary laws for health, a Sabbath rest, religious rituals of dedication, protection for the vulnerable in society (women, orphans, widows), respect for foreigners.
And this is really interesting to me, and where I spent most of my time: there were also direct restrictions on the building wealth. No interest was to be charged on loans. Debts were to be forgiven periodically, the year of Jubilee. Also, the land owners were not to harvest the edges of their fields but to leave these gleanings for the poor.
So, the commands of God were about creating a structure for a harmonious society. The ancient Hebrew was to find his or her identity not as an individual but as a member of a community, the community of God, where people take care of each other and the laws provided boundaries for mutual respect.
Then there is the United States….oh my, where to begin….while I was discussing the ancient Hebrew laws, I also discussed some of the ways in which we in the U.S. have little or no sense of community responsibility. I tried to do this as delicately as possible, because of two reasons: (1) there isn’t anything inherently evil with being a rugged individualist and (2) we can’t really held being conditioned as individualists.
The truth is, though, that we have taken individualism to a very dangerous extreme, and it is not only damaging our own spirits and souls but also impoverishing and hurting millions (perhaps even billions) around the globe and here at home.
One primary example of this is that we do not know where our products come from. Most of us would not knowingly buy a product manufactured by a company that employs sweatshop labor, and I would venture to guess that most of us would not buy a product if we know that the company didn’t pay at least a living wage. Most of us would pony up a bit more cheese to support the workers.
The unfortunate thing is globalization prevents us from really knowing whether the workers were fairly compensated or not. This is a problem of having a lack of a sense of global community. Our thinking is intensely individualistic: we only care to find the lowest prices. In such an environment of hyper-individualism, corporations can squeeze workers to the breaking point with virtually no accountability. Don’t like it. Tough. We’ll ship jobs somewhere else where hungry and desperate people living under oppressive governments will work for pennies.
Very sad. Very tragic.
The other example I mentioned was incarceration. The ancient Hebrew law structure had a good deal of restorative justice. The idea was that criminals and offenders should right the wrongs done to others and then be restored to society and welcomed back as productive community members.
The U.S., by stark contrasts, focuses almost exclusively on punitive justice. Punitive justice is justice by punishment. We have no structure for restoration, because restoration requires thinking as a community and as neighbors, and we have become to hyper-individualistic. So we just lock people up. I shared the statistics: in the last 40 years, the prison populations have increased 700 percent. Yikes. We know spend $60 billion on incarceration each year in the U.S. Depending on the facility, this amounts to $20,000 or upward to $50,000 per inmate per year. If we viewed offenders as community members, I think we could be a bit more creative with that $20,000 and find a way to help offenders. Most criminals come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds to begin with, and they do not have access to the best legal counsel. Our system thus skews justice toward the rich and against the poor.
I might also add that it also doesn’t work to lock people up and throw away the key. When people get out, in most cases they are worse than when they were locked up. (Imagine if you had to sit in a cell everyday for years on end and deal with the horrors of prison.) On top of that, we are now running out of room to incarcerate people, so we’ve had to start letting people out early.
The main point of my sermon was to ask if there was another way. It was to ask ourselves, at St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Kodiak, Alaska, to have conversations about thinking differently. What can we do to change the structure of our society so that we can begin thinking more collectively, as a community. The best place to start, I suggested, was in the local community. How can we be more active in our local community to change the structure, to support local businesses. There are significant movements underway in the U.S. against the injustices of globalization, and we should seek to be part of this.
I closed by suggesting that the church is a perfect place to have these conversations. It is already a community, one that is formed around a moral and spiritual consciousness. Our souls feel the ache of individualism, and our spirits reject exploitation and injustice. We also have the scriptures to inspire us to think communally. The law of the ancient Hebrews can be a guide to creating that structure.