taking the words of Jesus seriously

Fully understanding how American democracy went all the way to the brink in 2020 will take years of study, and we must embark upon it in a spirit of honesty and courage. But in the days between the election and inauguration, scripture is inspiring me to look forward.

God’s words to the Israelites in the Book of Isaiah are quite poignant to me as our slide into tyranny has halted (at least for now). Isaiah spoke at a time when Israel had been divided by civil war and utterly destroyed by the Babylonian invasion. Its elite were carried into exile, its Temple razed to the ground. The civil war which weakened Israel had been caused by growing inequality and injustice under Solomon’s rule. God had forewarned that by following the path to empire the people would find themselves once again enslaved, this time by their own ruler. But after all of this devastation, God brought a message of blessing:

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

In the wake of four years of racist, tyrannical rule built upon the structural sin of white supremacy, this forward-looking passage is inspiring me to meditate on how God is calling us to live into moral leadership at this moment. Here are a few ways to heed the call:

1. “Do a new thing”—First, resist the temptation to look at this moment as a return to some kind of pre-Trump normalcy. The past four years were the bad fruit borne of a tree of racism, injustice and selfishness. The new thing springing forth must be not a restoration, but a truly new justice movement that builds a beloved kingdom. That means bold reordering, not tinkering at the margins, when it comes to public policy and how we organize ourselves. We cannot settle for merely having diverse leadership at the table. Faith leaders of color must be at the center, setting political agendas. When the privileged lead, privilege is protected. We saw this in the Women’s Suffrage Movement’s racism. Doing a new thing means new leadership while remaining one body.

READ: William Barr and the Politics of Death

2. “Make a way in the wilderness” —Blaze political and cultural trails as a faith movement. Don’t leave justice work in the hands of elected officials or celebrity activists. At the local, state, and federal levels, we should drive change rather than merely supporting politicians’ efforts. The Poor People’s Campaign has been doing this kind of work and did not let the results of the 2016 election stop them. Centering the moral call to not just work for marginal change, but rather to set a transformational agenda, has changed the way political leaders talk about economic justice and paved the way for policies that just a few years ago were thought of as far too ambitious, such as a $15 minimum wage. In the face of potentially difficult environments, we must have the courage to boldly make a path where none is visible.

3. “Make rivers in the desert”—Spread your fellowship and resources to people who lead justice fights. Locally-based organizations and emerging leaders often lack the resources to get off the ground. This is especially true of ministries and movements that serve the most marginalized people’s needs. For instance, harm reduction for people who use drugs not only saves lives, but also treats people with dignity and interrupts the unjust cycle of incarceration.Yet congregations who host or fund such work are few and far between. Opening our checkbooks and our doors to efforts like this will allow justice to roll like a mighty stream.

4. “Do you not see it?”— The reality of deeply entrenched white supremacy and failed leadership from sore losers can be anxiety-inducing and discouraging. So remember that all change starts with the imagination. Let’s train ourselves spiritually to look for God on the move in big and small ways. We follow a God who hates tyranny; who continually leads leads people in exodus journeys in defiance of authoritarianism. Lift up a vision of who we can be, and are becoming.

As the Trump administration comes to a flailing, pathetic end, we face a real test of faith. Our old ways were inadequate and often defied God’s call to justice and community. Yet God has delivered us and allowed us a chance to do a new thing. Let us go forth!

About The Author

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Rev. Jennifer Butler (Twitter @RevJenButler) is CEO of Faith in Public Life Action, a network of faith leaders united in the pursuit of justice. She was chair of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the Obama administration.

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