A People of Unclean Lips
By the Rev’d Tom Bost
The episode I knocked out today on my morning commute deals with the rather unknown Dakota War fought in the northern plains of the U.S. in the 1860’s. The episode uncovers the history behind the this war, how these years of violence were essential to the formation of the state of Minnesota, and how most Minnesotans have never heard of it before. One thing that comes out in the show is the way in which our government repeatedly lied to the Dakota/Sioux tribe in order to get their land. This, of course, is not a unique story. A survey of U.S. history makes it seem like swindling and murder were the government’s modus operandi with the native nations of our land. There were exceptions, of course, but in general, it is a shameful story. And as I drove westbound on I-40 this morning, hearing about this again, it hit me just how unjust the realization of Manifest Destiny really was. Our country, and even the very road I was driving, was built upon unjust dealings, oppression, and at times, murder.
I could not help but see the connection to the Old Testament reading from the Daily Office for this Friday in the third week of Advent. In the latter part of Isaiah 10, God talks about how He used the Assyrian kingdom as an instrument of judgment and discipline on his wayward people. God’s people had become so evil they themselves needed to be stopped and dispersed, not unlike the Canaanites before the conquest of the Promised Land. (Or, if you’re not familiar with biblical history, like the Allies had to stop the evil of the Nazi’s in WWII.) God’s means by which he chose to stop them was the Assyrian army. But the problem with the Assyrians that they themselves were very evil, and God eventually judged them for their pride. (See Habbakuk)
This is how Isaiah portrays the Assyrian’s attitude: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of nations; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” (Isaiah 10:13-14)
And indeed the Assyrian’s bragging wasn’t empty: they swept across the Ancient Near East and gobbled up nation after nation and made servants and slaves of everyone they didn’t slaughter. And for a couple hundred years, they seemed unstoppable.
But their success went to their head and their sins did not seem like much in their own eyes. They did not wonder at their own success and prosperity (“by the strength of MY hand I have done it…”), and where God gave them power, they used it to oppress and exploit, committing atrocious acts that would be considered war crimes today. In this, they were like most empires.
In Isaiah, God has a word for nations who act like this:
“Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? … Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing flame. The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers.” (Isa 10:15a, 16)
Essentially, God is saying: “Your time is short unless you repent.” Success is no excuse for sins and not a sign of divine approval. Power does not exempt a nation from the need to repent. Just as God judged Israel, so he judges Assyria and Babylon, for the destruction of innocents, the oppression of peoples, and disobedience to his laws. All these nations practiced child sacrifice, worshipped false gods, and used their power to oppress the poor and the needy. And our nation has been guilty of all these things as well.
As Americans it would behoove us to heed Isaiah’s words and to drop our national pride for a moment. Yes, we have been used by God for great good in the world, but that does not excuse our sins. Yes, there are many believers in the true God among our nation (I am one), but wasn’t this true in Israel, God’s covenant nation (which the USA is not), and yet God judged them?
Advent is a season where we seek the gift of repentance. Usually, we think about this on an individual level, but this is something we should also seek as a city, a nation, and as the Church. Where have we participated in the things God hates? (See also the shopping mall, our history, our war-mongering, our abortion industry.)
Repentance means acknowledging a sin against God and our neighbor, and turning from it. What must we turn away from as a people?
Of course, this must lead to individual repentance. There is no social holiness without personal holiness, and vice versa. After hearing again the story of how our nation oppressed other and lied to take the land of others, I realized that I had known this for years and not let it hit my heart. If this were happening today, it would make the nightly news and there would be international outcry. But even then, even as this very thing still happens around the world, I am cold hearted. My heart does not drip with the passion and anger that is in God’s words as he calls out his own people and other nations. I need the gift of repentance from my indifference, callousness, and passivity.
“Woe is me! For I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5)
Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.