Days before he would succumb to cancer, Civil Rights icon and Georgia Congressman, John Lewis, made his way to the newly painted Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House to “see and feel for myself . . . how truth is still marching on.” He came away with a glimpse of the Promised Land reflected in the faces of racial justice leaders protesting the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others.
No one would have blamed John Lewis had he thrown up his hands in despair. Instead, this man who had risked his own life multiple times to end Jim Crow segregation, this man who watched many of those gains reversed, spent his final breaths and steps celebrating a younger generation that would bring his accomplishments forward. John Lewis saw great possibility as millions of young people took to the streets. They carried pain and lament, but they also came to bear witness to the world they hoped to birth. The pounding of many youthful feet laid straight a path through the wilderness, and John Lewis had faith that they would bring us to the Promised Land. His hope persisted through all of it.
The author of Hebrews urged his flock as they faced daunting hurdles to look both forward and back for the long lineage of biblical heroes: “Died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” (Heb 11:13)
We often do not see in our lifetime the total fruits of our labor. Ours is to witness, not knowing if we will live to see the day when our “work pays off.” We are free to be participants in God’s plan and let go of the rest, trusting God bring it to fruition.
As a can-do person, I will admit to chafing sometimes at this. I feel my American bootstrap cultural upbringing screaming from the depths, “I will make my own destiny!” I feel my do-gooder, white girl savior complex grasping for just one small victory to soothe my intense need to be needed. To know that I can save somebody and something.
Jesus faced a similar temptation to seize power to set things straight once and for all. Before starting his ministry, Jesus went to the wilderness to fast, pray, and discern his course of action. (Matthew 4:1-11)
Satan found him there and offered to be his advisor. Imagine, if you will, that Satan offered to serve as the campaign manager to Jesus’ Messianic candidacy. A number of leaders claimed to be the savior as the people chaffed under Rome. It seems Satan offered to coach Jesus on how to win his contest with Rome.
Satan’s first thought was to buy everyone off with material goods. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matt 4:3) Offer the people material comfort and peace will come. Buy them off with strong stock market returns, real estate ventures, military contracts, tax breaks, cheap goods, and credit cards, and all will be well.
Jesus knowingly responded that humanity cannot live by bread alone but by the word of God. (Matt. 4:4) Empires notoriously placate the poor with scraps (bread) and elites with riches. Jesus was after peace of a different nature, origin, and outcome. Material gain works for a quick hit, but never fulfills. Until we learn to love God and other, we will never be at peace.
His first plan rejected, Satan advised Jesus to throw himself off the Temple to show his command of God’s angels. Jesus rejected the use of spectacle and ideology to charm the people into submission and confidence. Jesus replied that he will not “put God to the test.” (Matt. 4:7) The people would need to learn to trust God without the advantage of absolute certainty that miracles and pageantry give us. Our desire to turn God into a slot machine—offerings in, spiritual power out—reduces God to an idol to be controlled. Susan Thistlethwaite observes, “We have to confront the fact that despite being a movement of God, God does not always show up in the way we might want, exactly when we want. You can die in the wilderness.” This is the rejection of a God of certainty, a God who can be told what to do.
Finally, Satan goes big. People will never be able to make moral choices that make for peace. Satan says he will give Jesus “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt. 4:8) if he worships Satan, the force behind imperial Rome. Instead of Pax Romana, we could have Pax Jesus. Oust these oppressive Romans by force and put you and your people in power. This was the nationalistic path to power.
Jesus responds, “Worship only God,” not Satan, the representative of secular power or the way of the world. Jesus rejects the offer to rule as a king, to be a David or a Solomon.
In many respects the temptations are a “do over” of the Exodus, Sinai, and Solomonic experience. Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days and the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. Jesus does not need the riches of Solomon or bread; he does not rely on the spectacle of the Temple, nor will he opt to be a king, using nationalism and military might to rid people of their fear and insecurity. He will not say the words, “I alone can fix it,” because he knows that only the people together can fix it. Now it was time to write the law on their hearts—not through miracles or kingships—but by overcoming the desire for control and domination once and for all. God’s liberation ethic would be the only way forward.
This juncture in our nation’s history is a chance for a do over. Once we were a land with a great vision—a government for and by the people, driven by an ethic of treating all with human dignity. That vision was derailed from the start by America’s original sin of slavery. Movements rose up, and each time they made headway but never fully prevailed in large part because even those freedom movements denied some their dignity while embracing others.
And so here we are again. Can we resist the temptation to grab power, material wealth, the ideological upper hand? Or will we put our faith in kings, in power over others? Will we gain power for some at the expense of others? Will we compromise to keep the peace? And as individuals, can we trust God and step forward in faith to build a New America?
Praise for Who Stole My Bible?
“Who Stole My Bible? is particularly timely. The author looks at the Bible in the context of the time it was written, and how radically Jewish and Christian beliefs contrasted with other cultures of that time. She also compares current interpretations of scripture in contrast with applying it to our current times.”
“This book reaffirmed my belief that Christianity is a religion of liberation and salvation, not passive resignation to hierarchies that define people’s worth by their race or economic status. It requires us to stand up as witnesses. She concludes by urging communities of faith to reckon with the costs of inequality, poverty and racism, and existential threats like climate change, and work to change the conditions that create them.”
“In her book, Who Stole My Bible? Jennifer Butler provides hope, insight and a modern-day context for stories from the Bible. I greatly appreciate the fresh perspective during a time when it feels there is much work to be done in creating a just and loving world for our children.”
About the Author
Jennifer Butler is the founding Executive Director of Faith in Public Life and the former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister. While mobilizing religious communities to address the AIDS pandemic and advocate for women’s rights she grew passionate about the need to counter religious extremism with a strong religious argument for human rights. Out of that experience, she wrote Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized, which was published by University of Michigan Press. Her book calls for a progressive religious response to Religious Right efforts to take the culture wars global. She now blogs about progressive faith Patheos and her writing can be found in Sojourners Magazine, The Hill, Religion News Service.