Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee has proclaimed today a day of prayer, humility, and fasting. There are, by my count, approximately 49 other governors who would do well to follow his example. A president, too.
And 327.2 million Americans.
The proclamation reads, in part: “We seek forgiveness from our transgressions; from acts of discrimination, oppression, and injustice; and inaction caused by greed, pride, and indifference; for these and many more we ask forgiveness. . . . The people of Tennessee acknowledge our rich blessings, our deep transgressions, and our complex challenges, and further acknowledge the need to give thanks to God Almighty, to turn from our transgressions and ask for God’s forgiveness, and to humble ourselves and seek God’s wisdom and guidance.”
The carefully ecumenical wording of the document (insufficient to prevent predictable and predictably stupid criticism) is modern in its sensibility, but the governor’s proclamation is connected to an ancient tradition, an honorable and intelligent one — one that is of particularly urgent relevance at this moment in our national history. Humility is a rare commodity in the halls of power. So is wisdom, even the modest wisdom necessary to comprehend the need for greater wisdom.
In the Bible, God from time to time threatens His people with bad political leadership, known as a curse then just as it is here in our own time. God threatens to deprive His people of “the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient . . . the honorable man, and the counselor.” Instead, He thunders: “I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them.” The following lines contain a word that recurs throughout Scripture: oppressed. “The people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbor: the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honorable.”
Oppressed in this usage often means the domination of the weak by the powerful: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble”; “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry”; “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.” The good man is commanded: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.” The “oppressed” are the poor, the orphans, and the widows — those who have no friend to plead their cause for them and no strong hand to secure justice and their rights. The Bible foreshadows a certain strain of modern libertarian rhetoric by characterizing the treatment of the oppressed as “robbery.” No doubt the robbery of that time was more direct and literal than the softer modes of oppression experienced in modern democratic states. But the way in which, for example, certain municipalities use the poor as cash cattle, plaguing them with excessive court fees and fines for relatively petty violations (and charging them high interest rates on payment plans) fits snugly into the pattern of oppression that Isaiah condemned.
Perhaps it is the case that God has made good his ancient threat — not on the original Israelites but on us, the little startup republic that had the temerity to model itself on their kingdom. If we are governed by children, they are very bad children, indeed. (Bad, bad, elderly children.) It is not the case, as the proverb insists, that in democracies the people always get the government they deserve. But we do get the kind of government we will tolerate. Our dueling partisanships are intoxicating in both senses of that word: pleasurable and poisonous. But like any other addiction, it holds power over us only to the extent that we permit it to do so. Addictions can be very difficult to break — getting over them may be hard, but it is not complicated: You put the plug in the jug.
We are a strangely ungrateful people. We talk about the “carnage” of the American condition as we live lives of wealth and ease that John D. Rockefeller could not have imagined. If you want to see carnage, fix your eyes, if you can stand to, upon the Kurdish allies we have just abandoned to massacre at the hands of the Turkish dictator in an act of shockingly dishonorable cowardice.
They’re doing penance in Tennessee today. So should we all.
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