This post is a sermon that was delivered on November 29, 2015; the texts being preached on were 2 Kings 22.1-10; 23.1-3.
Our readings for today give us a snapshot of the life of one of the most important, but largely unknown, figures in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. King Josiah was one of the last kings of Israel before the nation's destruction by Babylon in 586 BCE and he was responsible for instituting religious reforms that attempted to right the Israelites religious practices; before Josiah, the people of Israel largely sinned against Yahweh by worshipping and recognizing other gods such as Baal, Asherah, and other deities instead of honoring their covenant with Yahweh. While our readings for today give us an introduction to the birth, early kingship of Josiah, and the nation of Israel's new covenant, we don't have the whole story of Josiah; in between and after our readings, Josiah has the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt to its former glory, is divinely confirmed by a prophetess named Huldah, successfully destroys non-Israelite religions in the surrounding areas, and later dies in battle with an Egyptian pharaoh. Josiah is also identified with David due to his zealous return to the worship and praise of Yahweh, as well as reinstituting the laws of the book to the entire people of Israel and their society.
Even as we recognize the historical significance of Josiah, one question that can and should be asked is what Josiah means for our contemporary society. What can a king from the time before Jesus offer Christians and non-Christians alike? Are there positives to Josiah's rule, or, as one of my non-theist friends has suggested, negatives of Josiah's rule? In our multicultural and relatively secular government, it can appear that a return to Josiah might suggest a unification of an institutional church and state, which is something that many Americans (including myself) would not like to see happen. I personally believe that a careful examination of Josiah's life and reforms can offer direction and substance for a society that is currently morally and ethically broken; by reading and understanding Josiah, persons both of faith and non-faith can see the importance of challenging structures in our own society that have relied on our constant moral and ethical sacrifices that disproportionately affect the majority of the people both in the United States and across the world.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on ideas such as freedom, the right to pursue happiness, and liberty. Throughout the history of our nation, we have looked to figures such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and Harvey Milk to guide us in the pursuit of giving every American their unalienable rights as found in our Constitution. We have accepted and commissioned the construction of many monuments, such as the Washington, National Mall, the Smithsonian, and Statue of Liberty, and the National Park Services to reflect and showcase our identified pursuits of the value and worth of every American in our nation's history. Further, we have deified and identified our national aspirations and goals through documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, legislation around women's suffrage, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Even though we have a spoken and created national identity, there is a dark underbelly of America that is often suppressed, but is slowly becoming a beast that we must tame. Structures such as unchecked capitalism, money involved in politics, the old and new Jim Crow laws, deification of the military-industrial complex, and institutional prison systems are current sins that have been built on the sins of our ancestors; American exceptionalism has thrived under the banner of whiteness and manifest destiny and has grown fat on the broken, bruised, and bloodied bodies of Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Africans, and other groups that have been unable to assimilate and prevented from assimilation by the ruling classes. Our contemporary culture glorifies violence and force as the best way to solve conflicts and we have seen presidential candidates using the bigoted and nativist rhetoric and beliefs of our ancestors to declare war on the poor, tired, and hungry masses that we have long claimed to protect. It has become commonplace to justify the warrantless surveillance of the American public (specifically our Arab brothers and sisters) in the years following 9/11, police brutality against our African-American brothers and sisters, and the exploitation of our prisoners, migrant workers, and refugees fleeing war and violence inspired by our illegal military conflicts across the globe.
Brothers and sisters, I must confess something: I am tired. I am sick. There are days when the quest for social justice becomes like trying to break down a brick wall that is constantly supported by apathy and blind fealty to the systems of destruction that have insidiously wove themselves into the American fabric though lies, deception, and inaction. As Christians, we unfortunately have joined the procession of nationalism that has taken the banner from a poor, itinerant Jew from the Middle East and turned him into the symbol of exceptionalism that uses force, corruption, and wealth to control the globe. Our Christian heritage has been and continues to be used as a form of justification for slavery, economic inequality, the complete devaluation of all forms of life (human, environmental, and natural), and the worship of firearms and associated violence. How can people who claim to be moral, ethical, and conscious return to the roots of our promises and professed national identity? The answers lie in the life of Josiah.
As mentioned previously, one of the things that set Josiah apart from the kings and people before him was his return to the ways of the book; the people of Israel had become accustomed to living in ways that went against the covenants made by their ancestors like Moses, David, and Abraham. The Israelites embraced foreign gods and worshipped them, forgetting that Yahweh delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptians. The Israelites had forgotten that Yahweh stood as the divine voice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. The United States has become the "new" Israelites; we have gone astray from the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while blindly declaring things like "all lives matter" while an erudite and honest examination of American history reveals that the only lives that have mattered to our national narrative are the Anglo-Saxon, male, and white lives. Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we willingly allow ourselves to fall victims to the threats declared by groups like Daesh and allow ourselves to become inflamed by politicians who declare war on the victims of our unchecked wars of aggression and pursuit of profits; we are told to fear the refugee and the other despite unchecked violence from guns, white nationalism, and apathetic regard to all forms of life.
How can we change? Like the Israelites, we as a society have failed to live up to our lofty ideals; fragility replaces the often brutal, honest, and necessary examinations of how we continue to perpetuate systems of inequality. We forget the riots, murders, and lynchings of our ancestors by the nativists of our past because our ancestors were able to gain social, political, and economic capital that became codified and understood through the color of our skin. America's favorite sins of violence, greed, and ignorance have replaced our claimed moral and ethical foundations and eroded away at our souls. Our history has become our present, as one can see from politicians calling for FDR-style internment camps for our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Despite the seemingly pessimistic and overall negative nature of my sermon thus far, I believe that Josiah offers us hope. In order to reclaim the promise and future of an America that can return to greatness through moral and ethical backing, the nation and her people need to become humble; like Josiah, we must tear our clothes and repent of our sins. We can no longer pretend that suffering and violence should be the norms of our society; they need to become the very rare exception. Like Josiah, we need to recognize the value and integrity of the lives of our workers, as evidenced in the latter's decision to give all of the wealth and money of the Temple to his workers. Like Josiah, we must tear down the structures of inequality that have become our new religions in order to return to the roots of our religion that proclaim the worth and dignity of human life, not because of wealth, skin color, or ethnicity, but because we are all God's creation. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, like Josiah, we must conduct these reforms in public and include all the members of our society; persons of moral and ethical foundation (regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof) must come together across created barriers in order to recognize our shared goal of the betterment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized persons in our society. Our God of justice, mercy, and love is still speaking; it is time to heed God's call once again and learn to live as the beloved community.