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FIRST-PERSON: An embarrassing silence

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Not only for every idle word, but for every idle silence, must man render an account” — St. Ambrose

In the wake of the scandal created by “super lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, Democrats and Republicans alike are rushing to the fore with proposed ethics reforms in an attempt to restore sagging public confidence in Congress. Proposals like bans on gifts and lobbyist-sponsored trips are in the offing. Such reforms are desperately needed to curb the undue influence of money and gratuities on the legislative process.

Public interest groups of all stripes have weighed in on the need for reform, but one voice has been strangely silent — that of Christian conservatives. The so-called religious right (with which this writer has oft been identified) has not been hesitant in the last two decades to “speak truth to power.” Evangelical and Catholic leaders have not been shy about speaking of “right and wrong” in the public square. Nor have they been hesitant to invoke Scripture where they felt it applied to the issue under consideration. But voices of religious conservatives have been largely AWOL in the current debate. One likely explanation for some of the silence is that two figures closely identified with the movement, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, are neck deep in the scandal.

But the failure of Christian leaders to address the corrupting influence of money on the administration of justice in society should not be taken to mean that the Scriptures do not speak to the issue. As early as the eighth century B.C., the prophet Isaiah railed against bribery and corruption in the public square. In levying his indictment against the nation of Judah and forecasting the judgment of God, Isaiah complained, “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:23-24). A review of Isaiah’s book reveals that justice was being perverted by bribery and gifts to public officials. The weak and poor were being exploited by the rich and powerful. The governing authorities had become the tools of the wealthy. “Truth”, the prophet declared, was “nowhere to be found” and the Lord “was displeased because there was no justice”(Isaiah 59:15).

The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, admonished the people, to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6-7). They were instructed to “share [their] food with the hungry … to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” and to clothe the naked (Isaiah 58:7). Both the rulers and the people were exhorted to “stop doing wrong, learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Failure to heed the exhortations would lead to judgment. Repentance of wrongdoing would bring relief. And a specific warning was directed to the country’s lawmakers:

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain” (Isaiah 10:1-4).

Forecasting the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah comforted the people by declaring that “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist” (Isaiah 11:4-5). And through the venerable prophet the Lord declared, “The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 51:4-5).

The Scripture leaves no doubt that the God of the Bible is deeply concerned about the importance of creating a just society, and that He imposes obligations on those who govern to dispense justice fairly without the corrupting influence of money. That is a truth that Christian leaders should not hesitate to speak to those in power.
Ken Connor, a trial lawyer, is chairman of the Center for a Just Society, online at www.centerforajustsociety.org. Connor also is the co-author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty.”

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  • Ken Connor