A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Straight & Level
December 11, 2014
The Gospel writers declare that John the Baptist, sent to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus, fulfilled Isaiah’s prophetic summons: Prepare the king’s highway! Straighten its crooked places, make it level. (Isaiah 40:1-5) As Advent people preparing the way for Jesus’ arrival, we are called likewise to make a way that is straight and level for the coming Messiah.
Pittsburghers know a thing or two about crooked, hilly roads. We’ve tried to tame our gnarly topography with bridges and tunnels, but we’re still a long way from getting our roads straight and level. Not coincidentally, Pittsburghers are statistically far more likely to have a car wreck than residents of most other cities. Crooked roads bear dire consequences.
Whenever I read Isaiah’s oracle about valleys being exalted and mountains being brought low, my mind goes back to the final construction zone on the West Virginia Turnpike. It took years to complete that single three-mile project. It ran the highway through the middle of a mountain several miles south of Charleston. The mountain was moved one truck-full at a time to the adjacent valleys. A hair-raising twenty-minute journey on a hairpin road rife with wrecks was finally replaced by a flat, straight three-minute ride. In the twenty-five years since its completion, countless traveler hours and accidents have been saved as a result.
When the Messiah comes, the conditions of the human landscape that have long hindered God’s reign of justice must be altered. Isaiah puts the onus on us – we are to make the highway straight and the terrain level so that the coming Kingdom will be unhindered.
Recent events across our country have painfully reminded us how far from straight and level our social landscape still is. Ferguson. Cleveland. Staten Island. Phoenix. In each city an unarmed black male has been killed by white police, none of whom have been held legally culpable for their victims’ deaths. Throngs in those cities and others, including our own, have rallied to demonstrate against the crooked roads and uneven playing fields that persist among us. The demonstrations have mostly been peaceful, but not always. Currents of deep anger seething just beneath the surface erupt here and there, defying control. Crooked ways and uneven playing fields cannot go on like this forever. Things must be set right.
By nearly every social and economic measure, the opportunities and challenges faced by blacks and whites in America today remain starkly uneven. Even more painful and scandalous is that this glaring disparity is evident also in the church that claims allegiance to the Messiah whose coming is conditioned on crooked ways being made straight and uneven terrain being leveled. Can we seriously claim to be Advent people preparing for Jesus’ reign while we do nothing to straighten the highways and level the playing fields for minorities among us?
I cannot speak for the black community, but I must speak for my own white community: We have sinned. We have not straightened our crooked paths, or made level our hills and valleys. We have permitted unconscionable differences to remain in place. We have not loved as we have been loved – without condition, without limit. We have opened up opportunities technically without committing ourselves in practice to do everything necessary for such opportunities to be fully realized. We have not been the Samaritan who reaches out to those beaten down by others; we are the Priest and Levite who think we have done well by adding no more to their injuries.
Making a highway straight is a major corporate project. It involves reallocation of community resources. It requires corporate commitment and action. Advent is a challenge to the people of God corporately, not just individually. We cannot rest with social systems that continue to yield glaring disparities between whites and blacks in employment, poverty rates, education, life expectancy, health care, criminalization, and incarceration. We must repent of our resistance to changing systems that preserve our own interests while ignoring those of others. Black lives matter to God just as much as white lives. What must we do to demonstrate the same commitment in our church and society?
In Advent repentance,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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