4 June 2020 – Proverbs 14:34 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people

What does it mean? It seems very simple and straightforward and who in their right mind would be opposed to doing what is right? Even in the word itself ‘righteousness’ there is a clue to the nature of our behavioural choices- ‘righteousness’; the Bible contains references to both personal and collective or national ‘righteousness’.

In Romans 1:16-17, there is a call for individual or personal righteousness, to turn from our sins and to Jesus Christ: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’

Paul’s words are a declaration of His personal response to the good news of the gospel. But in Proverbs 14:34 it is a call to a nation, in the first instance the nation of Israel, but then to the governments of all nations to conduct their national affairs in the light of the biblical standards for good governance.

This standard with respect to the Covid-19 virus pandemic should mean how well we as a society have cared for the most vulnerable in our midst. Have the values we are demonstrating by our actions, or the lack of them, matched the principles the Bible advocates of taking care of the most vulnerable in society as well as looking after ourselves.

For example, in our city of Dundee, from the City Council to the voluntary agencies that include the food banks, as well as many individuals in their own streets or neighbourhoods, we have committed ourselves to do everything in our power to ensure everyone has the food they need to eat each day during the difficulties caused by this pandemic.

In the first few weeks of lockdown this was a bigger challenge than many realise, but working together it is most encouraging how successful were the collective efforts of so many people in our city; to our friends in the United States, on top of handling the pandemic that has left an additional forty million people unemployed so far, it is how their national and state governments address the systemic issue of racism at a structural level that allowed for the appalling events to take place recently in Minneapolis. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people. It is a mirror against which our collective choices are measured. What does it mean to live by the words of this text? It involves:

Repentance for sin

It takes real courage to put our hands up and admit what we did was wrong. It takes even more courage for a President or Prime Minster to do the same with respect to our nation. Sadly, there are few votes to be won with admitting our recent faults.

An opposition party would use such an acknowledgement as a reason why this other party should not be in office. You cannot win in apologising for past errors in the country either, as there are plenty of people who would say the past is irrelevant, concentrate on what lies in front of you today.

Yet a sincere heartfelt message will be appreciated. On 30 or 31 May 1997 then Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed an apology for the failure of the British Government to provide assistance to the Irish people enduring the horrors of the potato famine 150 years earlier. His ‘words were welcomed by John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, who said: “While the statement confronts the past honestly, it does so in a way that heals for the future.” ’(Kathy Marks, ‘Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine’ The Independent, 2 June 1997)

However, unless words and actions go together words of apology ring very hollow. In America right now we need to see religious and other community leaders stand up and be counted in addressing the vile sin of racism and helping their communities to hold elected officials to account; we need political leaders at state and national level to do the same and plot a course of action that dismantles the structural discrimination that has allowed events to happen like that in Minneapolis. This will at the highest level require a genuine heartfelt apology for failing African American citizens

Practising what we preach

Truth matters! If governments make public statements on a subject that appear to be seriously questionable then it undermines the whole policy statement in which the claims were made. There are many examples that could be given here. Obviously at a personal and collective level the vile sin of racism has to be as far as possible eradicated from our society.

It is easy to say words on this topic. But how willing are we to seek to get to know people who are different from ourselves? How open are we to listen to their experience of the world and in some cases the discrimination they experience? It is too easy to point the finger at the structural racism in other counties that may appear to have much bigger issues to address, and ignore things we need to address as a society at home.

It is rightly a concern that religious and ethnic minorities in some overseas countries have been deliberately discriminated against in the distribution of food supplies during this Covid-19 virus pandemic. But there are also issues to address at home. For example, in the social care sector in our country we employ many gifted staff from overseas to care for some of our most vulnerable citizens, but how are they treated in their terms and conditions of service?

If a government claims to want to practice an ethical foreign policy, for example, as some do, then there are some big changes that will have to be made. Western and other Governments will have to stop interfering in the governance of other countries where they should not be meddling.

The tragedy of relatively recent events in Iraq and Syria is a case in point. The suffering caused to ordinary people in both these countries as a result is appalling. This challenge does go deeper still. It will mean, for example, big questions about the trade in arms overseas. The famine in Yemen which is potentially catastrophic for millions of already poor people was to a large degree brought about as a result of the military intervention of its larger neighbour Saudi Arabia using primarily American and British made-weapons. Are we willing to lose some well-paid defence jobs that will be the inevitable price of selling less weapons to other countries overseas? These are just some of the many questions that our text raises Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.

Our song for reflection today is: ‘O Lord the clouds are gathering’