Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
I have shared on a number of occasions that one of my favorite writers is the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was introduced to his novels and short stories when I was in middle school and quickly read through everything he published. I know that it can sound strange to hear that Vonnegut is one of the favorite writers of a pastor since he basically loathed organized religion and spoke avidly of his own humanism. To quote, “We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.”
And yet, some of Vonnegut’s thoughts on the church speak, to me, a better truth than is often heard in the church. In his writing and speaking he could both critique and admire the church in a way that is instructive and ultimately productive.
Vonnegut died in 2007 two weeks before he was scheduled to speak in his home town of Indianapolis for an event celebrating his life and achievements. The speech he wrote for that event was the last thing he wrote before he died and it contains a lot of his more memorable contributions to the literary ethos. However, there is something in the speech that does appear anywhere else in Vonnegut’s corpus, to my knowledge:
“I got a letter a while back from a man who had been a captive in the American penal system since he was sixteen years old. He is now forty-two, and about to get out. He asked me what he should do. I told him: ‘Join a church.’ And now please note that I have raised my right hand. And that means I am not kidding, that whatever I say next I believe to be true. So here goes: The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime wasn’t our contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, in which I played such a large part, or Ronald Regan’s overthrow of Godless Communism, in Russia at least. The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans, both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased. Their churches helped them do that.”
These words, in fact some of the last words from Vonnegut, are all the more striking when considering the fact that he hailed from Indiana which, when he was a kid, contained the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and was the last state to have a lynching of a African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
At its best, the church has been the place in which justice was given to the weak and orphaned and where the rights of the lowly were maintained. The church has, at times, rescued the weak and needy by delivering them from the hand of the wicked.
But, at its worst, the church has been the place where injustice has rained down like waters, where the marginalized have been further marginalized.
It was not that long ago, all things considered, when African-Americans were forced to sit in the balconies of churches rather than with everyone else. It was not that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11am on Sunday mornings to be the most racially segregated moment of the week. The prejudices of the past are still very present here in the present.
Vonnegut often described himself “a man without a country.” But reading his last bit of writing makes me wonder if he was actually “a man without a church.”
For if the church is not the place where justice is present, where the rights of the lowly are maintained, and the weak and needy are delivered, then what in the world are we doing?