Parchman Lecturer Says 'Voting Is A Spiritual Responsibility'
While reading from the book of Amos, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. said he was struck by the image of God measuring the policies and practices of the people of Israel with a simple construction tool - a plumb line, a string from which a weight is suspended to determine true verticals.
As Americans maneuver through another grueling campaign year, the noted preacher and theologian urged an audience at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary to follow the example of Amos as they prepare to cast their ballots on Nov. 2.
Forbes, the first African-American senior pastor at The Riverside Church of New York City, visited Truett Seminary Oct. 5-7 to deliver the annual Parchman Endowed Lectures on "Healing the Spirit of America."
Forbes has been traveling around the country with "Let Justice Roll," a national alliance of community and faith-based groups whose mission is to ensure that the issues of poverty would be included in the discussion during this campaign year.
The group takes its name from the book of Amos - "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream ..." (Amos 5:24)
"Amos saw God holding a plumb line against which...the people of Israel could be measured as to whether they conformed to the principles of righteousness and justice to which God called us," Forbes said. "We face a time of choices and a recognition that our nation has strayed from some of its founding spiritual, moral and democratic principles. People of faith care deeply about the soul of our country. They feel inspired to roll up as the prophet Amos did a series of principles by which to test their leaders' policies."
Like God's plumb line for Israel, Forbes promoted a contemporary version of the "prophetic justice principles" that could be held up against the "various trends of one politician, one party, one particular region, so that we could have at least a biblical basis for critiquing and also for promoting our various ideas."
Forbes' 10 principles present several questions:
1) Does the policy seek the common good? Does it represent the common good of our society rather than the interests of an elite few?
2) Is the policy truthful in facts and motives? Is the policy based on a true analysis and does it disclose its true intention? How likely is the outcome to achieve its proposed purpose?
3) Does the policy promote unity and inclusion? Does the policy hold the prospect of reducing the polarization and fragmentation of the society due to race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation or national origin?
4) Does the policy provide good news for the poor? Does it reverse the trend toward an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor?
5) Does the policy protect the vulnerable? Is the policy good for children, the elderly and the disadvantaged? Does it show sensitivity to the spirit of the Golden Rule?
6) Does the policy provide for free press, free discussion and the expression of dissent along with fair and just methods of participating in the democratic process?
7) Does the policy encourage respect for peoples and nations other than our own? Does it respect the fundamental dignity and rights of every human being? Does it use diplomacy as a valued instrument of statescraft in resolving international conflicts and refrain from unilateral military action or empire-building and domination strategies?
8) Is the policy supportive of strong measures to ensure ecological responsibility and sustainability?
9) Does the policy practice good, global citizenship, involving respect for all cultures and nations and collective responsibility for the common good of the global community? Does is it refrain from nationalism, militarism and imperialism based on a sense of national superiority?
10) Does the policy lead by example, doing the right thing and holding the right lessons for our children and our citizens? Does it promote a more ethical society and uphold trust in public offices?
Forbes said that a perceived shift in policy direction by the present administration in Washington, D.C., and in the spiritual direction of the country "didn't get that way overnight nor is it likely to be reversed overnight."
"If these principles apply, there must be a change either in administration or a change within administration," Forbes said.
Also basing his comments on Joshua 24:14-28, Forbes encouraged voters that "if you vote and you do not have a serious consultation with your God, then you have voted falsely. It is a spiritual responsibility to vote as close as you can... inclined towards the will of God."
Forbes said even in the movie "The Passion of the Christ," they had an "election" as the people were faced with a choice between Barabbas or Jesus Christ.
"That movie reveals the nature of American politics," he said. "When people have a choice to make between the vision of God and the convenience of their contemporary alliances that serve as idol gods to them, you can't hear their voices. Who do you want? Did you hear anyone say, 'Save us the Christ?' No, you heard, 'Give us Barabbas!'"
They did not vote, Forbes said. And yet God transcended even their non-vote by raising up Jesus again and giving his people a chance to vote for him.
"If you want to vote right, you must pray for your vote, you must listen to different opinions before you vote, you must read before you vote, you have to think, then you have to consult with Jesus, and then you've got to make up your mind."
If the prophetic justice principles are true to a biblical understanding, Forbes said, then the principles - like a plumb line - will be standing there if the witness of the church is faithful to the prophetic impulse.
"And should there be a change, you cannot presume since most political activity bounces out of the moneyed interest that propels the process, we will still, whether Democratic or Republican, need to hold these principles until perhaps we hear God say, 'Well done.' If not on this side of the river, 'Well,' on the other."
In addition to pastoring Riverside Church, Forbes teaches at Union Theological Seminary, where he is The Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching. In 1996, according to a worldwide survey, Baylor recognized Forbes as one of the "12 Most Effective Preachers" in the English-speaking world. In addition, Forbes was named one of America's greatest Black preachers by Ebony magazine in 1984 and 1993.
The Parchman Endowed Lectures bring world-renowned theologians to the Baylor campus and enable Truett Seminary to make a significant contribution to the realm of theological dialogue and the life of the church. The lectures were established in 1999 by Leo and Gloriana Parchman to encourage dynamic discussion on topics related to theological studies.
Past lecturers include New Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, Templeton Prize winner John Polkinghorne, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey N.T. Wright, theological ethicist Lewis B. Smedes, and preeminent theologian Jnrgen Moltmann.