The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of Auburn Seminary, a multifaith leadership development and research institute that equips bold and resilient leaders of faith and moral courage to build communities, bridge divides, pursue justice, and heal the world. Author of God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith are Changing the World (Continuum, 2006), Henderson is an internationally known speaker and has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, MSNBC, NPR, and more. Her TEDx talk, “Letting God Out of the Box,” was released in February 2017. Henderson is currently writing her second book, Fighting for the Heart of America: How the Prophets of our Time are Bringing Our Nation’s Future to Birth.
Psalm 82 speaks pointedly about the right exercise of power. Less poetic and more prophetic, the psalmist draws us into a courtroom scene where God acts as the Defender of Justice. In the exchange that follows, God takes on the lesser gods—those to whom power has been delegated. Instead of using their power for good—to ensure justice for the weak and vulnerable—these gods do just the opposite, giving preferential treatment to the wicked. They act as though they are above the rule of law, seemingly unconstrained by the guardrails governing regular folk. Without “knowledge or understanding, they walk about in darkness,” with the consequence being that the foundations of the earth are shaken.
How familiar this story rings as we face the multiple pandemics of white supremacy and racism, economic inequality and COVID-19 in a time of rising authoritarianism—an “epidemic of norm breaking”—that threatens our democracy.1 Almost daily the Trump administration’s abuse of power—preying on the lives of immigrants, election manipulation, fueling the passions of division and polarization, giving preferential treatment to the wealthy and failing to control the pandemic—shakes the foundations of our democracy, while threatening the lives and well-being of people around the globe.
But there is a vision implied by the psalmist that can propel us forward and beyond this doomsday, showing us a way though this time of trial. The hope lies with those among us who are using their power for good, for truth telling and whistleblowing, for revealing abuses of power and bringing criminal activity to light. For giving voice and specificity to egregious violations that most of us might only intuit. The right way forward lies in acting beyond partisan politics; it lies with those who remind us of our shared values: freedom, equal justice for all, and the rule of law.
Our hope lies with people in positions of influence and power like Fiona Hill, Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, General James Mattis, Prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky. These from government and the military are joined by faith-rooted justice activists like Bishop William Barber, a tireless advocate for the poor, whose vision for moral leadership has rallied millions; by Barbara Rimer, the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an impassioned letter opposing the recent ICE Policy requiring international students in the U.S. to take at least one in-person class to maintain their visa status. These and countless others are the gatekeepers of our democracy—the “gods” who use their power well and have the humility to know that they are mere mortals—compelled to bring forth moral leadership in this urgent moment.
We must also learn from brave upstanders throughout human history. Even during the horrific years of World War II and the Holocaust, courageous leaders like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Confessing Church, and others from government, education, media, and everyday citizens took great personal risks in acting against the brutality of the Nazis. Let these and other such historical figures serve as models for us in our time and place, for the fight we face today. Our psalmist ends his prayer with a poignant plea, a call to an all-powerful sovereign God to judge the nations. The psalmist desires vindication. So do we. In this time of widespread illness, inequity, and the erosion of our democracy, we pray for God to rain down justice. In the meantime, it is up to us—truth tellers, activists, faith leaders, and everyday folks from all sectors of society—to work together, keeping our eyes on the prize of a truly inclusive multiracial and democratic society where economic, social, and political justice become real for all. With the psalmist, we appeal to the Defender of Justice, our strength and our shield, to hear our prayers and to guide our path.
1See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Penguin Random House, 2018) p. 204.