How much offensive conduct by a government official does it take until religious and political leaders protest or help turn the culprit out of office?
The antiquities department at the Louvre museum in Paris is an unlikely place to countenance such a question. But a lima bean-size official seal from the reign of biblical King Uzziah (781-740 BCE) shouted the query at me.
The ancient seal once authenticated government documents, and when pressed into clay today it still can make an impression that says, “Belonging to Shebnayahou, servant of Uzziah, king of Judah.” What did this court official do when King Uzziah transgressed spiritual and political boundaries?
Raised in privilege, Uzziah became king at the age of 16 (2 Chron. 26). He founded cities and loved towers, building three in Jerusalem and more in the surrounding countryside. He invested in military hardware, installing catapults around Jerusalem and improving army weaponry.
“But when he had become strong,” Chronicles declares, Uzziah “grew proud, to his destruction.” Power corroded moral discernment, and he began to take authority that was not rightly his. He was “false to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to make offering on the altar of incense,” — a task permitted only for priests. Chief priest Azariah followed the king into the temple to rebuke him, and “80 priests of the Lord who were men of valor” joined in the action.
Eighty priests risked their lives to confront an arrogant and misguided ruler! I long to see similar moral courage in American political and religious life today. Members of opposition parties do indeed speak up when a ruler misbehaves. But too many political and evangelical voices in the United States remain silent while a leader they have championed tells thousands of lies, trashes the free press, coddles brutal dictators, belittles women who credibly charge him with sexual harassment and spews racist remarks.
The silence of American religious leaders in the face of such degradation is doing lasting damage to Christian witness. Where are our “80 priests” — people of valor who can say to someone in high office, “It is not for you to stoke division with false stories, dismiss environmental science and break treaties while passing yourself off as an ally of the evangelical church”?
Insecure leaders get testy when challenged. When priests confronted Uzziah in the temple, he became angry and broke out with leprosy. The disease isolated him, and he was permanently excluded from the house of the Lord. His son Jotham ran the government for the rest of Uzziah’s life.
We do not know how Shebnayahou, servant of the king, responded to Uzziah’s transgression. But we can decide how we will respond to political or ecclesial leaders who do or say corrupt things. The least we can do is speak up. God is paying attention, and that should motivate some people in authority today to raise their moral standards — and perhaps get checked for leprosy.
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.