It was an ordinary day sometime in the mid-1960s when historical theology professor John Steely began his chapel meditation with the words, “Yesterday didn’t seem like judgment day …”
As this seminary student recalls now more than 50 years later, there had been no crisis event the day before or even in the close timeframe, even though the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam were very much a part of the atmosphere.
His obvious point was that every day is a judgment day because we make decisions in it that shape our future and for which we are accountable.
A familiar image from the biblical testimony underscores the critical nature of daily decisions.
Joshua offers his farewell words to Israel as they stand at a critical juncture in their journey to the land of promise. “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Theirs was a clear and crucial choice. On that uncertain boundary between past and future, where choices determine the direction of the journey, the portrait of our covenant ancestors places them in an important “judgment day.”
They could choose to serve the gods of the past – gods who inspired fear and sanctioned bondage of the weak by the strong, gods who rewarded those with power and punished the weak.
“But for me and my house,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord,” who has liberated from bondage, who has enabled the weak to embrace the strength not of power but of covenant partnership, who has shown the way to a different and better kind of future than the one that is an extension or reconstruction of the past.
Today is that kind of judgment day as the results of our voting are finalized and the direction of our immediate and longer-range future is clarified.
Our judgment day is shaken by eruptions of extremism that bring us to our knees in the realization that some among us will lash out in violence in the pursuit of a passion nurtured in beliefs that serve the “gods beyond the river” of earlier loyalties.
Extreme eruptions of the toxic thinking that seethes beneath the surface of our culture shock us, but they probably shouldn’t, because we see and hear evidence of such thinking in the service of “the gods of the Amorites in whose land we are now living” – the gods of control and power, the gods of wealth and greed, the gods of nationalism and privilege.
Perpetrators of extreme violence have their own judgment days as their crimes are dealt with.
There is reason to believe that the possibility of extreme and violent behaviors will always exist in a free society, and few if any question the appropriateness of harsh penalties for such actions.
But a judgment day also exists for those of us who don’t participate in extremism.
At every juncture of our collective journey, we face a choice of whether we will feed extremism by normalizing the underlying thoughts and attitudes that encourage its growth or whether we will put our energies toward cultivating the kind of community that undercuts the foundations of extremism and reduces the fuel that propels it into our public life.
There is an accountability for all of us for our own contributions to the health or “unhealth” of the communities of which we are a part, locally and globally.
The present is an ever-moving boundary line between a past to be built upon and a future yet to be.
The decisions we make determine both the faithfulness of our stewardship of the past and the shape of the future.
We know the options:
- The gods of the past our ancestors served “beyond the river”
- The gods of the land in which we now live
- Or the Lord of a covenant promise who liberates, sustains and redeems, offering a future of wholeness and peace.
Election Day is one of those pivotal judgment days, where we choose more than candidates for public office.
We choose the testimony we give to the world of the kind of people we are, and of the values we hold central to our identity as a nation.
“Yesterday didn’t seem like judgment day,” my dear professor said. But it was, and so is today.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).