“Turn, then, and die?” No! “Turn, then, and live!” Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the choice for life
Text: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32
Our family watched the documentary RBG about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week.
We were riveted by her story. A young, intelligent, soft-spoken Jewish girl broke the gender barrier to enter law school in the 1950s when only men were allowed. When no law firm would hire her because she was a woman, she taught law at Rutgers Law School (paid less than her male colleagues, we should note). Then she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where she successfully argued many cases against gender discrimination. She was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals and then nominated and confirmed as only the second woman on the Supreme Court. She served for 27 years until her untimely death just a week ago.
With quiet yet persistent passion for justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented her arguments to try to change the hearts and minds of those who did not understand how the laws were hurting people. Her decades of work helped people to change how they thought about themselves and their relationships to each other. And how society should be structured to ensure equity and fairness for all citizens.
As we watched the film, I kept thinking about this passage in Ezekiel 18 where God seems to be arguing a court case against the Israelites, trying to change their minds.
God is trying to convince them to change how they are thinking about themselves, their relationships to each other, and to their past. God is trying to change how they relate of God’s own self.
Also, in the gospel story from Matthew 21:23-32, we see Jesus trying to change the hearts and minds of the leaders. With all the drama of a courtroom, the chief priests and elders challenge Jesus’ authority to heal, to preach, and to teach. And to proclaim that the kingdom of God is about equity and fairness, compassion and grace for all people. The concluding parable is about changing minds, doing the right thing. It’s about participating in God’s realm, symbolized by the vineyard.
There are two claims in these readings that are very clear.
First, God takes no pleasure in anyone dying from sin. Second, we have choices to make about how we will respond to God’s intentions for our healing and wholeness.
We have a choice to make when God implores us to “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” We can either “turn, then, and die,” or “turn, then, and live.”
God’s message through Ezekiel was not just for the people of Israel thousands of years ago. This message is for us today, as well. It’s especially important at this time when we are hearing two competing messages: “Turn, then, and die,” versus “Turn, then, and live.”
“Turn, then, and die” seems to be the predominant message we have been told over the last six months.
Older Americans were told to sacrifice themselves for the economy in the midst of the pandemic. “Turn, then, and die.” Anti-maskers roam through grocery stores and on the grounds of state capitals insisting that others should be sacrificed so that they don’t have to wear a mask. “Turn, then, and die.”
Black Americans constantly live with the threat of death due to their skin color. Whether they are jogging, walking, driving, or sleeping peacefully in their beds, their lives do not matter. That’s bad enough. But when a grand jury in Kentucky refuses to indict officers for the murder of Breonna Taylor, it sends a very clear message: “Turn, then, and die.” There will be no accountability, no justice.
And now the occupant in the White House has announced his intention to ram through a Supreme Court nominee before the election.
This is a nominee whose record indicates she would join in undoing every human right that Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought so diligently to ensure. The messages being broadcast by these actions are very clear.
Healthcare is a privilege not a right. So if you have pre-existing conditions, if you cannot afford insurance, too bad for you. “Turn, then, and die.”
Women, in fact, are unequal to men. They cannot control their own bodies. They cannot control their own finances, or their own decisions. Nor can they earn the same wage as a man. “Turn, then, and die.”
Amassing an arsenal of unregulated guns is more important than the lives of children, women, and men sacrificed at the end of a barrel. “Turn, then, and die.”
Corporations do matter more than people. Wealth accumulation and protection for the select few trumps human life. “Turn, then, and die.”
A collapsing climate, poisoned water, ripped-out forests, and endless pollution on land and sea are, in fact, an acceptable price to pay for this wealth accumulation. We will feed off the corpse of this planet like zombies if we must. “Turn, then, and die.”
If you’re like me, you probably feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and powerless in the face of this onslaught of evil.
That’s the whole point. This is part of the strategy, to make us feel that we have no agency, no say, no power, and that we might as well give up. “Turn, then, and die.”
This was the message the Israelites kept hearing from their masters when they lived in slavery in Egypt. Your lives don’t matter. Only Pharaoh’s power matters. Only Egyptian lives matter. “Turn, then, and die.”
They heard the same message when they were conquered and dragged away from their homes to live in exile under an oppressive nation in a foreign land. Your lives do not matter. Your land does not matter. And your community does not matter. “Turn, then, and die.”
What’s worse is that the people began repeating to this message to themselves.
They heard the lie so many times that they were giving up. “Well, I guess we might as well just turn, then, and die.”
This is what was meant by the phrase, “the parents eat bitter grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” What happened to our parents will be visited upon us. We are trapped by the sins of previous generations. There’s nothing we can do. We might as well resign ourselves to this fate.
“Turn, then, and die.”
But here’s the real problem. They began to believe that this is what God wanted as well. They believed the lie that God had abandoned them. “God does not care about us. Our lives do not matter to God.” They began to believe the lie that God wanted them to “turn, then, and die.”
This is where Ezekiel stands up with the word of God and says: stop! Stop telling yourselves this story that is imprisoning you and every generation that comes after. Stop acquiescing to the oppression! And stop repeating the lie that your enslaver keeps telling you. Don’t fall for this strategy of believing a lie when it’s repeated over and over. Because it is a lie.
Here’s the truth. Here’s God’s truth: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.”
That is straight from the mouth of God.
God does not take pleasure in people being sacrificed for the sake of the economy.
God does not take pleasure in the idol of money controlling our decisions about who gets healthcare. And what species we can kill off. And who gets to have a quality education.
God does not take pleasure in women being second-class citizens. Or police shooting and killing black and brown people . Or 200,000 people unnecessarily dying from coronavirus.
It’s bad enough that certain humans think this is okay. But don’t dare think that God thinks this is okay. Because this is not okay with God.
And especially since we are Christians who believe in a God of love, mercy, grace, and life, we must counter the message that God wants us to “turn, then, and die.”
We must be as clear as Ezekiel. God wants us to “turn, then, and live!”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew this deep in the core of her being. That’s why she diligently, faithfully, relentlessly, and notoriously wielded her intellect on the side of life, dignity, and equality.
RBG knew we have a choice. Just like Ezekiel knew we have a choice. Just like Jesus taught us – we have a choice. “Turn, then, and live.”
Because of Ruth’s persuasiveness, because of her refusal to accept the status quo, she was able to convince some very powerful people to change their mind. As a lawyer arguing cases before the Supreme Court, she won 5 out of 6 times. Those cases changed the lives of Americans for the better.
And when she became a Supreme Court Justice herself, Ruth Bader Ginsburg brilliantly wrote opinions that improved the lives of Americans everywhere. Even when she was on the losing side of the argument, her dissent articulated the side of justice, equality, and inclusion. Sometimes these dissents led to Congress passing laws that codified these values into the workplaces and lives of Americans.
We know that these next few weeks and months will be unyielding in the barrage of lies.
The powers of evil know that they have the upper hand right now. They will try to do everything they can to overwhelm us, to make us repeat the message to ourselves that they want us to believe: “Turn, then, and die.” Because if we believe it, then they control us.
But God is very clear – these human powers of evil do not ultimately control us. “Know that all lives are mine,” says God. I give you this life not so that I can control you. But so that you may choose goodness, compassion, learning, mercy, fairness, and equality. “Turn, then, and live.”
So over these next few weeks and months, do whatever you can to encourage your fellow church members and friends and family members in the midst of this onslaught of lies. Do whatever you can to encourage your black and brown siblings, and your LGBTQIA siblings, and your female siblings who rights and lives are threatened.
Whatever you can do, encourage the activists who are resisting and dissenting, struggling with all their might against the powers that want us to accept our own death by their hand.
Encourage them through your protest signs and your social media posts, and by organizing for positive change in your community. By advocating for environmental policies that protect us and this planet. Through your masking and social distancing. Through your volunteering and your teaching. Encourage them through your donations to the candidates who reflect your values. And encourage them by voting your values.
When you hear someone repeating the lie that we must simply “turn, then, and die,” tell them this:
That’s not the God I believe in. My God says, “turn, then, and live!”
It’s not too late. Jesus’ parable of the two sons and the vineyard tells us that we can change. We can turn around when we’re on the wrong path that leads away from the vineyard, the Realm of God. There is always another chance to make it right. We can turn around and do the bidding of our heavenly parent who wants only for us to participate in the life and community that God has created for us.
This is the God we worship. This is the kind of Christians we are. And this is what we do. “Turn, then, and live!”
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).