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Professor shares Biblical, modern examples of holding people in power accountable

dr jason bembry
Dr. Jason Bembry, Old Testament professor, speaks with audience members who attended his presentation.

GREENEVILLE, TN – On the screen was a photo many people who were consumers of news in the late 1980s remember vividly.

The picture showed a man in Tiananmen Square in China June 5, 1989, standing in the path of military tanks leaving that area of Beijing. The day before, the country’s army had killed many Chinese residents after they spoke out about abuses by the Chinese government and expressed a desire for a more democratic form of government.

“A lot of young people and average citizens took to the square and protested,” said Dr. Jason Bembry, an Old Testament professor from Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College. “They were basically speaking correctively to people in power.”

The photo was shown during Dr. Bembry’s presentation, “Speaking Truth to Power,” Wednesday, Feb. 12, as part of the Theologian-In-Residence series at Tusculum University. He said biblical prophets are frequently putting this principle into practice.

Dr. Bembry gave multiple examples in the Old Testament, including Isaiah to Hezekiah, Jehu to Baasha, Elijah to Ahab and Jezebel, Elisha to Jehoram and Ahijah to Jeroboam. He conducted a deep dive of these and other instances during his presentation in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Scott M. Niswonger Commons.

For example, he talked about 1 Samuel. In this book, Samuel corrects Saul for not waiting on the prophet to complete a sacrifice before a battle. Samuel tells Saul that God wants obedience, something the king did not demonstrate. In addition, God told Saul to kill all of the Amalekites and their cattle and sheep, but the king did not comply with his directives.

In 1 Samuel 15:26-28, Samuel says to Saul, “I will not return with you for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel. And as Samuel turned to go away, Saul laid a hole in his skirt, the skirt of his robe, and it tore and Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.’”

Dr. Bembry also discussed 2 Samuel and King David’s affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, who he subsequently killed. King David already had wives but subsequently marries Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan provides a corrective in 2 Samuel 12, which Dr. Bembry told in the form of a story using more contemporary language.

“There is a guy who has a lamb, a little baby lamb that is the only lamb that he owns. He loves the lamb and holds it in his arms at night, clutches it as if it were his daughter. A guy across the street has tons of lambs. He is a lamb shepherd.

“This rich guy across the street has a visitor come and wants to feed the visitor a good lamb dinner. So what does he do? He steals the lamb from the guy across the street, the guy that only has one lamb. He takes it home, throws a party and has a great time. What do think about that, King David?

“David says, “That’s awful. What a terrible guy. That man should be forced to pay fourfold. And what does Nathan say to him? ‘You are the man.’ Nathan has the courage and the divine backing to go to David and confront him this way.”

Turning to modern times, Dr. Bembry spotlighted two people who challenged those in authority positions – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez.

Specifically, he recalled when Dr. King was put in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 after challenging the rule that said a group needed to have a permit to have a parade or public gathering. The city had not granted him the permit because of his skin color, so blacks conducted their own march, leading to his arrest.

Eight local ministers wrote an open letter in a newspaper that commended Dr. King but told him that he was pushing too hard and should not move so fast in his actions. They told him that local people, not he, should be advancing the cause. Dr. King decides to respond as a fellow clergyman to every argument they had made in their letter.

“He confronts every accusation they make and quotes the Bible in his response,” Dr. Bembry said. “In addressing their point about him being an outsider, he says, ‘What about the Macedonian call?’ The Macedonian call comes to Paul and says, ‘Come to Macedonia and help us.’ Dr. King says, ‘I am trying to be like Paul. I have brothers and sisters here in Birmingham who want me to be here. They called me. And I’m answering the Macedonian call.’”

Dr. Bembry said Dr. King epitomizes the concept of speaking truth to power and the words of the biblical prophets by standing for what is right. He sees parallels between Dr. King and Jesus because of their similar belief in nonviolence and with Peter and John because they were sent to jail for speaking the truth.

As for Chávez, Dr. Bembry talked about his work to address a law in the 1930s that said workers should be able to organize and go on strike if they wanted but excluded farm laborers. The reason was many of these laborers were black.

“Chavez comes along and says, ‘That strikes me as unfair,’” Dr. Bembry said. “He is pushing against big business, big agricultural businesses, essentially, in the valley, where he worked.”

Dr. Bembry also took action against the bracero program, which sent government-funded buses to Mexico to bring laborers to California. Those who benefited from the program took advantage of it to obtain more laborers than they needed. Chavez believed this system enabled those supervising these workers to replace any of them who spoke out about anything, leading to their deportation.

“He put those things together – farm workers cannot organize and there are a lot of people who are not citizens who are being manipulated in many ways,” Dr. Bembry said. “He’s just casting light on them and standing up for those rights. So by the time 1962 comes along, he is in charge of the United Farm Workers, which has organized to seek better treatment.”

The bracero program ended because of the abuses he brought to light, Dr. Bembry said. He said Chávez was a Catholic who secured support from churches and priests to make people aware of what was transpiring.

Dr. Bembry will deliver his third lecture in the Theologian-In-Residence series in Chalmers Wednesday, Feb. 19, from 10-11:45 a.m. Attendees are invited afterward for lunch in the Tusculum cafeteria. The lecture and lunch are free, but Tusculum appreciates donations.

Published February 15, 2020

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