The Plumb Line

I worked long ago with a man who had formerly been a cop in New York City. He told me he had made it a policy never to accept freebies from the storeowners on his beat. “Every man has his price,” he explained. “But I wasn’t going to sell my soul for a cup of coffee.” I was reminded of this while thinking back to my days as a young campaign staffer fresh out of college. I was working for an insurgent Democrat who had defeated the party nominee in a primary for the U.S. Senate. As I recall, a trade association for the dairy industry offered the campaign a $5,000 campaign contribution in exchange for its support of the federal school lunch program. No one asked my opinion of this transaction, nor would it have made any difference if they had. To the campaign’s fundraisers, I’m sure it looked like found money. Voicing support for the school lunch program was like supporting motherhood. We accepted the contribution, and I may even have been the one who was deputized to draft a statement endorsing the program. Five thousand dollars in this context is a bit like the price of a cup of coffee; certainly, the principle is the same -- or lack thereof.

As it happened, less than two years later President Nixon’s reelection campaign was implicated in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. As a vast web of deceit and criminality began to unravel, it was disclosed that the Nixon Administration had accepted a multimillion-dollar campaign contribution from milk producers in exchange for a hike in federal price supports for milk. This and other abuses led Congress to enact federal campaign finance reforms that were recently tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, the sort of flagrant influence peddling that went on before Watergate may no longer even be illegal.

When it comes to bad behavior, there seems to be nothing new under the sun – a phrase that originated in the Old Testament, along with much of the bad behavior we now assume to be contemporary. Eight centuries before Christ, a simple herdsmen and dresser of vines named Amos showed up at the religious center in Bethel and began excoriating the rich and powerful. Before he was sent packing, he denounced those who oppressed the righteous, took bribes and deprived the poor of justice. Sound familiar? Amos said the Lord was setting a plumb line in the midst of the people of Israel. A plumb line was nothing more than a length of string with a lead weight attached to it that was used in construction to make sure that walls were not built out of alignment. Gravity assured that the plumb line always hung exactly perpendicular to the ground. Metaphorically, the Lord could use a plumb line to determine how far Israel had strayed from moral uprightness.

During times when everything appears out of alignment, some unerring measure of rectitude is required. Amos’ vision of a plumb line is meant to remind us that we live in a moral universe, appearances notwithstanding. We cannot look to the natural world, which is governed by physical laws, not by moral choice. We must look to ourselves. According to the biblical account, we were made in God’s image and given dominion over creation – all of which have profound moral implications. A plumb line has been set in our midst, and it will tell us if anything is askew. It might even keep us from selling our soul for a free cup of coffee.

Amos 5:12

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