Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No mo' woe.

I can't resist the Hebrew prophets. So here's another in this series of riffs on the assigned readings for Sunday services at my church. Here's my take on the one I'll be reading on the Second Sunday in Advent -- December 2, this year: Isaiah 11: 1-10. And I'm afraid it's turned into something of a sermon. But even a lector can indulge in a bit of exegesis.

This is a famous passage -- about lions and livestock lying down together, and a little child shall lead them. It's a vision of a highly stylized utopia, a "version of pastoral", built on very different principles from the normal, natural world.

At one level, it harkens back to the ideal of the Garden of Eden -- carnivores no longer eat meat: "the lion shall eat straw like the ox". The former predators and the former prey shall lie down together and all are tame enough to be led by a child.

But not really. The verses following this excerpt talk of Israel joining together in a new unity, and then returning home from exile while subduing and plundering their old enemies, and then becoming an example to the rest of the world, a sign of what their God can do. If it's Eden-like in some respects, it's not a complete restoration nor is it an End of Days renewal, even though "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

So what is it?

Evidently the lion, wolf. leopard, bear, lamb, kid, calf, cow, gentle vipers, and the children playing near the snakes without being harmed all symbolize the restored Israel, freed from its internal divisions, jealousies, and feuds. They're finally tame enough to be led by a child, which leads me to think of the later saying that unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom. In this vision, the child not only enters the kingdom, but leads it. The kingdom is that pacified.

How did this happy state come about? It was the work of the messiah -- not the cosmic Christ of later centuries, but the child of the "stock of Jesse", the idealized royal line of the Hebrews. He will lead this now pacified assemblage of predators and prey, and then their God will bring back to their own country the scattered remnants of Israel and Judah.

I could see how the language used to describe this leader could, by the standard processes of royal propaganda and egomania, be hijacked by ordinary kings and caesars to describe themselves. After all, the coronation psalms for the kings of Israel and Judah referred to them as having been begotten that day by God.

But there's some different language here: instead of breaking the nations with a rod of iron, as in Psalm 2, this leader "shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." That's not as violent as it sounds: it's all done by words.

Just as the story of Creation has the universe created by the right words from the right source, so here the killing off of evil is done by words, not by swords. Perhaps evil is destroyed by the shame of being exposed by the words, or perhaps it's destroyed by being converted. It doesn't matter: the point is that it's done with words alone, by calling things by their right names.

By using the right names, this leader uncovers the inequities done to "the meek of the earth" and then decides in their favor "with equity". He judges the poor with righteousness, not with the oppression that is their normal lot. He can do this because he's not misled by the surface noise of self-serving propaganda. Instead, "he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear." He shall perceive the deeper realities of poverty and the unrighteousness that causes poverty.

He can do this because of his spiritual gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, (inner) power, and knowledge. It's not a result of his impressive military forces or good generalship.

Plus there's one more thing, something that doesn't easily compute for us today: "the fear of the Lord" which is "his delight" (or "his fragrance" -- the perfume of the myrrh with which he is anointed). Much commentary reduces "the fear of God" to reverence, honor, and a kind of generalized awe. Older commentaries dwell more on awe as "dread" and the simultaneous experience of joy and dread that comes from encountering this ultimate greatness and terrible finality.

I think it's particularly appropriate for us to feel that dread nowadays. We're aware that the margins of safety for life are very narrow. There's a universe out there that can break through our flimsy shields of atmosphere and magnetic fields. We've compromised our life support systems of climate, air, soil, water, and food. Our ways of life seem to be more in tune with the destructive rather than the creative forces of the universe.

That's why this passage in the book of Isaiah speaks so strongly to me. There's the model of peace (that will calm a still warring world); there's the primacy of the poor and the meek over the rich and the powerful; and there's righteousness, which is defined as justice for the poor and equity for the meek. And then there's the primacy of spiritual discernment and the special role of "the fear of the Lord".

This is a simple but comprehensive framework for those who would take the Bible seriously. As a later lady was reputed to have said, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away." Add environmental protection and restoration as a response to existential dread (and as a necessity if we're to fill the hungry) -- and there you have a skeletal agenda for those who call themselves Progressive Christians, as well as other kinds of Spiritual Progressives.

Isaiah even provides a model for dealing with the schismatic tensions associated with "identity politics". The wolves and lambs, when taken as images of conflicted identities within the body of the poor and meek, can learn to lie down together. That is, identity issues arise from the divisive policies of the high and mighty. If people find ways to confront the truths of war and geopolitics, and of corporate power and its destructive effects on government, on the environment, and on our economic well-being, then they are likely to find that they are actually working on each other's agendas.

So I say "always connect" -- never see people or issues in isolation: these wolves and lambs are really co-dependent, not like the predator wolves of the corporate world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More woe.

Again, a reading from the prophets in church. On November 4, I get to read Isaiah 1:10-20. Another go at woe before a cheerier Advent 'lesson' that I've been assigned to read in early December: the one about "and a little child shall lead them".

I'm writing again about my assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible because these words in Ecclesiasticus, Amos, and now Isaiah speak to us quite clearly and disconcertingly, if only we tune in.

First, it's injustice, arrogance, and wealth that will destroy the nation. Then it's the wealthy, wallowing in self-indulgence, who will come to ruin because they don't care about the poor whom they've exploited. And now, as Isaiah sees it in his vision, it's our bloody hands that cause his God to despise all the ways the people worship, to turn away in anger, and to refuse to hear the people's prayers.

"(E)ven though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."

The bloody hands are excruciatingly visible since the form of prayer in Isaiah's day was with hands stretched out. Their offenses, then, were "in your face" to their God. The metaphorical blood was metaphorically visible, even if they had ritually washed their hands in the usual way.

All is not irrevocably lost, however. Isaiah holds out the possibility of a different kind of hand-washing. It's not a ritual cleansing; it can only come if you stop doing all that bad stuff and learn how to do good. It's a simple formula: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Those four things, understood in their fullness, cover in one way or another all the issues we tend to think of as separate items on an agenda for reform. They're linked because the problems they address are systemic. They're built into our institutions, into the way we do everything.

After five verses of blistering condemnation of every aspect of the ritual life of the rulers and the people, and after these two verses on how to do right, then come three verses of "reasoning together" or "arguing together". It's in the form of "either-or": do right or else. Do the right thing and you'll "eat the good of the land"; the bloody red of your sins will become white as snow. Persist in doing what you're doing, then "you shall be devoured by the sword".

It's a persuasive argument, but only if you "have ears" and listen to it.

A side issue, as it relates to the Christian Right: in these verses, Isaiah is addressing "you rulers of Sodom" and "you people of Gomorrah". To the Right, these cities are icons of sexual immorality. But to Isaiah, they're symbols of injustice. In the verse immediately following the threat of destruction by the sword, he does use the metaphor of sexual immorality, but the sin he describes isn't sexual.

This is how it goes: "How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her -- but now murderers!" And murder is a metaphor, too -- for cheating in commerce (debasing the coinage and watering the wine); for leaders being companions of thieves and takers of bribes and gifts. The fullness of murder lies in not defending the orphan and widow -- those unfortunates who stand outside the economic and legal protections provided by the extended kinship networks which were the social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance systems of the times, as well as the public defenders in law suits.

Just thinking and talking about these murderers makes the God of Isaiah's vision really angry. Forget about "arguing together". Now his wrath is definitely turned on. But, even so, after the destruction that will surely come, the city will be restored as a city of righteousness. Zion, with those who repent and change their ways, shall be redeemed by their new acts of justice. But everyone else? "The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them."

Perhaps to the Right, this sounds like Isaiah is advocating "salvation by works", not by faith -- with faith being defined as fervent assent to a particular belief system about the existence and nature of God, and about the Bible.

Isaiah, however, has God equating faith with obedience in doing justice. Those who don't obey this call of his by doing something about injustices are the real rebels: they are "the strong" who will burn up "like tinder". The strong: presumably, then, the princes and rulers, by whatever title they currently go by.

Stand against the strong, who are the real rebels; reject evil, which is business as usual; be faithful in your weakness and obey That Which Really Matters; do good.

What could be simpler or more direct? The early followers of Jesus called it The Way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Whoa! and Woe!

Three weeks ago, I read another prophetic word of woe in church, this time from the Book of Amos.

The current translation in the Lectionary begins with "Alas for those who are at ease in Zion" instead of the older "Woe to those who..." Preferring the word "woe" to the tamer "alas", I asked for and got permission to make the substitution. When I reached the lectern, I was so focused on "woe" and on finding just the right tone and emphasis for that opening cry that I forgot the standard introduction: "A reading from the book of Amos, the 6th chapter, beginning at the first verse." Without preamble, I launched into the prophet's attack on the idle, uncaring rich. Later, I was told that I had certainly grabbed people's attention.

I think Amos would have liked that. Leading off with "Woe" is like hitting a jackass with a two-by-four in order to get his attention. The message following that first hit is always one that the hearers don't want to listen to. That's generally because they're the rich and powerful, satisfied with their riches and secure in their dominance.

Amos' word to them is that their Homeland Security is an illusion: "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in Mount Samaria". The continuation of the sentence makes it clear that Amos is talking to the power elite: "the notables of the first of the nations to whom the House of Israel resorts." The sarcasm of "the first of the nations" continues. Amos asks these "notables" if their little statelet is bigger and stronger than its neighbors. Well-known to his contemporary audience, but not to his modern one, all three of the places he mentions had already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. So the implication is that despite your pretensions, guys, you're next.

And his warning is clear: "you that put far away the evil day" have put aside any idea that your actions will be judged, will have consequences. And so you "bring near a reign of violence", the retribution for your actions.

And why? Amos runs through a list of decadently luxurious pleasures enjoyed by his targets: lounging on fancy furniture, eating high on the lamb, amusing themselves with idle songs, swilling wine in bowls, anointing themselves with fine oils. And it's not that these pleasures are intrinsically bad -- this isn't a diatribe against gluttony or sexual debauchery, for example. The problem is that with all these perks of prosperity, the notables have forgotten the important things: they "are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" And exactly what is the ruin of Joseph? It runs all through Amos' book: it's the "trampling of the head of the poor into the dust". (Amos 2:7) Joseph is "the poor of the land" who have been brought to ruin by cheaters, swindlers, profiteers, who buy them for silver or for a pair of sandals. (Amos 8:4)

Because the wealthy are not grieved, they shall be the first to go into exile when Assyria makes its next conquest. Then "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away."

Amos hereby strikes another blow in the unending battle of prophets against the type of prosperity gospels that substitute the wealth of a few for the prosperity of the people. He says "whoa!". Change now! Or it will be "woe!"

And today there are still hardly enough "whoas" and "woes" to go around.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Slavery: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus

Some weeks ago, one of the scripture readings in most of the mainstream denominations' churches was from the Letter of Paul to Philemon.

This letter -- hardly more than a short note or a slightly long memo -- is unusual in that it deals with only one issue, slavery. A practical social policy question, it would seem. Not a theological one.

From the point of view of human rights activists, it's pretty tepid stuff. It's ambiguous enough to have been cited as a support for slavery in the USA, both before and after the Civil War. For fervent anti-religionists, its lack of any condemnation of slavery reveals the morally compromised nature of Christianity. For the Christian Right, this letter by Paul refutes the misreadings of the Bible by liberals, who hypocritically use it to support radical programs of social change that undermine the orderly rules laid down by the governing authorities -- who are, of course, ordained by God.

Martin Luther had a similar opinion and held that Paul was upholding the social status quo, affirming the runaway slave Onesimus' legal status as a slave and upholding the law by returning him to his owner, Philemon.

True enough, Paul doesn't condemn slavery out of hand. He doesn't inveigh against it at all: he makes no criticism of the way it's practiced in the Roman world. He doesn't forbid it as a practice for Christians.

He merely writes to his Christian friend, Philemon, that he, Paul, is sending back to him his runaway slave whom Paul has come to know and love as a son during Paul's imprisonment. Paul asks Philemon, of his own free will, to release Onesimus.

Despite Paul's attempts to constrain Philemon's choice by using heavy rhetorical arm-twisting, guilt-tripping, and double-binding, he doesn't threaten Philemon with any dire sanctions if he doesn't comply. Paul has no power to compel Philemon to give up his legally recognized and culturally legitimate property rights. "The church" at that time being thoroughly decentralized -- literally anarchic, Paul does the only thing he can do. He makes this an issue of love: faith has turned a slave into a brother who can no longer be regarded as a slave.

This is a form of radicalism that goes over the head of conventional rightist and leftist perceptions and practices. Perfect love not only casts out fear, it casts out slavery. The bonds of union within the Body of Christ, says Paul, make it impossible to own and exploit a brother (or sister), regardless of the rules of The Empire. "In Christ 'there is no slave or free' " may be a better sound bite. But the Letter to Philemon shows how, even without possessing the state's power of compulsion, the powerless can learn to turn an uplifting slogan into a living reality.

The Letter to Philemon is what the late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, would call an example of "revolutionary subordination".

Revolutionary subordination extends not only to personal relationships of mutual subordination within the community of faith but also to relations with the civil authorities. In that context the concept is very similar to civil disobedience. That is, the power of the civil authorities is recognized as being, in fact, dominant over us. However, it's not "ordained by God" as the Christian Right would have it (based on what Yoder attacked as a mistranslation of Romans 13).

Accepting the reality of the power of the state merely means that we know it will come down hard on us when we refuse its worst demands, as we often must. When that happens, our punishments are part of our witness to a better way. The way is non-violent, acceptant of subordination in its civil sense, and insubordinate in its rejection of cultures of domination, exploitation and injustice.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

On wealth and Prosperity Gospels

As an amateur actor who hasn't been on stage for a very long time, I like it when my wife and I are chosen to read the scripture lessons to the congregation. I prefer the "Old Testament" reading, particularly when it's from one of the prophets. The texts are so boldly dramatic. I usually talk my wife, a professional actress, into reading the Epistle, which generally calls for minutely nuanced handling of long convoluted sentences. (She's good; she's very good.)

Not long ago, when my turn to be a lector rolled around, the passage was from Ecclesiasticus (or the Book of Sirach), part of the Apocrypha. Not a canonical work in the Hebrew Bible, but still a satisfyingly brilliant tirade against arrogance, injustice, and wealth.

The passage started off strong at the 7th verse of chapter 10: "Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice is outrageous to both. Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth.* [New Revised Standard Version] (I tried to deliver "and wealth" as a quietly released bolt from a cross-bow, aimed at each forehead.)

But this isn't about personal sin; it's about the rise and fall of nations. This could be talking about us, right here in The Land Between The Oceans. People who are used to the Bible aren't surprised to hear injustice and pride condemned. But wealth? As the cause of the fall of a nation? What about all those passages that say if you do right, you will prosper?

Prosperity, however, is not just a personal thing. It's national. Again and again, prophets rail against the dire consequences to the whole people when the nation gets it wrong.

So, according to this Wisdom of Ben Sira, it must be that in a land of injustice and arrogance, great wealth moves to the hands of the avaricious, the deceitful, the loving idolators of wealth, the breakers of the laws of justice -- as well as to the hands of the merely clever and lucky. Riches in the hands of the few is very different from a well-distributed prosperity that comes from good crops, useful manufactures, and honest trade.

A real Prosperity Gospel would needs be a justice and humility gospel first: one that goes beyond looking for personal prosperity. Otherwise, the Wealth of Nations produces the fall of nations. Thus says the Wisdom of Ben Sira, for one. Among many Biblical writers.