Chill Out, Isaiah

We love the book of Isaiah. It is filled with beautiful messianic prophecies and visions of the coming kingdom age when God has renewed everything. In between those visions, however, is a lot of judgment. 

Assuming the prophecies are in chronological order, the book begins with five chapters of sin-blasting prophetic preaching. 

A shift occurs in chapter six when Isaiah finds himself in the presence of YHWH and is suddenly cognizant of his own sin. 

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is an unbiblical cliché. Closer to scripture would be to say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin in myself.” “Judge not that you be not judged,” said Jesus. Judgment is God’s work. Mine is to love others. All others.  

It’s about 742 BC. Uzziah has been a good king, reigning for over half a century. Now he’s dead. What’s to become of the nation, especially now that the Assyrians are on the move? Tiglath-pileser III is already brutally destroying city after Neareastern city. Many of their citizens preferred mass suicide to falling into his tortuous hands. 

Isaiah now realizes he is complicit in the national sin. He is humbled and repentant, but Isaiah’s message is still not comforting in the short term. Utter destruction is coming to the northern kingdom of Israel and to most of Judea as well (c. 722 BC). Jerusalem alone will be miraculously spared, but not forever. Another even more powerful kingdom will arise. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon crushed what remained of Judea and Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Why is all this bad stuff happening to Israel and Judea? Are these not God’s chosen people?

Isaiah answers plainly, as do all the Old Testament prophets. Read through the book. Look for what the sins of Israel were.

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans. 
(10:1-2; NLT)

  • These religious people have not only been unjust, they have used religion to justify their injustice. 
  • They have not cared for the poor, the refugees, and the oppressed. 
  • They have not stood up for the marginalized and disenfranchised against the oppression of the powerful. 
  • They have accepted, even supported, corrupt leaders filled with greed. 
  • They have been characterized by haughtiness, pride, consumerism, and opulence.
  • They have championed militarism and the official use of violence. 

Listen as well to Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

(Amos 5:21-24 The Message)

Does this apply to us, to me?

Some definitions are necessary:

  1. White supremacy is simply the dominant culture in North America. Euro-Americans hold most of the wealth and power.
  2. Nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) is exalting one nation over all others and seeking to impose the culture and values of that nation on others. 
  3. White privilege is not individualistic. It refers to the reality of natural benefits and mechanisms. It means your skin color is not held against you. Privilege includes what you don’t get (followed, surveillance, redlined, pulled over, assumed guilty, etc.)  
  4. Black lives matter. No one is saying other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter means black lives also matter, just like other people. (And, by the way, there is no coalition that supports rioting, looting, and violence, but if I am more concerned with looting than with a police officer murdering an innocent man, something is amiss with me.)
  5. Systemic racism is the maintaining of the dominant culture via policy, law, and structure. It is usually not overt. 
  6. Race is a human construct. There’s only one race – the human race. God created us of one blood. There is no such thing as a “white” or “black” race – those terms were invented to justify chattel slavery. 
  7. Ethnicity is how we see ourselves.

I live in the wealthiest most militarily powerful nation on earth. It was built on land stolen from native people with the sweat of people kidnapped from Africa. Native American/Indigenous people and African Americans have been and are being oppressed, targeted and abused consistently by those in power.

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, dedicated Christian George Floyd, … the list goes on. Killed by officers of the law.  All but elderly Ms. Johnston unarmed. 

A Harvard graduate bird watching in Central Park … faux panic that could have gotten him killed for asking a Canadian white woman to please leash her dog. 

But it’s way more than this.

It’s not just a few rogue cops or an occasional racist.

It is a dominant white culture that uses its power to oppress and perpetuate injustice. 

It is lynching, Jim Crow, KKK, segregation, red-lining, gentrification, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to healthcare, food deserts, and responding to “black lives matter,” with “all lives matter,” and “blue lives matter.” 

It is political promises without any systemic change. 

It is a freeway system purposely designed to cut off black communities from jobs and transportation. 

It is monuments honoring those who were in active, open, armed rebellion against the United States of America for the purpose of maintaining slavery. It is Confederate battle flags. It is neo-Nazi rallies. It is “Make America Great Again.” America has never been great for African-Americans. Since European invaders arrived with their guns and smallpox, it has not been great for the native peoples who had lived here for 10,000 years. 

It takes 11.5 generations of African American families all doing the right things to build the intergenerational wealth Euro-Americans have in one generation. 

It is not by chance that COVID-19 has hit the black and native communities harder than anywhere else. 

It is lack of inclusion in places of power. It is C-suites and church boards void of people of color. It is lack of opportunity.

Every empire oppresses. Every dominant culture seeks to retain power by pushing down others. Religion is used to justify dominant power. 

Not so for those who follow Jesus. Kingdom of God power is expressed in service: 

42 So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 43 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10, ESV)

Isaiah cries out with predictions of devastation and ruin. That’s not the end, however. Messiah is coming. A new world is coming,

“Come let us reason together …”

“A virgin shall conceive …”

“Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.”

“Wonderful. Counselor. Might God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.”

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea.”

Swords become ploughshares; spears are forged into pruning hooks; children play safely in the streets; wolves and lambs cuddle; lions and ox graze side by side. Peaceable Kingdom. The Beloved Community.

The Kingdom of God is future and not yet. It is here and now. “Behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” 

How does this new kingdom come about?

By the cross. By the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And, what is that good news?

Jesus begins his ministry quoting Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

If it’s not good news to the poor, it’s not the gospel.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)

No divisions. No more Jew, gentile, male, female, black, white, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, socialist, or market capitalist. All one in Christ, just as Jesus prayed we would be (John 17). 

One Body of Christ – one multinational, multilingual, multicultural, intergenerational Body of Christ. The church universal.

Jesus died to tear down the walls that divide humans and to create within himself one new humanity (Eph. 2:11-18). Reconciliation is just as essential to the atonement as forgiveness of sins. If we omit racial reconciliation from the Good News, what we preach is simply heresy.

Anti-racism lies at the core of the gospel. As long as we truncate the gospel into “accept Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die,” and relegate justice issues to an optional add-on, we miss the entire point of the Bible.

Jesus did not come just to save a few souls. Jesus came to rescue and redeem the entire cosmos. Jesus came to make all things new. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus came to create a new humanity based on cruciform love. This new humanity is the church, the people of God. They are drawn from every conceivable nation, language, culture, and ethnicity. The church transcends all social, religious, gender, and national boundaries and ideologies. It is the Beloved Society. It is just. Equity reigns. The greatest serve. Power is displayed by self-sacrificial lovingkindness. 

Judea and Israel were crushed because they failed to care for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and discounted.

When he came into the presence of YHWH, Isaiah cried, “Woe am I, I am a man of unclean lips …”

Humility involves being teachable, learning from others, listening.

Am I a racist?

My knee-jerk answer is “of course not!” I was raised in a progressive, educated, lower-middle class home where we supported civil rights. Some of my ancestors fought to end slavery.

But … the culture I was raised in was racialized; our neighborhood was all white; I had my first black teacher in junior high school; I was never taught the true history of American genocide of the indigenous, nor of the brutality of slavery. I didn’t know what redlining was, or that police forces were first formed to capture run-away slaves, or that poverty produces despair and breeds violence. I had never heard of the Tuskegee syphilis or the University of Cincinnati radiation experiments. I had no idea how prevalent lynching was and that it occurred into the 1960s.  I was ignorant of the middle passage. I had no conception of what it would be like to have no healthcare or to live in neighborhoods where you can’t buy healthy food. Until I was in high school and tutored children with missing ears nibbled off by rats when they were infants and developmental delays from eating lead-based paint chips in a desperate attempt to assuage hunger, I had never seen real poverty. 

I have benefitted from the twin evils of stolen land and stolen people. I am not responsible for the sins of previous generations, but I have been complicit. I have white privilege. I have never worried about being shot during a traffic stop. I have never been suspiciously followed in a store, or had women jump abruptly off an elevator when they saw me approaching, or had someone call the police on me when I was bird watching. I didn’t need to give my son “the talk.”

What to do?

 “Come now, let us reasontogether, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool. 
(Is. 1:18 ESV)

I lament, crying in prayer on behalf of those victimized and for those who oppress.

I repent. Repentance simply means to change your mind. 

Humility means I listen. I listen to the voices of African Americans and Native Americans. They really do have worthwhile things to say. I read the theological, historical, and sociological works of Afro-Asiatic scholars. I try to be teachable. I try to listen.

I use my relative lack of melanin (which oddly gives me privileges) to speak up against injustice.

I purposely nurture friendships with people of other ethnicities. 

I ask the Holy Spirit to guard my heart and fill me with love.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on June 14, 2020, in anabaptist, apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Justice, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Peace Shalom Hesed, Poetry, Prayer, Prophecy, Spirituality, The Cross, Theodicy, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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