* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, October 21, 2013

Isaiah 5: We Are Capable of Justice

Using the metaphor of a vineyard, Isaiah 5 denounces injustice in the kingdom of Judah, pronounces the judgment of Yahweh upon the unjust, and connects the military threat from Assyria with the behavior of the people of Judah. Yahweh will either allow or compel the foreign army to overrun Judah because he is displeased with the behavior of the people. There are some problems with this theology, but there is also a message about justice that is still important for us to hear.

First, a horticultural clarification: the vineyard metaphor claims that the owner of the vineyard expected grapes but got wild grapes. Some translations express the owner's disappointment by calling the expected grapes "good grapes" and calling the grapes that grew instead "bad grapes." Wild grapes, especially in the world of the Ancient Near East, were more acidic and bitter or sour than cultivated grapes. All sorts of animals feed on wild grapes, but they aren't of a high enough quality that they would be considered for wine production or put on a dinner table. The presence of wild grapes is very natural, but they aren't the high quality produce that one would expect after investing time and energy in process of cultivation.

So it is with people. We have natural ways of behaving without putting too much effort into it, and much of that is comprised of reactions based on irrational fears, judgments, and beliefs about ourselves and other people. When we invest in personal work -- recognizing more about how to be emotionally mature people, practicing more honesty about ourselves and others, and connecting more with people so that we learn not to fear vulnerability -- we can expect to have higher quality lives. The problem is that we sometimes expect that if we invest time and effort in other people's lives, they will be higher caliber people. Deeper satisfaction with our lives cannot be gained by other people's efforts, though, and we can't do anything ourselves to ensure that other people will dismantle their own fears, connect with their deepest, most noble selves, and engage in life with greater emotional maturity. Each person has to do this cultivation on a personal level in order for transformation to occur.

The vineyard metaphor only gets us so far, then. We can expect certain results from our efforts in a garden, but we cannot expect results from cultivating growth in other people. Our responsibility first and foremost must be how we represent our authentic selves. We can be an influence on other people, to be sure, but we can't predict such results and shouldn't be terribly upset when our influence is less than we'd like. The vineyard owner (God) decided to let the whole place go. If he didn't see the results he wanted in the people he had tried to cultivate, he was going to let the place become a wasteland until such time as those people saw fit to be high-quality produce.

One major problem is that the population of Judah included both the people who were being unjust and the people who were the victims of injustice. In casting aside the entire country to the ravages of a foreign army, Yahweh was pronouncing a universal punishment that did nothing to achieve justice for the oppressed -- in fact, those with less resources fared worse in times of military conflict. In trying to make sense of Judah's vulnerability to Assyria, Isaiah looks for a cause in the society of Judah, and he finds the rampant injustice to be worthy of reprimand. Or perhaps, the prophet saw the injustice and considered the threat from a foreign army to be something that would catch everyone's attention. Either way, the theology of a deity that punishes the oppressed just to teach the wicked a lesson does nothing for Yahweh's public image.

Of course, one may say that Yahweh knew the hearts of everyone in Judah, and thus his judgment was just. In this case, one might also inquire as to who was being treated unjustly in the first place if everybody in Judah was wicked. Trying to exonerate God's behavior is a bit silly, though. The reality  was that Assyria was a political and military threat to Israel and Judah, and whatever the kings of Israel and Judah did to provoke the leaders of Assyria, it had little to do with injustice in Israelite society. It's understandable that a people would look around and try to figure out what they had done wrong to deserve being overwhelmed by foreign forces, but military actions are rarely about the actions of a civilian population. While the encroaching Assyrians were certainly a credible threat, the injustice within Israelite society was a relatively unrelated matter.

Since injustice and threat of war are separate issues in Isaiah 5, then, we can consider the two issues separately in our own search for meaning. Most of us have no control over military decisions, so it does us little good to try to control them. We can seek to have peaceful relationships in our own lives, and we can hope to influence others toward peaceful, thoughtful, respectful interaction. We don't control other people though, least of all people in government. The issue of justice is something that we are in a better position to address.

What kind of injustice is Isaiah 5 denouncing? Justice and righteousness are paired here, and the middle of the chapter details exactly what the problems are in ancient Judah:
Some people are accumulating more and more property, beyond what they need or what is equitable, so they can have people renting and working on their property with no hope of ownership, and thus no hope of wealth or security. This is unjust.
Some people are living only for their own appetites, enjoying their lives as much as they can while at the same time numbing themselves to the work that remains to be done in the world. Ignoring the hungry or the under-served will not make the problems go away; celebrating as if there is nothing more to be done to improve people's lives is unjust.
Some people are arrogant, believing that they are entitled to property and privileges that others are not, thinking of themselves as deserving of special treatment because of their station or wealth. When people think they are worth more and others are worth less, this attitude is unjust and it leads to unjust behavior.
Some people are doing things they know to be wrong, and they are justifying it through lies. They absolve their own greed by claiming that gaining personal wealth is a positive thing, and they consider people who aren't greedy to be foolish and irresponsible. They defend expressing hatred toward others as clear-headed discernment, and berate non-judgmental people as being spineless. They indulge their own appetites, betray trust, and relish opportunities to get away with deception, and then they explain it away with a worldview that ignores the effects of their actions in other people's lives and rationalizes away remorse.
How unfortunate that our own society is devoid of such behavior, so that we are left only to imagine what a duplicitous and treacherous place ancient Judah must have been!

In truth, we have built a society on countenancing injustice. With abundant resources, we create and accept policies that concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Sometimes those few do good, humanitarian things with their wealth, but this does not equate with a just distribution of resources. As long as there are people anywhere in the world who are sick and without the money to pay for medicine, who are hungry or thirsty and without the means to provide for their own sustenance, or who are denied adequate legal representation because they cannot pay enough to be seen as worthy of respect, our global system of distribution is unjust. Yet, we are so protective of what we have that our politicians argue like children about whether it is reasonable to provide healthcare for all the citizens of a country. We are so entrapped by our fear of scarcity that we fail to notice that there are others with even less, through no fault of their own. We are as clever in our justification as the ancient Israelites.

We extol the virtues of greed, we reward people who take unconscionable risks, we wake up in the morning thinking about what television we will numb ourselves with in the evening -- or even, as the wicked people in Isaiah 5, seeking after strong drink, wine, and music. We don't practice hospitality. We don't seek to understand people who are not like us. We practice playing the victim and demanding that our rights be respected while ignoring or even trampling on the rights of others. This is indoctrinated societal injustice and unrighteousness, but there is still a part of us that resists calling light "darkness" and darkness "light."

Not everyone plays by these rules of engagement. Some people seek a deeper connection with themselves, the people around them, and the world we all share. Some people stand up for the rights of others, even when they have nothing to gain by doing so. Some people reach out in compassion without worrying about the sacrifice of time and resources. Some people are willing to be vulnerable. Some people are unafraid.

We will not meet with any large scale punishment for our injustice. We will not face a conquering army sent by divine fiat to punish our unrighteousness. Our prejudice and protectiveness will most likely go unchallenged by any outside force. Even if there is a God, and even if she should decide to bring down wrath upon us all for our wickedness, why should we ever think that would change us? The behavior of the ancient Israelites never really changed after repeated disciplinary actions by Yahweh, or so the story goes. We are on our own with this matter of injustice. No one will come along and correct our behavior for us or cultivate us into pleasing, succulent grapes of justice against our will.

This is not to say that there are no consequences to injustice. The oppressed have, throughout history, risen up to overthrow their oppressors. Many of the bloody battles being fought today are the result of misguided attempts to possess property and control people -- lopsided values of an unjust system. Violence is sometimes the only response people can conceive to perceived oppression or threat. Moreover, our relationships suffer because of our willingness to condone injustice. Our own personal growth is stunted. Even the sustainability of our planet is threatened by the unjust levels of consumption that we have come to accept. The consequences are numerous and pervasive. There is a better way.

We are capable of more. We are capable of justice. We are capable of looking another person in the eyes and saying, "You are worthy." Even if that person has different skin coloration. Even if that person has a different gender or sexuality. Even if that person practices a different religion.

We are capable of justice. We are capable of recognizing our own personal responsibility for the decisions we make. We are capable of dismantling our fears of scarcity. We are capable of vulnerability. This is really the message of Isaiah 5: We are capable of justice, and because we are capable of justice, we must not be satisfied with injustice.

We are capable, and you are capable. You are capable of justice. In your workplace. In your family.
In your casual interactions with strangers. In the way you spend your time and resources.

You are capable of justice. In the lives of people that you stand up for. In the choices of practices that you stand up against. In the way that you vote. In the way that you live.

You are capable of justice.
How will you engage your capability a little more?

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