* 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

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Isaiah 9-10: Vessels of Justice

Isaiah's words to Ahaz, king of Judah, as he was preparing to be overwhelmed by foreign armies were words of encouragement. He said that the enemies that seemed so fearsome at the time would be no threat at all by the time Hezekiah -- the son of Ahaz who was about to be born -- was eating solid food. Ahaz didn't listen to Isaiah, not completely at least. He gave in to his fear and voluntarily became a vassal of Assyria. Isaiah criticized that fear and stopped advising Ahaz; he saw hope in the future king.

In Isaiah 9, the prophet (or someone writing in his name) waxes poetic about how great Hezekiah is going to be. He will be a king who is pious and wise; a king who will rule a land that is no longer oppressed by foreign powers; a king who leads with justice and righteousness. Then, the chapter becomes a rebuke of Judah's previous sister kingdom, Israel. The prophet accuses Israel (or its rulers and prophets at least) of pride and wickedness. He sees the destruction of the kingdom as the consequence of the utter depravity of the people, who wrote oppressive laws that benefited the wealthy and trampled the poor. The people of Assyria will also be punished for the pride of their king. Isaiah says that the king was intended as a tool for Yahweh, but thought himself more important than the god who wielded him. Yet, there will be some from Israel who are spared. Isaiah sees these as the ones who turned sincerely to Yahweh in their time of desperation.

We've discussed many times that decisions have consequences. Whether someone is ruler of a nation or barely ruler of a household, human decisions have consequences. This explains a fair bit of suffering (and "evil") in the world, and it certainly explains a considerable amount of what the people of Israel and Judah experienced at the hands of the empires around them. Some suffering is not the consequence of human decisions, though. Earthquakes, storms, disease, and the like cause a great deal of suffering, but their cause is natural. Maybe human behavior causes suffering in deciding to live in a place frequented by hurricanes, but every locale has its natural threats. In any case, natural causes of suffering don't occur because of human behavior. 

People like explanations, though. Belief in some higher power that orchestrates reality suggests for some people that all the suffering that people experience is ordained, whether that suffering comes from natural events or from human decisions. God is behind the earthquakes and typhoons, and God is the commander of invading armies. This is the perspective of the Hebrew scriptures, but it's not a viable way to live. It would be one thing if every person who lived as a devout believer survived unharmed when missiles or tornadoes struck, but they don't. Plenty of devout people suffer right alongside "wicked" people. The prophets' idea that the righteous are spared while the wicked suffer is based on a flawed perception of reality.

We like to be able to point fingers at something, though. When Israelites got raped, enslaved, or killed by the Assyrians, it was easy for the people of Judah to point and say, "Those Israelites must have been wicked to the core, every last one of them. That's why God made this happen to them." Certainly, that sort of belief might encourage some people to straighten up and fly right, for awhile at least. It's not reality, though. The reason people suffered was, in part, because their leaders made some bad decisions. Their suffering wasn't even necessarily the consequence of decisions those individuals made, but it was the consequence of human decision. Instead of pointing fingers and deciding that people who suffer must deserve it for some reason, the people of Judah could have had some compassion.

Isaiah does have some compassion when he writes that the people are going to suffer because of their oppressive decrees; he understands that poor people don't inherently deserve to be poor. If society was doing its job, he suggests, there would be an end to oppression; there would be light where they had been darkness. This isn't what a supernatural is supposed to do. A supernatural didn't invent their unjust laws; people did. So a supernatural isn't responsible for creating justice and equity; people are. When we understand suffering as either a natural occurrence or the consequence of human decisions, we can begin to take responsibility for the kind of world we live in. As long as we claim that a supernatural is in control, we may create the illusion that we can estimate the worthiness of people by the degree of suffering they experience, and we may fail to recognize how often our experience is the direct result of our own decisions and actions.

If people are responsible for creating what many people call Isaiah's "peaceable kingdom" (in the next chapter), then we have a guide for our day-to-day behavior. If people are capable of behaving with justice, equity, and compassion as priorities, we have the power -- and the responsibility -- to build a better world. We can vote with issues of justice, equity, and compassion in mind rather than a fear of losing power or a sense of entitlement. We can use our personal resources in a way that reflects our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion rather than fear of scarcity or an implied commitment only to our own comfort. We can speak out (in love) when we have the opportunity to address issues of justice, equity, and compassion, rather than staying silent out of fear of reprisals or a sense that someone else's suffering is none of our business. The idea that something is "none of our business" often means only that we think it inconvenient.

Isaiah put his hope in Hezekiah's rule and in the faithfulness of his god. We know now that one person cannot create a better world; we can all have a role in building a better world. We can bring the light of justice, equity, and compassion into dark places. We don't have to be messiahs or kings or any more than ourselves. There will be more to say about the peaceable kingdom and about how we connect with the "divinity" within us -- our deepest, most noble selves. For now, it is enough to read the words of Isaiah and recognize our capability -- our responsibility -- to be vessels of justice, equity, and compassion, to contribute to a better world by our intentional acts of integrity, and to engage with others in a spirit of hope and celebration.

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