* 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, July 1, 2014

Isaiah 27-28: Authentic Hope

We're going to push through to Isaiah 39, which recounts the illness and naivete of Hezekiah that we saw in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles (about a year ago now). It seemed like a good idea to intersperse the books of prophets with the "historical" books that most clearly connect to them, but given the time it takes to get through a book like Isaiah, this may have been an ill-conceived plan. Still, we'll cover everything eventually, so we may as well continue through the break in Isaiah.

That being said, there's an awful lot that has already been said about the content of Isaiah, with the people of Judah seeing themselves and their religion as superior to all others, without much evidence on which to base that opinion. Isaiah 27 clearly expresses one of the main purposes of this book: to offer hope to people in a pretty hopeless situation. Isaiah 28 balances this with the assertion that hope has to be genuine and sincere in order to be meaningful. Clearly, the author(s) of these chapters believed their own words to be sincere and honest.

It's worth mentioning yet again that there is obvious figurative language going on here, particularly with regard to the sea dragon that Yahweh will kill with his "cruel" sword. Most folks will not look at this and assume an actual sword or an actual sea serpent. A great percentage of the Bible is written in this sort of figurative language, and yet for some reason, many people want to take as much of it as possible literally. Don't be over-simplistic when you read mythology or other ancient writing. Look for the meaning underneath the words and you'll learn a great deal more about the people who wrote the words.

In Isaiah 5, the imagery of a vineyard is used to suggest that the Israelites have fallen short of their calling to create a just and righteous society. This imagery is used again in Isaiah 27 to suggest that all is not lost. There is still hope. The authors forecast a time when Yahweh will guard Jerusalem and there will be no competitors to the city. Fortified cities will be ruins useful only for grazing cattle. If anyone opposes Yahweh in that time (produce something different than what he wants from his vineyard), he will destroy those people. Otherwise, everyone will have a splendid time.

What Yahweh apparently wants from people is a society built on justice, but the authors are also clear that Yahweh wants exclusive adoration as the people's supernatural. Everyone who goes against this monotheistic mandate will be destroyed. So, this idea of creating a just society is not because it will be better for everyone, but because direct assault from the deity will be the response to anything less. This hopeful vision has dark implications. This is not a vision of a time when everyone will get along peacefully because there is greater understanding, this is a vision of a time when people will have peace by force, when the supernatural will take direct action against those who act differently. This is fascism, pure and simple, with a supernatural in the role of supreme commander.

No wonder that the authors desired a different sort of flawless leadership. Isaiah 28 suggests that the religious and political leaders were of little use to the people. They spent their time in drunkenness and lies, and when they had any words of hope to offer, those words were hollow. The chapter indicates that suffering at the hands of enemies is punishment from Yahweh that has a fruitful purpose. However harsh the punishment, it would not last forever, and eventually the people of Judah would be of some use. They would be beaten into usefulness. Of course, this is not a message to individuals, but to the people as a collective. An individual life might not see any purpose behind the suffering, but hope lies in the story of one's people, not in one's personal story.

It is unfortunate that passages like this have been twisted and interpreted into a perverse exaltation of suffering. There are those who believe that suffering makes a person more holy or more honorable, that the experience of suffering is somehow useful in and of itself. Even worse, there are those who believe in a supernatural who desires that people suffer, because they are being purified for some greater work. This is complete rubbish. While it is true that some people come out of experiences of suffering strengthened and determined to do great things, there are many more people who simply suffer, reaping no benefit from the experience. Suffering happens, and some people are able to make sense of it and turn that experience into an asset. This should not be held up as an ideal, however. Needless suffering is not a blessing or a gift.

Moreover, suffering is never something that we should inflict on others, with the expectation that it will make them stronger. There is no supernatural glorification in human suffering, and there is no supernatural who desires human suffering. We experience suffering, and there are potentially some words of hope that can help us through that experience, even help us draw strength from the experience, but those words are not, "God wants you to suffer." Especially those words are not, "God wants you to suffer because he has something great in store for you." Not only is such a claim trite, it is dishonest. There is no god in control of our suffering or in control of what happens in the wake of our suffering.

Often natural processes cause suffering. Nature is unintelligent and has no emotional impulse toward people, so there is no greater meaning to natural suffering. Sometimes people get sick. Sometimes people are caught in an area of natural disaster. It is possible that people can make meaning from the suffering they experience, but the experience itself has only the meaning that we give it.

Other suffering is caused by human action. Some people inflict suffering on others. This is the sort of suffering that we might set our sights on ending. Most of the time, fear is the emotion behind suffering inflicted by human beings, not the tough love of a supernatural. Human beings do horrible things to one another, and it isn't part of a divine plan. People commit atrocities when they give their fear control. Again, we might learn to draw some personal strength from our experiences of suffering, but there is no greater meaning or message than what we give it.

Of course, some will claim that suffering through the pain of surgery is necessary for healing in some circumstances. Suffering the experience of childbirth is necessary for life to continue. Suffering through difficult classes is necessary for the process of learning to take place. Yes. Fine. Draw the definition of suffering as widely as you like. The authors of Isaiah were writing to people who were besieged by foreign armies to the point that many people starved to death or at least considered eating their own children. They had no place to put the bodies of those who died from lack of food or water, and there was no efficacious way to treat the diseases that erupted in a city when it swelled with all of the people who sought refuge in its walls. When the siege was finally broken, many survivors were enslaved by the conquering army, taken to a foreign land with a foreign language and a foreign culture to live out the rest of their days. Their entire lives were shattered. Isaiah says that this was because Yahweh had a plan. He caused this to happen because he was crushing them like grain for bread. This is not a palatable message of hope.

We do not have a supernatural who is going to take control one way or the other. No one will be exacting punishment or crushing us for greater usefulness, and no supernatural will be standing guard over us as we grow into just and compassionate people. There is no real hope in that myth. The real hope is with us. We are the hope of the human story, as individuals and as a collective. Our potential to act in a way that brings justice, equity, and compassion is hope for others. In our own lives hope lies in the understanding that things do not have to be as they are. Hope also springs from the recognition that no one deserves suffering. Our worth and identity are not based on the suffering we endure. Every person has inherent worth and dignity just by virtue of being human; the rest is a matter of experience.

Things do not have to be as they are. This is true in our personal lives as well as in larger systems of power. Whatever suffering that exists in the world because of human action, there is a way to address this suffering. When the government of Uganda recently passed a law against their LGBT citizens, the Quakers established a New Underground Railroad to get people out of immediate danger. This is one small example, but think about your own community. How many organizations exist to help alleviate systemic suffering? From solving the problem of homelessness to ending human trafficking, there are people collaborating right now to build a better world than what we see today.

This is perhaps the most important message of hope: We are stronger together. People are relational, and while we value our individuality, we can accomplish great things when we work together. No one deserves suffering, and yet we can only touch a small number of lives as individuals. When we join our voices and our strengths with others, however, we can become much more powerful forces for justice, equity, and compassion. Our ability to cooperate and collaborate offers profound hope.

Thus, in our own lives, we can be confident that we do not deserve suffering, that there is nothing about our worth or identity that makes it necessary for us to suffer. Our individual suffering does not have supernatural origins or purpose, but we can choose to give our experience meaning. In the lives of others, we can also be confident that suffering is not deserved. When we are able to have an influence in alleviating the suffering of another, we can be vessels of hope. When we stand and act together with others, we can embody hope on an even larger scale.

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