* 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, July 21, 2014

Isaiah 31-32: A Vision of Justice and Righteousness

Isaiah 31 is more of the same, and while we could cover the same ground again, it's most likely sufficient to say that no supernatural has ever protected, delivered, spared, or rescued anyone, just as no supernatural has ever caused anyone to perish. If any people have ever fallen by the sword, it was most certainly the sword of a mortal. If any people have ever been oppressed or put to forced labor, it was most certainly other human beings who were the oppressors. If any people have ever found peace, it was most certainly because of human conscience and will that they did so.

Thus we arrive at Isaiah 32, in which we find some words of substance. It seems that human beings in every time have promoted the idea that violence could be justified if one's heart was pure or one's motivations were righteous. It seems that there have always been human beings who propagated the belief that some people are more deserving of well-being than others. Even now, there are those who countenance bringing harm to some people so that the status quo of others can be preserved, and it is typically those who have wealth and power who find it easy to advocate for things to stay just as they are. Such people exist in religious and non-religious circles alike, and as we have seen, those who consider the Bible to be authoritative have plenty of evidence in their corner to defend the idea that those who have wealth and power were granted their status by an almighty supernatural.

What shall we do with Isaiah 32, then? Obviously, the authors are predicting a future time in which a competent and righteous ruler appointed by Yahweh will govern impeccably. That isn't likely to happen. Rather than dismiss the words entirely, however, we can attend to what the outcome will supposedly be of this ruler's righteousness. What fruit will righteousness bear? What will the practical result be?

Justice is a tricky word now. We have accepted too many varied definitions of that word for it to be of much use. We call it "justice" when a person is sent to prison as the result of a guilty verdict. We call it "poetic justice" when someone who has brought harm to another experiences similar harm. We call it "social justice" when we politically defend the legal rights of people who have been marginalized. Sometimes, we call something "justice" if it works out in our favor, or at least if someone we don't like suffers. We have to read further into the passage if we want to put valid meaning to the word.

Aside from the symbolic rhetoric the authors use to demonstrate what righteousness and justice look like, there are a few specific things that stand out. By contrasting noble ideals with foolish ideals, the authors suggest that the results of righteousness and justice are that people have plenty of food and water (Is 32:6), and the poor are uplifted (Is 32:7). In other words, the practical results of righteousness and justice are that people have sustenance -- that everyone has enough of what is needed for their physical and economic well-being.  

The authors interrupt with a warning to complacent women, which we could extrapolate as a general warning against complacency, understanding that whatever consequences result from complacency are natural consequences and not supernatural punishments. After that, though, there is a little more clarity about the practical results of what the authors are calling righteousness and justice. People will experience peace, trust, and safety as the consequences of righteous and just decisions. So, in short, the vision cast here is a world in which everyone has enough and no one has reason to fear.

We know a few things from our personal experience and the testimony of history. Violence begets violence. It is not possible to bring harm to some people for the well-being of other people without provoking greater violence, preventing trust, and/or thwarting a sense of safety. Violence cannot lead to well-being, and violence cannot be a tool of righteousness and justice, at least not in the sense that the authors of Isaiah 32 are using those terms. This isn't to say that the authors of Isaiah realized that. They promote violence left and right. Perhaps this is one reason they never saw the realization of the vision they cast. If we have learned nothing else from history, we have at least learned this.

We also know that "righteousness" and "justice" for only some people is not really righteous or just. The specific people mentioned as the beneficiaries of righteousness and justice in Isaiah 32 are the poor, the hungry, and the thirsty. If there are any who are made poor, hungry, or thirsty as a result of our decisions, or who remain poor, hungry, or thirsty as a result of our decisions, we cannot consider our decisions to be righteous or just, not by the standards put forth in Isaiah 32 at least. If we envision a world characterized by justice, we must build that on a foundation that meets the needs of the most needy people -- that provides a way for every person to have enough.

This is, admittedly, a tall order. It's no wonder the authors of Isaiah (and many people in the twenty-first century) see this as a super-human task -- something they expect God to be able to accomplish, but that they see as way beyond human capability. We may be tempted to think this because we recognize that the vision is too great for one person, or even a small group of people, to achieve. We also may be tempted to reject a vision of the world in which everyone has enough and no one has reason to fear because we think that this will mean that we personally will have less. We might be so accustomed to a way of life with conveniences and luxuries that come at other people's expense that we find it hard to imagine what our lives might be like if we were to take such a vision of the world seriously. I admit that when I think about the oppression I support by some of the purchases I make, I feel overwhelmed sometimes because I don't know what I can possibly do differently without upending my life and withdrawing from society. Even that wouldn't really do anything to end oppression, it would just alleviate my sense of culpability.

There is still hope for a world in which everyone has access to the food and water they need, and in which there are no disenfranchised or marginalized people. Such a world is not a short-term vision. It will take a long time and the commitment of a lot of people, but we can participate in creating such a vision. Some of what we can do might include our choices about what kinds of products we purchase, or it might include contributing to an organization that meets the real needs of people in nations where a few dollars goes a long way. I believe that some piece of what we can do involves contributing some of our resources to meeting the needs of the people right on our doorsteps, our own neighborhoods and communities. Whenever we contribute to greater well-being in the life of someone who might fall into those categories of marginalized, hungry, thirsty, or poor, we contribute a little bit toward creating a better world.

Honestly, I don't think that such a vision can be made manifest without some radical changes in global economics and the participation of the people who control the lion's share of resources. Whatever our own political and social influence might be, we have to be willing to use that influence to create the kind of world we envision. I suspect that using our influence responsibly feels most natural when we are living the kinds of lives that exemplify the kind of world we envision. As we assert definitions of what is "just" and "right" founded on the well-being of those people who are most often overlooked, we set the stage for a shift in awareness. As we commit ourselves to responsible consumption, and as we commit a portion of our resources toward a vision of well-being for all, we also contribute to the propagation of a new mental model for sustainable living. As we live intentionally in a spirit of abundance, we help to dismantle the fear of scarcity that fuels so much of the violence and oppression perpetuated by people in the world today. As we choose to live differently, we give other people permission to live differently too. And as we live our lives more intentionally, we more easily become aware of opportunities to live out the principles we value most.

There are enough visions of the world built on fear (entitlement, greed, scarcity, or whatever other names fear goes by), and they have not created anything approaching justice, peace, or sustainable well-being. One person cannot do everything, but one person living intentionally with a compelling vision for the world can inspire other people to do the same. This is how the world changes. Be inspiring.

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