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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 3: Oppression and Idolatry

Isaiah 2:7-9, 18, 20-21

Their land is filled with silver and gold,

....and there is no end to their treasures;

their land is filled with horses,

....and there is no end to their chariots.

Their land is filled with idols;

....they bow down to the work of their hands,

....to what their own fingers have made.

And so people are humbled,

....and everyone is brought low—

....do not forgive them!

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,

....and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;

and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.

On that day people will throw away

....to the moles and to the bats

their idols of silver and their idols of gold,

....which they made for themselves to worship,

to enter the caverns of the rocks

....and the clefts in the crags,

from the terror of the Lord,

....and from the glory of his majesty,

....when he rises to terrify the earth.

Isaiah 2 links together the sins of idolatry and economic oppression. A major theme of prophetic literature is the distinction between the Lord and the gods of the nations. The people of Israel are called to be a sign of God’s purpose for humanity throughout the world. They are blessed so that through them, all nations will be blessed. At the heart of such blessing is to know that the Lord is a good and just God. Therefore, the prophets often write that God will act “for the sake of my name.” “Name” is not strictly an arbitrary label applied to an object here. It is more like the idiomatic English use in the phrase “my good name.” God has a reputation to uphold, and if God’s people display to the world a society built on social oppression and violence, then it seems that the Lord is just one more prejudiced tribal deity looking to help out some cronies.

One aspect, then, of idolatry is the devotion to gods who one hopes to manipulate for personal favor or gain. The idolatry of Israel involved worshiping gods who might deliver protection from a worker’s uprising or a competitor’s advantage. Such gods might offer an exchange or a deal—in return for worship and obedience, a bumper crop to be sold for unjust gain. These gods might offer to increase the landholdings of their devotees, giving tacit blessing to driving the poor from their lands through sharecropping and usurious practices. The Lord is not willing to be known as the god of this kind of people. The Lord will not be tossed in with the gods of oppressors. The Lord will not be manipulated.

Another aspect of idolatry is its link with self-centeredness and pride. One criticism of the idols in this oracle is that they are themselves the creations of human hands. People are bowing down to worship products of their own making. What they are worshiping is not a god in any traditional sense. They are, as Adam and Eve, longing to become gods themselves and usurp the place of the Lord. Having plenty of gold or silver allows them to commission and purpose beautiful sculptures of deities. It is a reminder of the way that the people at Mt. Sinai brought their wealth to Aaron to shape for them a god of their own making.

This oracle cites their haughtiness and pride as the seed of their downfall. They rationalize their self-idolatry on the basis of their treasures and military might. They believe that their appearance of wealth and power means that they are in charge of their own destinies. But soon, these illusions, so perfectly visible in the mansions and idols of silver and gold, will become useless. Instead, they will flee to the caves and cliffs, finding their delusions of deity have become worthless.

Those who believe their ill-gotten gain is salvation have much to learn about the Lord, who is just, holy, and good.

Again, a few lines from Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy,” offer a contrapuntal melodic line.

Sinister cynical instrument

Who makes the gun into a sacrament—

The only response to the deification

Of tyranny by so-called "developed" nations'

Idolatry of ideology.

North, South, East, West—

Kill the best and buy the rest.

It's just spend a buck to make a buck.

You don't really give a flying f---

About the people in misery.

IMF (dirty MF)

Takes away everything it can get,

Always making certain that there's one thing left:

Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt.

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