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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 4: Misleaders

Isaiah 3:12b-15

O my people, your leaders mislead you,

….and confuse the course of your paths.

The Lord rises to argue his case;

….he stands to judge the peoples.

The Lord enters into judgment

….with the elders and princes of his people:

It is you who have devoured the vineyard;

….the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing my people,

….by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 3:18-24

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarfs; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.

Instead of perfume there will be a stench;

….and instead of a sash, a rope;

….and instead of well-set hair, baldness;

….and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth;

.instead of beauty, shame.

Isaiah 3 continues to point out the instability of the conspicuous wealth of the powerful in Israel. One part of the chapter comments on the wealthy women who love to show off their finery while constantly shopping for more. But this is not strictly a criticism of women. It is about one of the visible features of a system in which the wealth of has grown so far beyond the level of human need that it becomes primarily a measuring rod within a competitive structure of status and power.

In this text, it is the most powerful, the same ones who by social delegation should be most responsible, who receive the greatest attention. The leaders have brought about this problem. The elders and princes have brought the nation to this desperate economic situation, yet they do not even see the problem. They lie to themselves and to everyone else to justify a system organized around fulfilling their insatiable greed. Of course, what they are doing is right since it is working for them; moreover, if what they are doing is right, it is by their logic good for all.

At the heart of their sin is deception. They mislead the people, and ultimately come to believe their own deceptions. They foment confusion about economic matters which anyone should be able to understand. They create technical language and lengthy regulations full of caveats and qualifications in order to conceal their intentions. They work in backrooms to strategize the path to their self-interest, then dress it in empty platitudes of the common good. We might recognize this in the marketing of subprime mortgages. We might hear echoes of their deceptions in the cunning secrecy of credit default swaps. We may know of what they speak in the hidden fees and traps of consumer credit. We may continue to hear the deception in the claim that capping interest rates will make it impossible to loan money to lower-income people, as if high interest rates are transforming them into becoming more creditworthy.

The prophet does not mince words. The vineyard image bears rich significance here. First, it is a symbol of a prosperous and good life. To have a thriving vineyard is to be blessed with wine at one’s table as well and with a valuable product for trade. But equally importantly, a vineyard is an image of Israel as the Lord’s planting and cultivation of a people (5:1ff). God has tenderly and conscientiously cared for the vineyard. But rather than Israel blossoming and bearing rich fruit as a people, the ones who should have cared for the vineyard have stripped it bare and left it in ruins.

The image gives way to a very concrete indictment. After saying they have devoured the vineyard, the prophet explicates the symbolic language. Their fullness and fatness comes from despoiling the poor. Their wealth is the product of oppression. Their mansions are framed and decorated by the rightful possessions of the poor. Their wealth is not derived from their virtue. Their only expertise is in being good criminals and hiding their crimes. This is what God despises.

Ultimately, the prophet claims that their appearance of greatness is ephemeral. They will lose it, and this oracle spares no detail. Perfume, sash, hairdo, robe, and all other trappings of beauty will soon be gone. In their place will come a stench, a raggedy piece of rope, a hairless head, sackcloth for clothing, and shame. This kind of economic system cannot sustain itself. Moreover, God demands justice. A prophet must rise up to speak the truth.

One last quotation from the Bruce Cockburn song, “Call It Democracy,” may help us see.

See the paid-off local bottom-feeders

Passing themselves off as leaders.

Kiss the ladies. Shake hands with the fellows:

Open for business like a cheap bordello,

And they call it democracy.

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