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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, June 02, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 12: The Peaceable Household (Oikos)

Isaiah 11:1-11

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

    On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
    On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

In another familiar text from Advent, Isaiah 11 speaks of a shoot growing from a stump.  It is a familiar image for anyone who has had a tree cut down in the yard.  Unless it suffered from disease and died all the way down to the roots, it usually keeps sending up new growth every spring.  If you did not want the tree, then you have to keep cutting it back, maybe even digging it out.

Isaiah says that this is the nature of God's judgment.  It is like pruning.  The damaged, diseased, dead, unbalanced, or otherwise problematic parts are cut back to reshape and revitalize the tree.  Christians have long seen this as a Messianic text linking Jesus to the promises God made to Israel.  The Messiah brings a new beginning from the same root of God's love in calling Israel to be a holy nation.

Even without Christological interpretation, the text describes a ruler who is wise, pious, righteous, equitable, faithful, and just.  The ruler will provide justice to the poor and to the meek.  All who would abuse and oppress them will receive swift and harsh judgment.  It is a promise of a different kind of world than the one that has brought the prophetic oracles delivered by Isaiah against Judah.

The lines which follow have inspired the imagination of writers, painters, musicians, and everyday folks through the centuries.  In classic poetic parallelism of Hebrew literature, line after line names a vulnerable animal and a dangerous predator.  The vulnerable are lambs, kids, calves, cows, oxen, and human infants and toddlers.  The predators are wolves, leopards, lions, bears, asps, and adders.  They appear in pairs, perhaps echoing the pairs going into the ark, but this time shockingly from different species who are not usually at peace.  The multiple species also echo the story of Eden, in which the various species lived in harmony.  To reinforce that allusion, it says that lions will eat straw like oxen.

The juxtaposition of the weak alongside the predators reminds the reader of how things have been in Judah.  The powerful have preyed on the vulnerable.  Often, when people describe themselves as powerful, whether it be kings, bankers, day-traders, generals, senators, and such, they compare themselves to predators.  Sport teams prefer mascots like lions, tigers, hawks, eagles, vipers, bears, wolves, and panthers.  It was true long ago as well.  Kings liked to be called lions.  Biblical language reflects this, for example the term "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah" can refer to a king from David's descent.  Chapter 10 refers to the king of Assyria as a "Bull."  But these lines challenge that kind of language.  They speak of a transformation of nature.

These poetic lines provide a restatement in different language of what the shoot from Jesse will bring.  Lions, bears, and adders will become known for their gentleness.  Lambs will have no reason to fear wolves.  Human babies need not scream or run from the presence of poisonous snakes.  The change from business as usual, what the powerful thought of as "natural," will be complete under the plan of God.  Those who were previously predators and those who were previously prey can now live together harmoniously because there must be no oppression of the poor, no twisting of the laws to favor the wealthy, no double standard shaped by money.  When everyone listens and learns the ways of God, it will become clearly rational that together they must make sure there is no one in need among them.  When everyone loves God and the goodness of God's creation more than private control, status, power, and luxury, then finding the way to live together in harmony will again be revealed as the purpose for living.

Clive Rainey, one of the originals from Habitat for Humanity, uses a term that makes some sense here for thinking about economic life.  He says that part of the benefit of Habitat's approach to housing comes from "rooftop moments."  Rainey is referring to those moments when a Habitat homeowner, putting in sweat equity on the home she is going to buy, finds herself alone working on the roof with a church-going banker, manager, or business owner.  As often as not, the pair are of different skin colors.  In those minutes or hours spent working, eventually people who come from groups who almost never have occasion to speak with one another strike up a conversation.  They almost inevitably find their presuppositions about one another shattered.  As they tell their stories to one another, they begin to imagine a world not so divided into the successful and the failures, the rich and the poor, the hard-working and the lazy, the smart and the stupid, the deserving and the undeserving.  I think this is what the wolf and the lamb lying together is supposed to tell us about the household of God.

The Greek word for household is oikos, the same Greek root from which we get our word economy.  An economy, if it is like a household, is a system of provision through interdependence and mutuality.  Everyone is not exactly alike.  All have distinct gifts.  Some may excel beyond others.  But at base, all contribute and all benefit.  When needed, all sacrifice, but as the Apostle Paul says, they do so in proportion to what they have.  Some must contribute and sacrifice more in a commitment to care for each person.  The Peaceable Kingdom is also a Peaceable Household.  They are both Beloved Community.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 11: All People and Nations Standing Before a Just God

Isaiah 10:5-7, 11-15, 33-34

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—
     the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
     and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
     and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But this is not what he intends,
     nor does he have this in mind;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
     and to cut off nations not a few.

"Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
     what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

     When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride. For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
     and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I have removed the boundaries of peoples,
     and have plundered their treasures;
     like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones.
My hand has found, like a nest,
     the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
     so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing,
     or opened its mouth, or chirped.”

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
     or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,
     or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,
     will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
the tallest trees will be cut down,
     and the lofty will be brought low.
He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,
     and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.

The Assyrian imperialism and its widespread destruction of cities, villages, farms, and people, raises theological questions for the Isaiah and the people.  First, the Assyrians are not examples of obedience to Yahweh.  They see the gods of other peoples, including Judah, as idols, as weak deities who will fall before their divine mission.  They pursue greed through conquest.  Assyria and its leaders are also guilty of economic injustice.  Why would God allow Assyria to succeed while judging the sins of Judah and Israel?

Isaiah declares that Assyria's time will come.  They also stand under the judgment of God.  In the meantime, God allows the cycle of violence and greed to work itself out, sowing and reaping destruction.  Assyria does not march across the continent with an understanding of its conquest as the judgment of Yahweh.  For Assyria, it is the demonstration of the greatness of their generals and armies.  Thanks to their own greatness, Assyrian leaders believe they will grasp and carry away the wealth of the nations.  They will plunder all the treasures of the continent and claim it for themselves.  This is the very same sinfulness of the leaders and elite of Judah, expanded to an even more violent dominance and an even more vast landscape.  But God is not "blessing" Assyria.  Assyria will quickly sow the seeds of its own destruction.

Second, in the process of Assyrian conquest, the widows and orphans, the weak and the vulnerable, will also suffer, as stated in chapter nine.  Here in chapter ten, Isaiah offers more insight into this theological problem about the suffering of innocents.  Assyria, while serving as an instrument of judgment, does not act in accord with the will of God.  Imperialistic war, violence, plunder, killing and maiming--these are not the ways of God.  They are the ways of sin.  God is not endorsing violence, but allowing sin to work out its terrible consequences.  Violence comes into the world, not by the will of God, but by the freedom to be greedy, self-aggrandizing, possessive, and hateful that God has allowed to humanity.  This same violence led to the organized use of power to execute the sinless one, Jesus.  God is not pleased to see this violence, but God is willing to endure the violence to which humanity finds itself in bondage.  The struggle of righteousness and justice is to push back the powers formed in violence in the name of those formed in peace and justice.

So Assyria will have its day of judgment as well.  As Dr. King said, “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.”  That is what seeking economic justice is about.  Someone has to have the sense to say enough is enough in exploiting workers and the poor.  Someone has to stop the destruction, stand in the gap, speak truth to power, lift as we climb.  That is why the prophecies of the Old Testament are always conditional.  There is another way that leads to peace.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem's failure to find that way.  But if the unjust structures stand, the road will lead to a downward spiral of violence.  Pray that the Lord will send workers into the harvest, workers who know the good news of the way of Jesus.

Isaiah and Economic Justice 10: Failing as Public Servants

Isaiah 10:1-4

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.
In the last few postings, I've written about chapters which don't give much specific mention of the economy.  They speak more broadly of unrighteousness and injustice, of unfaithfulness and sin.  Therefore, I had to keep pointing back to earlier chapters in which the specific sinfulness of the leaders, the wealthy, the elite, even the priests and prophets, focused on foreclosures, usury, unfair wages, violence, and such.  Some of you may have begun to doubt that I was accurately portraying the message by overemphasizing the economy.  Just in time, we turn to chapter ten.

One of the important features of economic oppression is the cooperation of public officials.  Sometimes, they just look the other way and don't enforce the laws that would protect the weak and honest.  Often, they write laws which fail at equity.  One of the favorite tricks of lobbyists and lawmakers is to advocate reforming the law, only to use the pretense of reform as a way to give benefits to the economically powerful.  A regulatory board may be established to oversee chemical companies, but then the chemical company executives and their lobbyists get appointed to the board.  Farm bills may promise to help the family farmer, but almost all of the financial benefits goes to large industrial factory farms.  The new Medicare prescription drug benefit included a provision that the government would not regulate the price of the drugs, a huge benefit to the pharmaceutical companies.

Isaiah charges head on into this very problem occurring in his day.  He calls the laws themselves "iniquitous decrees."  He says the rulers are writing "oppressive statutes."  What is the result?  They are robbing the poor, turning aside justice, despoiling widows, and preying on orphans.  The laws are stacked against the vulnerable.  For this reason, the rulers will face judgment.  They will have to run from their palaces and offices to hide among the prisoners and the dead, hoping no one recognizes them.  God will not hold back the invaders.  How the mighty have fallen!

They will have to leave their plunder behind.  Someone else will claim it.  Even if they try to hide it, they will not have it to use.  An unjustly structured economy is abhorrent to God.

Throughout the long history of the church, even back to the apostolic era, the issue of just and unjust laws has been a critical matter for Christian ethics.  Whether it be Peter before the Sanhedrin, Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or many others, it was clear that Christians must not obey unjust laws.  In fact, they must disobey them.  At times in the modern age, it seems that a new hermeneutic of divine right of regimes has replaced the discernment process concerning just and unjust laws.  In the U.S., which has always had a self-image as God's Country, the commitment of church people to always obey the civil laws has been powerful.  The confusion between Christian ethics and the ethics of American culture have been so intertwined that most people cannot name the difference.

It was a critic of the church, Henry David Thoreau, who revived the tradition of resisting unjust laws during the Mexican War, when he argued for civil disobedience because the war tax was supporting an unjust war.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and others revived the discernment process of identifying just and unjust laws, and he advocated with Thoreau, the Bible, and the Christian theological tradition the duty  to disobey unjust laws.

When unjust economic structures oppress the poor and impoverish the vulnerable, Christians have a duty to rise up and seek to change those structures.  The laws which support those structures must be repealed, revised, and reformed.  Working outside the system and with the system are both legitimate paths by which the church seeks to establish a Jubilee economics under the guidance of God.
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