When Too Many Voices Speak for God

We can stagger under the impact of know-it-all voices.

Religious hypocrisy is a perennial problem among Christians. In fact, none of us ever live lives fully consistent with the gospel we claim to believe. One bitter fruit of this is that God’s good reputation gets tarnished outside of the circles of professed believers. I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paul’s Pious Phonies.

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There is another unfortunate fruit (more like a thistle) of this hypocrisy. Confidence in the message we preach and teach is undermined. This loss of confidence is intensified when we hear multiple voices proclaiming divergent understandings of God’s will.

I have lived most of my life in environments where I have heard a cacophony of conflicting voices each claiming to understand the truth for the church. I have often experienced a sense of betrayal by people (not only professional theologians and preachers, but also Sunday school teachers and devotional book writers) who have confidently proclaimed what they believe to be the will of God and therefore how I should live. As a boy and youth I accepted their claims without question.

But as I have advanced in my spiritual journey, I have come to question, if not outright reject, much of what was taught me when I was younger. I have adopted a lively caution as I listen to what I hear proclaimed today, not only in Evangelical circles, but in mainstream Protestant and Catholic circles. That caution works like a spiritual Geiger counter that constantly tests for what may be nothing more than religious cant.

What often sets off that spiritual Geiger counter is any claim by a speaker or writer that he or she is presenting the only one true way to God. The tone is I-know-it-all. This strikes me as true arrogance. My God will not be boxed into one theological box. My God may accomplish his purposes in ways far beyond anything I can imagine or expect.

What is called for, I believe, is a fundamental humility about our understandings of God and God’s will. We can and should live our lives confidently in the beliefs and convictions we hold. That is the way of maturity. Yet we must always be ready to admit that we might just be wrong. Infallibility is not a gift given to mankind.*

My Debt to the Reformation

To be honest, however, such a stance of humility can bear its own disquieting fruit. We can listen to the many theologies and ethical systems laid before us by preachers, spiritual teachers, theologians, and fellow lay Christians and then feel totally confused. Such confusion saps us of confident living. How do we end up making choices about what is right and true, choices on which we can choose to live our lives?

Here is where I realize that despite many qualms about my upbringing, I remain a spiritual son of the Reformation. For when I am confronted with a viewpoint that I do not fully understand or trust, I return to the Bible to find my bearings once again. It serves as the spiritual polar star that orients my faith journey. It is the rudder that keeps my spiritual ship sailing within a life-delivering channel. It is why the study of the Bible remains central to my spiritual life and my preaching and teaching.

When I say that, I am not saying that I practice some form of proof-texting where I find some verse in the Bible which I then extract out of context and turn into an isolated statement of universal truth. Such proof-texting lies behind much of the religious know-it-all arrogance from which I rebel.

I don’t believe that because a particular sentence appears in the Bible, it automatically becomes the authoritative word of God. Context and literary genre, for example, matter. So when I read the Bible, I try to be especially acute to the context of a phrase or sentence as well as the literary genre in which that phrase or sentence is embedded.

What I am doing  when I turn to Scripture is that I seek to soak myself in Scripture’s spirit and mindset. That means that, in a spiritual sense, I bathe myself in the waters of Scripture, listening to and meditating on what the Bible’s many diverse writers are saying. For I do not find one consistent message in the Bible, but a group of diverse voices in dialogue with each other. Their many voices remind me of the many voices of the rabbis whose wide-ranging discussions lie behind the creation of the Talmud.

Within that diversity of opinion and vision, I hope that I will tap into the Spirit who animates them all. The Spirit can do his work to cultivate within me the mind of Christ, which Paul urges us to adopt in Philippians 2:5: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….

As we come to look more and more at the world and at our own individual lives from within that mind of Christ, we can have confidence that the Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the truth.**

This is one important reason why I write this blog. I have confidence in the Bible because I have confidence in the Spirit that lies behind the Bible. The Bible therefore is worth the hours of energy that I invest in reading it and trying to understand its complex and spacious message.

This confidence in the Spirit is no guarantee, however, that my thinking will be without error. My creaturely mind will never be big enough to comprehend the fullness of truth. There will never be any grounds for intellectual or spiritual arrogance. But I can hope that I will be drawn deeper into the truth as I remain open both to the Spirit’s reshaping of my mind and heart and to perceptions of the truth offered by my fellow human beings.

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* On the issue of humility, I want to affirm the spirit expressed in this prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me ,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I was introduced to this prayer in a 2012 issue of the magazine Reflections, published by Yale Divinity School. The theme of the issue was: Seizing the Day: Vocation, Calling, and Work.

 ** What I am trying to say about the role of the Bible in my life parallels what the sages who wrote the Book of Proverbs say about the search for wisdom. For them, what ensures that their search for wisdom will prove fruitful is that it is grounded in an underlying fear of the Lord. This fear is understood not as terror, but as awe, reverence, and trust. The classic statement of this viewpoint comes in Proverbs 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

For me, one dimension of fearing the Lord is my basic reverence and openness to the words and thoughts I find in the Bible.

 

What the Apostle Paul Means by Freedom

The apostle’s view runs counter to that of most Americans.

 Two years ago when I published my study guide to the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I titled it Charter of Christian Freedom. I did so because Christians have long regarded Galatians as a powerful statement about the freedom Christ has conferred upon believers.

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The apostle’s point comes through most boldly in Galatians 5:1:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This verse is Paul’s gospel claim within the sphere of public debate. It could be printed on posters and mounted prominently in every church.

It is easy, however, to pervert Paul’s message if we do not take time to understand what he means by freedom. We especially do so when we Americans bring to Paul our own prevailing understanding of freedom.

The Common American Understanding of Freedom

When America issued its Declaration of Independence in 1776, it stated that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ever since Americans have made liberty one of their most cherished—if not the greatest–values.

But what does freedom mean to most Americans today? When I hear my fellow citizens talk about freedom, I get the sense that what freedom means for them is license to do whatever they please. No external compulsive power is able to tell us what to do or how to live.

Nothing—whether government regulation, social convention, institutional authority, or family pressure—blocks us from doing whatever we want to do. Our home is our individual castle which presides over our own world of individual sovereignty. This concept of freedom, I believe, lies at the core of a lot of libertarian as well as identity politics.

The problem is: How do you maintain a wholesome social order with this understanding of freedom? For this concept of freedom remains essentially ego-centric. What counts in the end is my ability to do what I please. The momentum behind such a concept of freedom is the drive to fulfill my own self-interest, my own well-being and prosperity.

The ego-centrism may not just be confined to individual persons. It can also characterize groups and societies as corporate individuals. And so we can find that ethnic or religious groups can make the advancement of their own well-being the primary focus of their energies. Likewise, nations can say all that really counts in international relations is each country following its own national self-interest.

Finding Our Way in Such a World of Freedom

 How do we negotiate our way in such a context of freedom? Usually by two options. One is competition. All free individuals are in competition with one another. In competition, conflict is resolved when one party wins and all others lose. It tends to be a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose.

It was the fundamental assumption of ancient Greek society, the society in which Paul’s readers and listeners had grown up. Greek city states presumed that strife (eris)– strife between states, between social classes, between individuals–was the natural condition of life.

Paul recognizes the perils of this understanding of freedom when he warns his readers:

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).

 That was abundantly fulfilled in the history of ancient Greece. All the rival city states fought each other incessantly, as each individual state sought to achieve hegemony within the Greek world. In the process they weakened each other so much that when Macedonian imperial power invaded Greece, no city state could successfully resist such integrated power.

The other negotiating option is compromise. But to someone who prizes his or her self-interest above all other values, compromise can feel distasteful. I have to moderate my own desires and needs by accommodating to the desires and needs of others. That can feel like I am settling for second best, not the best. We find this distaste for compromise among many extremist groups today.

Paul’s Concept of Freedom

So what does Paul mean by freedom? I think we get at his concept of freedom in Galatians 5:13-14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Freedom for Paul is the experience of being liberated or released from our dominating ego-centrism. It removes all the obstacles that keep us from being the people God created us to be, from living the life that God calls us to live. That life embraces two important tasks:

  • To recognize, develop, and use our God-given gifts, talents, and skills for God’s glory and for service to others, and
  • To give ourselves in love to others and to receive their love and service in return without impediment.

Paradoxically when we live into such love and service to others, we find ourselves becoming most fully the individuals that God created each of us to be uniquely. Our own personal fulfillment is the unexpected by-product of this paradoxical freedom.

Obstacles to Freedom

The obstacles that keep us from experiencing such freedom may be many. They can be:

  • Psychological hang-ups,
  • Social prejudice,
  • Family or societal expectations,
  • Paralyzing feelings of guilt or shame,
  • Distorted thinking,
  • Political or economic oppression,
  • Ethnic or religious discrimination,
  • Spiritual woundedness,
  • Physical diseases and disabilities.

Especially potent obstacles for Paul are spiritual forces at work in the world. Paul refers to them in passing in Galatians 4:3, when he speaks of “the elemental spirits of the world.” Elsewhere he will call them the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Today we might describe them as the systemic structures, mindsets, and expectations that govern the way the world operates.

They are so deadly to human freedom that Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:10-12:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Life can be full of obstacles that keep us from being the unique persons God calls us to be. That is what the work of God’s salvation is all about, setting us free from all these obstacles.  Salvation is all about liberation. That is clear from the Exodus story, which becomes the paradigm for all of God’s future works of salvation.

When we enter fully into this kind of freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free–we can be truly spontaneous in our way of living, for our whole being will be governed by the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. It is at the same time a responsible freedom. It takes seriously God’s call to respect the dignity and value of all others, including even the natural creation.

When we enter into this kind of freedom, we can finally live without a spiritual or psychological hang-up the counsel that St Augustine gave his congregation centuries ago:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt….*

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* St. Augustine, Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12

In God We Trust

Isaiah’s provocative take on America’s national motto.

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The American national motto appears on all American coinage.

If the prophet Isaiah were to enter the pulpit of many American churches today, he would baffle if not alienate most who heard him. American Christians generally hold the view that preachers should stay clear of politics. In fact, our tax code recognizes the rule that in order for a church to retain its tax-exempt status, preachers in the pulpit must refrain from endorsing particular political candidates.

When you read the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, you realize that Isaiah did not share this viewpoint. His message was highly political. Among other things he repeatedly counsels the kings of Judah on how to handle the kingdom’s foreign relations. His authority? The word he says he receives from God. His approach can and should make American Christians uncomfortable.

The Historical Context of Isaiah

Isaiah was active during a particularly tumultuous time in the ancient Near East. In the 14thcentury B.C., the Egyptian empire had largely abandoned its garrisons stationed in the Levant.

As a result, a historical window opened up that allowed a throng of mini-states to gain independence and flourish. They included the city states of Tyre, Sidon, and the Philistine Pentapolis. They also included mini-kingdoms like Aram, Moab, Ammon, and others. Among them was the united kingdom of Israel that under David and Solomon dominated the region for a short period. Then it broke apart into the two rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

This international situation prevailed for approximately 600 years. Then in the 8thcentury B.C. the Mesopotamian power of Assyria began an imperial drive to expand beyond its Mesopotamian roots. As Assyria expanded east and west,* it swallowed up and destroyed most of the mini-kingdoms and city states that had flourished for a half millennium.

Assyria even defeated Egypt and annexed it into its empire, just as one mighty python might swallow up another python of equal size. The Assyrians established an empire whose extent had never been matched in the previous history of the ancient Near East.

Among its potential victims was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. Israel along with its neighbor Aram had launched an alliance to resist Assyrian advance. They hoped to enlist the southern kingdom of Judah, which was ruled by the dynasty of David, as another partner. When the current king Ahaz resisted, they chose instead to invade Judah and replace the king with a puppet.

In desperation, Ahaz contemplated calling on Assyria to come to its aid. Isaiah the prophet told him he would be foolish to do so. Instead Isaiah counseled Ahaz to place his confidence in God who would be the kingdom’s true savior.

Ahaz ignored Isaiah. Isaiah’s counsel seemed impractical and unrealistic. How could faith in God be a reliable defense? Ahaz summons Assyria.

Judah and Assyria

Assyria was only too happy to come to the rescue. The threat against Ahaz was lifted. The Assyrians destroyed Aram and its capital Damascus and then turned to Israel and its capital of Samaria, which it wiped off the political map of the Near East in 722 B.C.

Then Assyria turned its attention to Judah. In 701 B.C. the Assyrian king Sennacherib  invaded Judah, leveling one Judean city after another. Then Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, now ruled by Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son. (Jerusalem’s lonely desperation is well described in Isaiah 1:7-9.)

Hezekiah sought to defend the city by strengthening its defenses, pulling down houses to build up the walls. He also constructed a tunnel to direct the waters of the city’s one spring, which lay outside the walls, inside the walls. He opened up the city’s armory. And he sent a delegation to Egypt to plead for assistance. All of these seemed to be necessary and very practical responses to the Assyrian threat. His measures are described in Isaiah 22.

Throughout this tumultuous time, what was Isaiah’s counsel? He constantly advised Judah’s leadership not to put any trust in foreign alliances or in relying on their armaments (chariots and horses in particular), but to place their trust in God. God would deliver them.

A Uniting Message in Isaiah?

Reading through Isaiah 1-39 can feel very confusing. Oracles are not listed in chronological order. Rather we feel that we are dealing with a jumble of oracles hastily thrown together. There seems to be no uniting thread.

But I have come to question that assumption. What I think the editor of Isaiah has done is take the many oracles of Isaiah, delivered over a number of years in this time of particular crisis for Judah, and arranged them into an order where they deliver an enduring message of warning and hope for future generations.

As I read through these chapters, I catch hints here and there of a unified message emerging. The prophet sees the chaos that is roiling the Near East in his day as the work of God. The aggressive Assyrians are simply the tool of God’s judgment.

For example, foreseeing the fall of the city state of Tyre, the prophet cries:

Who has planned this

                        against Tyre, the bestower of crowns,

            whose merchants were princes,

                        whose traders were the honored of the earth?

            The LORD of hosts has planned it—

                        to defile the pride of all glory,

                        to shame all the honored of the earth. (Isaiah 23:8-9)

The era of the mini-city states and kingdoms is coming to an end. During their centuries of flourishing, they also engaged in constant predatory raids and warfare on each other. In the prophet’s eyes, the land has become polluted as a result of the incessant bloodshed. In addition, the elites of these states have exploited the lives of the poor and marginalized. Life for these oppressed ones has become bitter.

We see this theme most clearly expressed in Isaiah 24:5-6:

The earth lies polluted

                        under its inhabitants;

            for they have transgressed laws,

                        violated the statutes,

                        broken the everlasting covenant.

            Therefore a curse devours the earth,

                        and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;

            therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,

                        and few people are left.

The time of reckoning has arrived. This is the reality Judah must confront as it looks upon its desperate situation. God is moving in the international scene. Judah, along with the other mini-states of the Levant, are reaping the bitter harvest of their unceasing warfare, conflict, social oppression, and religious hypocrisy.

Judah’s Hope for Salvation?

Because God lies behind this turmoil, Isaiah warns Judah’s leaders against turning to their customary tools of statecraft.They should not place their hopes in international alliances, especially with regional powers like Egypt. Egypt will prove a broken reed. Nor should they place their hopes in their military preparedness or advanced armaments (like horses and chariots, the tanks of Isaiah’s day). None of this will ultimately save them.

Rather Judah’s king and people should place their trust in the Lord. That is the burden of the famous oracle that Isaiah delivers to King Ahaz, that we read each Christmas:

Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel(Isaiah 7:14). [The name Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with us.”]

The point of this sign is that before this child has emerged out of infancy, the international threat against Judah will have passed. All Ahaz has to do is trust in God.

As counsel to the Judeans, the prophet delivers this word from God:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:

In returning and rest you shall be saved;

             in quietness and trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).

The message of Isaiah does not seem to be a message of disarmament pure and simple, but it comes close. He certainly places no great confidence in spending vast sums on building up Judah’s military might. Rather he is advocating a radical change of mindset, a mindset that places priority on trust in the Lord.

The Real Source of National Security

Where should then Judah invest its energies and resources, if not in military preparedness? Here is where I hear the import of Isaiah’s constant cry to establish social justice and personal righteousness in the land and in every one of its inhabitants.

It is in caring for the welfare of all in society (especially the vulnerable ones referred to customarily as the widows, orphans, and resident aliens) that Judah can best work for its national security. The cultivation of personal integrity is vital for its peaceful future.

We hear this viewpoint expressed in the following passage:

The effect of righteousness will be peace,

                        and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

                        in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places (Isaiah 32:17-18).

 If I am hearing the message of Isaiah correctly, then we can begin to appreciate why few Americans today would welcome his voice. Proponents of Realpolitik will dismiss his message as nonsense. Isaiah, they will say, is living in a delusion. He doesn’t know how the real world works.

Judah’s leaders also ignored his counsel. So why were the words of Isaiah preserved and treasured rather than thrown on the dung heap of history as words of madness?

The Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was lifted not because foreign allies came to the rescue. Nor because Judean military might overwhelmed the Assyrians. Rather something totally unexpected broke the siege. The Old Testament reports that a mysterious plague decimated the ranks of the Assyrian army (see 2 Kings 19:35-37).  2 Chronicles 32:21 says that as a result Sennacherib returned to Assyria in disgrace. There he was assassinated by his own sons. What saved Jerusalem was not power politics, but the contingencies of history, which the prophet along with the Old Testament as a whole attributes to the hand of God.

This is why Isaiah’s message can be very provocative for us. He can call into question our own national priorities and obsessions. Is the practice of Realpolitik, especially in its most bullying form, going to ensure peace and prosperity? Are the vast sums we spend on our military establishment really going to secure America, especially when they are paid for by drastic reductions in programs of social welfare? Is what makes a nation strong its military might or the integrity of its institutions and its people?**

Our national motto is: In God we trust. But what does it mean in practical terms for a religiously pluralistic country like ours to trust in God? Here is where the prophet Isaiah may challenge some of our most fundamental national assumptions. And here, too, I suggest lies the enduring power of the prophet’s message.

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* Isaiah turns to the metaphor of a raging river that is overflowing its banks and flooding the land (see Isaiah 8:5-8).

** If you wish to hear a thoughtful reflection on the message of Isaiah and America’s obsessions with guns, I would refer you to a short talk made by Chris Hays, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Seminary, during a panel discussion on “The Bible and American Gun Culture” that happened at the seminary in March 2019. Hays opened up for me new perspectives on Isaiah that are in part reflected in this blog posting.

A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

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America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

Words, Words, Words

A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.

In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.

She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):

Words, words, words, words.

I’m so sick of words.

I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…

If you are in love, show me.

 Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.

What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:

They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)

On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
    and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
    and do no evil to their friends,
    nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)

When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.

That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.

The power of oratory

That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.

We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.

They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.

We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.

We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.

Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.

Biblical wisdom for Americans

This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.

We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?

We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.

As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.

So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.

I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.

A Biblical Response to Jeff Sessions

Be careful when you quote the Bible in the public sphere. The Bible may bite back.

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

This past week we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeal to Romans 13 as Biblical warrant for the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. I had to smile. He appealed to the one passage in Scripture that autocrats and divine-right kings have always claimed as their own. Sessions placed the administration right in their company.

But it is always dangerous to quote the Bible as isolated prooftexts. The Bible is not one simplistic message. It embraces many voices. When we quote one passage in isolation, we run the risk of one of those other voices rising up to challenge our single-minded viewpoint.

This is certainly the case when we look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants. For it has a lot to say. To be fair to the Bible, we must hear these alternate voices as well.

The Old Testament’s Vulnerable Ones

A striking feature of the Old Testament is the partiality that God shows for the vulnerable in Israelite society. In particular three classes of society are singled out as a focus of God’s concern. They are:

  • The widow, especially the childless widow
  • The orphan
  • The resident alien (Hebrew: ger)–a foreigner who is living permanently, not temporarily on Israelite soil. They are analogous to the green card immigrant in the United States.

All three were especially vulnerable in ancient Israelite society as they did not fit securely into the structure of the patriarchal family and clan. All three were, therefore, subject to being taken advantage of, abused, or oppressed.

The phrase–the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien–becomes therefore a stock phrase in the Old Testament for referring to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of Israelite society.

The Vulnerable Ones in the Torah

What is striking about the Old Testament is how this divine concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien enters into the text both early and late. The Book of Exodus, for example, includes commands from God about this vulnerable people in its very earliest statement of torah law, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23).

There we find God instructing the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-24)

God’s concern for the immigrant gets repeated just a few verses later:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

What is striking about these commands is the rationale they give for treating the resident alien benevolently. Israelites are to do so remembering that they too were once aliens living in a foreign land. They know the precarious lot of a resident alien, who lives and works in a land but is not a citizen.*

When we get to Leviticus, we find the focus on the resident alien rising to an even high level of intensity. Leviticus 19:18 lays down the command that Israelites are to love their neighbor as themselves. In the context, the neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite. But just a few verses later we find this striking extension of the rule:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is extended to loving the immigrant as we love ourselves. We are to treat him or her like a citizen.

In Deuteronomy, we find God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien moves beyond just words to concrete actions that the Israelites are to take on behalf of these three vulnerable classes of society.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. 

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

(Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Concern for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien means taking action to see that their physical needs, their very livelihood, is being taken care of. This is a vision of a generous society, not a parsimonious one. Welfare for the poor is built into the very way the Israelites are to do their daily business.

The Prophetic Contribution

Concern with the life needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien are not confined to the Pentateuch. We find references to them in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Psalm 146:5-10) and in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:12-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, and Zechariah 7:8-10).

I find the most striking prophetic passage in Jeremiah. It reads:

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.(Jeremiah 22:1-5)

The Jeremiah passage makes clear that the security and well-being of the kingdom itself is dependent upon the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. If the kingdom chooses to oppress and abuse them, then the very stability of the country is placed into jeopardy. Without using the stock slogan of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, the prophets Hoses and Amos declare a similar message.**

Absorbed into the Spiritual DNA of the Early Church

The New Testament writers do not use the stock phrase—the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien—but we find a concern with these categories appearing all through the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church. The message of the Old Testament has been so absorbed that it resides as part of the spiritual DNA of the early Christians. I wonder if it was not one of the reasons why the early Christian community found itself ultimately opening its ranks to include the Gentile believer—the spiritual outsider.

Jesus himself builds upon the warning of Jeremiah. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the last judgment when the Son of man comes in glory and sits in judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats.

What is striking in this account is the basis of judgment. It is not whether someone has placed saving faith in Jesus, but how someone has related to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, and the stranger.

What is also striking in the account is that this judgment is not just a judgment of individuals. The text says explicitly that the ones gathered before the throne are all the nations. Here again we meet that note that the security and well-being of a society is contingent on how it treats its most vulnerable ones.

I recognize these Biblical passages are not dealing with the issue of society’s need to control its borders and balance the need of immigrants with the needs of the native society. But they clearly say that a society’s “me-first” approach to the challenges of immigration and population movements is not ultimately going to secure the long-term well-being that its citizens crave.

If we are going to take seriously the message of the Bible for America, then I believe we Americans are going to have to listen to the full message of the Bible and not just one sole prooftext.

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* When we read this rationale, we can’t help recognizing how it mirrors the American experience. Unless our ancestry is native American, every American today comes from immigrant stock.

** In the prophets two great sins ultimately bring God’s judgment onto the two Israelite kingdoms. They are religious apostasy and social injustice.