When Defeat Becomes a Doorway
This week, we mark the third Sunday of Advent and light the candle of love. In this week’s scripture passage, God anoints Isaiah “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” In Faith in Real Life, the group discussed our ability or inability as people of faith to recognize the oppressed and brokenhearted of today and tend to them. More difficult still, do we recognize the instances in which we ourselves act, whether tacitly or actively, as oppressors to others?
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion —to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
In Isaiah, chapters 1-39 are filled with words of judgment and warning. The prophet had to explain the contrast between the promises of God and the fall of Jerusalem (587 BCE) and subsequent exile to Babylon. They did so by declaring that this national disaster was God’s just punishment for the sins of the nation. Then the Persians defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the Great released the Israelites in 539 BCE. Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah reflect this change of circumstance. Though their land was devastated and Jerusalem destroyed, there was hope and promise. God was redeeming his people.
The good news is that no matter what happened, the Israelites believed God was the agent. God was and is sovereign in all of life. The bad news is that the Israelites understood harsh times—whether that be national defeat or physical suffering— as God’s justice. Bad things did not happen to good people; they happened to sinful people. This was and is the most common explanation for suffering. Even the comfort offered in Isaiah 40:2 (“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”) reflected the belief that redemption came after adequate punishment.
However, the equating of our worldly circumstance with God’s favor or disfavor is God’s prerogative, not ours. This fundamental error can lead to a sense of privilege and entitlement when things are going well and a feeling of despair and oppression when they are not. In this passage, God redeems those sinful people. But he does so by removing the stigmatizing connection between human travail and sin. Oppression and defeat are not God’s will or punishment. No longer is hardship, mourning and loss the sign of God’s disfavor. Instead, God states plainly, He is on the side of the oppressed. “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;…to comfort all who mourn;…They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.”
This is a game changer. In the cosmology of the day, Yahweh would have been seen as failing his people. He was a lesser God. By definition, the gods of other nations had prevailed. They would have viewed themselves as a lesser people. Defeat meant shame. But in the face of that shame, Isaiah announces a new covenant: “Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.” Even their defeat would end in honor. God was working in a new way. He, and they, would prevail.
It is hard enough to be disenfranchised, alone and ostracized without it being a sign of our failure or sinfulness. As much as we ‘know better’, we all too often share the values of the Israelites. We blame and explain the hardships of others. An addict is weak willed. A woman who complains about sexual harassment has an ‘agenda’ and her integrity is questioned. Even more extreme, AIDS is God’s judgment against gays. Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment against the city of New Orleans. Though hopefully, these are extreme examples, each of these, and many more like them, are ways to abdicate personal responsibility. We do not have to involve ourselves in the suffering of others. It is their fault. But that is not who God is, and it is not OK for us to make those kinds of judgments.
This passage has at least two major thrusts. It is a comfort and sign of hope for disgraced people in any generation. It is also a call for each of us to bring good news to the oppressed, whoever they might be. This is harder than it looks. In real life, oppression is as often subtle as it is blatant. When it’s blatant in racial, gender or economic issues, we are regularly confronted with questions like: ‘What constitutes oppression?; Who is really oppressed? Who is being manipulative and dishonest?; When and how much should we advocate for the oppressed?’ None of these questions are clear and in FIRL, we entered a swamp of uncertainty when we sought to address them.
But the most pervasive and insidious consequence of oppression is the constant message that you matter less. This is what Isaiah is told to interrupt. Whether it be gender, race, age or economics, if you are on the short end of the stick, you are more likely to be exploited and ignored. You must go along to get along. You must sacrifice a piece of your soul. This is corrosive and it wears people down. Listening to and acknowledging the depth and pervasiveness of such forces is painful and discouraging. When we have accused predators in and running for office, the ideals of equality and cooperation seem less attainable. There is a futility associated with challenging the sheer magnitude of the problem. But it is probably no more daunting than trying to rebuild a devastated Jerusalem fifty years after you were forced to leave.
But, not only do we have the problem of identifying and standing against oppression, we must face the ways we are part of problem. We are equally dismissive of people we oppose. For instance, regardless of where you stand on abortion, there are people who strongly believe that the death of the unborn is the ultimate oppression of the disenfranchised. They read this passage with integrity and passion. Such people cannot be dismissed by accusing them of choosing party over pedophilia. I am sure there are those who would choose self interest (party) over morality but not all. It is a good debating trick but it is disrespectful. Trying to force people into our categories stereotypes them and removes their humanity. That is the moment we become what we oppose.
When our discussion reached this point, the tone was disquiet and despair. Theodore Parker’s quote —“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—which has been beacon of hope for so many, is hard to hold onto. Respecting and honestly engaging others is difficult at best. Failing to do so can make us vehicles of oppression. It is one thing to champion the oppressed and to receive comfort when we feel oppressed, it is quite another to realize we are often part of the problem.
There are hundreds of ways we stigmatize and dismiss ourselves and other people. It is a terrible paradox that the church is too often part of the stigmatization and oppression of people rather than the voice of good news. All too often the church can hardly acknowledge, much less engage, sexual questions, the divorced, the mentally ill, troubled families, serious questions about faith—to name a few. We tend to speak of them in whispers. Even the broken-hearted can not be listened to for very long. Well before the pain has diminished, there is an implicit deadline —an expectation ‘to get on with life.’ Broken relationships tend to be viewed as personal inadequacy, a failure. Instead of real people, we lean toward being a Facebook congregation. To the degree to which that occurs, troubled people keep silent. Their personal predicaments are exacerbated by loneliness and isolation. We’ve all been there.
But God has a new way. He comes for us when we are isolated, unable or unwilling to speak. He promises that something new, something humanly unexpected can spring up. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” We need that hope.
Holding on to that promise gives us a way to new life. Even despair can be redemptive. I am seeing a woman who is recovering from alcoholism. She refers to all of the forces in her life that led to her drinking as the ‘gift of despair’. It led her to a new life she could not have imagined. She would not wish her journey on anyone but just because it was terrible did not mean she, or her journey was bad. Isaiah is told to make the same announcement to the returning Israelites. It is good news.
May Emanuel comfort us when we are oppressed. May He bring hope when we are in despair. May he challenge us to see the ways we are part of the problem. Help us live the Good News. Let it be so.