Justice not Religion
The book of the prophet Isaiah begins by jumping full on into a tirade against the people of the day.
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
The author, it is fair to say, is not impressed with his compatriots, his fellow-religionists.
What is it that Isaiah is so worked up about, what is it that he needs to declare, as one called by God to speak out to the nation, to the people that God had called to be God’s?
Well, if you flip through the pages of the book, you’ll find no end of things that are spoken out against, many of which seem timeless in their applicability. A couple which caught my eye: in Isaiah 5
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
and I think of those pictures of big sprawling hundred-million-dollar houses of the ultra-wealthy. Or woes spoken against those:
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!
Or those who have profited while others in their community lack the most basic of needs:
…the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?
But all the good, solid, social justice critique that Isaiah brings against the people – and especially, against the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the leaders – keeps coming back, over and again, to a deeper concern.
That the abuse of wealth and power, the grasping for more for me and the expense of others, the disregard for basic human rights, for and sense of equity or justice, that all this is a symptom of a deeper sickness.
A sickness which is, at heart, spiritual.
Now don’t hear me for a moment – not even a fraction of a moment – as going down a path that says, “we don’t need to worry about all this woke social justice stuff – we just need people to get saved and the rest will follow”. Because we know it doesn’t work like that. We’ve seen – perhaps most graphically in the rise of the religious right in the USA, but we’ve seen our share here too – that faith, even deeply and honestly held faith, does not inevitably lead to acts of justice. Not on a personal level, nor a social, systemic level.
Isaiah’s attacks, his cutting words, are for those with strongly held faith. Those who practice their religion.
In Isaiah 1, the people spoken against bring offerings. A multitude of sacrifices. Incense. Convocations. Solemn assemblies. Appointed festivals. Many prayers. They are deeply religious people. People of faith.
And nor is there the suggestion that this faith is not honestly, sincerely held. No suggestion that they are only pretending.
The message at the root of Isaiah’s cry is not “you need to believe in God”, but “you need to relearn what God is calling you to”.
And don’t we know, all too well, in our own day, how much of the most harmful, destructive speech and action comes from people who identify as followers of Jesus. I’m a straight, cis-gendered, man, so I haven’t been the target – the victim – of expressions of faith that would insist on subjugating women, forcing them to stay in abusive relationships. That would deny marriage, or even basic dignity, to same sex couples. That would push my transgender or non-binary siblings back into the straightjacket of simplistic understandings of gender.
I haven’t been the victim. But I’ve been a witness. And I hope, and ally, not a bystander.
Isaiah’s cry is not against religion, not against faith.
Over and over again Isaiah’s call is not away from faith, but back to it. The call is not to abandon belief in God, not to step away from religious practice, but to embrace it more truly.
Many voices today would assert that belief in God is the root cause of the unjust, discriminatory practices that we all too often see as the public face of the Church. And who can blame them? Somehow we’ve allowed the Christian faith to be defined in the public eye not by our opposition to corporate greed, or to the gambling industry, or to the normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse, or to our treatment of refugees, or to the destruction of the environment, or the marginalisation of first peoples – not to any of the deep injustices in our society (even though many, many Christians care passionately about these things, and work with followers of other faiths and none to right these wrongs) – but by a small set of matters of “personal morality”.
So it’s easy to understand how people can see faith in God as the problem. But that’s not how Isaiah saw it. Faith to him was not the problem. Indeed, in faith lay the solution.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
The cry “seek justice” resonates through the book of Isaiah. In fact, it resonates through the whole of the scriptures. Yes, there is stuff on personal morality there, but there’s a lot more on justice. And even much of the ‘personal morality’ stuff comes with a justice edge – my favourite example of this is the law of the Sabbath, the fourth commandment:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
A personal command to take the day of rest, to make the day holy: but also a justice of command, to give that same break to all under your authority – children, slaves, foreigners, even livestock.
But there are a few more words in the reading that I want us to hear. Because without them this just becomes a criticism and a demand that we do better. But when I claim that in faith lies the solution, it is not just in giving us better directions. Sometimes not knowing the right thing to do is the problem. But more often the problem lies in doing it. Or in our guilt or hopelessness from all the times we have failed in the past.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
There was a time in my late teenage years when these were probably the most important words in the Bible for me. When I struggled with destructive patterns of behaviour which I kept falling back into however hard I tried, and which I feared were unchangeable, and would define who I was.
And I clung to these words for their promise that even if this was who I was, I was still acceptable to God, that forgiveness was still there for me. And there were times that only that promise got me through.
But with hindsight I can see another promise in these words. The possibility of deep change. That I could be forgiven, yes, but more – that this did not have to be the truth about me. That this scarlet, this crimson, could be transformed.
I’m not suggesting that only faith can offer such change. I have a deep respect for counsellors and others who help people make deep changes in their lives. And I certainly encourage people of faith to seek such professional help.
But I do believe, and have personally found, that there is also a resource in our faith for change. The promise of grace – that whatever our past holds need not condemn or define us. And the gift of the Spirit – power at work within us, alongside us, in partnership with whatever other help we get – to steadily transform us.
It feels like we’ve skimmed over a lot of ground. Religious practice, justice, personal transformation, together form the priority that Isaiah would call us to: not away from religion, but deeper into faith. Deeper into God’s passion for justice, God’s compassion for the vulnerable, the hurting, our siblings at risk of harm.
And deeper into God’s grace; that accepts us despite, that holds us, that empowers us to genuine, deep, lasting change.