Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
In both Isaiah’s immediate history and ours, God’s people ordained and blessed an oppressive and extractive government/economy and the Israelites, like us, lived in the ugly results: an unjust society that divides people, accruing significant excess to some and increasingly preventing many others from meeting their basic needs for shelter, food, and clothing.
Israelite society didn’t stratify until they chose to inaugurate a monarchy. Economic injustice increased under Solomon, when the government introduced a tax structure and conscripted labor that accrued benefit to a few at the expense of many.
The parallel in our history? Institutional Christianity blessed the colonial imagination and endeavor from the 15th century forward, which decimated native people on this continent and enslaved Africans in order to jumpstart a nation’s economy. America’s government was intentionally set up to privilege land-owning, white men at the expense of everyone else. It has been successful, and we live in the compound generational effects.
So today, unfortunately (and helpfully?), we can listen to Isaiah with similarly conditioned ears. Did 21st century Christians set up an oppressive government and economic system? No, but neither did Isaiah and peers. Are we, like Isaiah, living in the resulting unjust society that still conveys privilege and power to certain groups of people at the expense of others? Yes. Does inequality and disparity in this society continue to get worse? Yes. Do we have an obligation to do something about it? Isaiah says yes, and God agrees.
Isaiah is assumed to have been among the upper class, so he is speaking as an insider to his peers, people who have the luxury of choosing to fast. Isaiah’s peers fast with the assumption that benefit would accrue to them, essentially projecting onto God their experience of the economy. They are hangry and whiny, because God has not recognized their performance of religious ritual. God hasn’t recognized them, because they oppress those who work for them; they are wicked and violent.
In essence, their religious performance does not form them. Instead, it exposes them. They show up on Sunday and do the things that you do, but their practice doesn’t mature to any communal reflection as to how informs their lives and relationships with people outside of their social sphere. Their lives are dis-integrated, just like their community, and God isn’t interested in showing up to participate in or endorse that. Thoughts and prayers and fasts aren’t enough.
Isaiah points out that the fasting-oppressors have a problem–fractured relationship with God–by virtue of being the problem. Isaiah describes a just fast, which would catch God’s attention. It shouldn’t result in self-enrichment, but self-weakening for community-enrichment. If they want a right relationship with God, they have to reorient their relationship with those whom they are exploiting. Those in positions of power must choose a different fast.
Isaiah’s culture, contrary to boot-strapping individualism replete in ours, at least embedded the idea of obligation to one another in their understanding of justice. There is expectation that everyone has a right to enough food, shelter, and clothing, and it was the duty of those whose needs were met to make sure the system conveyed these benefits to everyone. Fasting should be the mechanism for communal reflection that leads to systematic change and equitable resource distribution.
Economic oppression in Isaiah’s context parallels white supremacy/racism in ours. In racial equity work, facilitators make clear that the burden of understanding white advantage and figuring out how to work against an inequitable system as a white person belongs to white people. It is especially the burden, the privilege, of white people of faith, since the church is the progenitor of a racialized imagination that sanctioned the exploitative underpinnings of this nation: genocide and slavery.
When Isaiah suggests “loosing the bonds of injustice” in 58:6, the Hebrew word translated as injustice, resa, is the same that is translated in 58:4 as wicked. God’s justice is a direct overturning of the specific injustice propagated by God’s people. As participants in the ongoing institution of church, we have to own the church’s wickedness in order to participate in undoing it.
How can the church live into the duty and just obligation of God’s economy to ensure that everybody who has less, has enough? What fast do we, who have the luxury of choosing, choose?
Well to start, we can fast from the idea that the church has been the bearer of integrity and a just imagination. Rather, we should seek to understand how we, as people of God, have historically contributed to and continue to participate in an unjust, racist societal structure. There’s a lot of work to do in our congregations on that front. By extension, we should fast from the idea that poor people, who are disproportionately people of color, are poor because it’s somehow their fault or that they are less deserving of human rights: food, shelter, clothing, work that doesn’t exploit them.
Equity is the product and marker of a just fast. In our American context, this means that we should seriously consider how to effect reparations, i.e. some kind of targeted investments in historically exploited and disenfranchised communities, because they have as much human right to flourish as anybody else. And for those of us who have accrued benefit from the systems that we live in, it is our burden and obligation to advocate for a re-imagining, which will require giving up some and taking less, so that everyone has enough.
Isaiah assures the Israelites and us that God shows up precisely in this ritual-reality integrating, anti-racist, resource-redistributing, anti-poverty, equity-producing work. If the thoughts and prayers of the privileged are matched with a self-weakening/community-enriching fast that advances equity and justice for all, then God answers our call and participates in our righteousness, bringing up the rear and sustaining us for the journey ahead.
Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible by Bruce Malchow
Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soon-Chan Rah
The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie Jennings
Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance by Edgar Villanueva