Nostalgia and Politics

The Politics of Scripture

Embodying the best of the prophetic tradition, the text encourages us to consider that religion, in fact, does have functions: liberation, feeding the hungry, inviting vulnerable strangers into our homes, and undoing injustice.

Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)

If you were ever part of a protest rally, you would know the importance of shouting out a slogan with all your strength. Consider for instance, “A people united will never be divided.” “Unity” in the slogan is quite literally embodied in the crowd of people coming together. And, when the united crowd shouts the slogan together, sound travels. And along, with the sound, a political message. The message is political because the crowd shouts without holding back. With this in mind, if one is looking for a political scripture text, one need not look any further. Consider the opening verse, “Shout out, do not hold back!”

A slogan derives strength from each word. It derives versatility from its images. It also derives energy from the person leading the slogan. In this text, Isaiah is like a person leading a slogan of protest. Slogans, even. Consider the many images in the text for their political power: Shout out and do not hold back. Make a trumpet sound. Loose the bonds of injustice. Undo the thongs of yoke. Let the oppressed go free. Share bread with the hungry. Bring in those who are homeless.

While one could stop right there for drawing inspiration from this passage, the text does offer readers the opportunity to think further about politics, and, in particular, the relationship between nostalgia and politics.

The audience of the text is a people who have returned from exile. Without a doubt, this is a people in search of “home.” Longing for home evokes different reactions. In this case, what we find are practices of fasting as a way of marking the painful experience of exile and recollecting memories of loss. Fasts and lamentation became customary after the exile in 586 BCE. There were particular prescriptions that symbolically marked the day of the siege, the capturing of the city, the burning of the temple, and other atrocities that historically marked the life of the people.

While remembering loss is necessary and vital in a context in which the wrongs of history are often forgotten or glossed over, a question that needs to accompany practices of remembering is this: How do practices of remembering loss inform the politics of justice and love in our own time? Prophets like Zechariah (see chapter 7) and Isaiah (as in this reading) questioned practices of fasting, asking if the symbolism came in the way of other concrete practices of justice and mercy. The verdict as evidenced in the text is simply that nostalgia does not help if it gets in the way of justice.

In chapters 4 and 5 of her book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym describes two kinds of nostalgia. The first kind of nostalgia is “restorative nostalgia.” Restorative nostalgia longs to restore former times that are deemed pure and authentic. The second kind of nostalgia—“reflective nostalgia”—privileges the present and engages with the past to derive value for the present.

Part of what Isaiah is addressing in chapter 58 seems to be the former problematic kind of restorative nostalgia. A nostalgia that pines for the past negatively compromises the concreteness and reality of the present. The ethical demands of the present are sacrificed. Isaiah’s issue with the community is not the observance of fast days per se but rather that a turning-towards-the-past becomes superficial if present yokes and systems of oppression are not broken.

Nostalgia is an oft-encountered political theme in our own day and time. Think about the number of politicians who evoke a misplaced sense of “lost home” to pit people against each other while minimizing the claims of justice. It is problematic to stir the fantasy of a time when jobs were not outsourced, but it’s politically convenient and does the intended work of polarization. It is politically mischievous to scapegoat those perceived as “outsiders” to stoke the fires of racialized loss and yet—frightening as it is—it works.

Remembrance of the past is not always unhelpful, but it certainly comes in the way of justice and peace if the vulnerabilities of suffering others in the present are forgotten.

Embodying the best of the prophetic tradition, the text encourages us to consider that religion, in fact, does have functions: liberation, feeding the hungry, inviting vulnerable strangers into our homes, and undoing injustice.

The phraseology of the questions that begin verses 5, 6, and 7 is rhetorically prominent because it privileges remembrance without nostalgia. The “Is it not?” inflection in each question is filled with significant historical resonance. It seems to aim at the deeper parts of the hearer’s political theological imagination by privileging a memory tradition that goes way back to the event of the Exodus.

In the Torah, the people of Israel are exhorted to remember that they were slaves in Egypt and that remembrance has a political value in and for the present. In Leviticus 19:34, for instance, the people are exhorted with the message, “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Verses 6 and 7 here in Isaiah seem to privilege that memory tradition: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The function of the “Is it not?” questions seems to simply remind the hearers that they are a people of the Exodus. Whatever else they desire to remember, they are simultaneously encouraged to keep alive that original liberatory impulse. At every important juncture in their political life, the people of Israel are reminded of liberation from oppression as the guiding principle for their public politics. Importantly, it is the same impulse that is lifted up as the guidance for their piety as well. Piety and public emancipatory politics are thus intrinsically connected.

Christians, as younger siblings of the Jewish people, are called to live into the same tradition of freedom. The more we inhabit that intersection of personal piety and public emancipatory politics, the better we will be able to fulfill our calling, as verse 11 beautifully puts it, to repair the breach and restore streets to live in. In this effort, remembrance is crucial; nostalgia is not.

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