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Politics of Scripture

The Perfect World Is Not A Utopian Nightmare

The greatest potential implication of Isaiah 11:1–10 lies in the way it disrupts our expectations of justice, equality, and peace by framing of our narratives of the perfect society and unsullied nature. Rather than Utopia, the passage offers us a vision of a perfectly imperfect world order in absolute harmony.

11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:1–10

In Isaiah 11:1–10, the author outlines the prophetic vision of the ideal king in the Davidic model: a king anointed as God’s chosen, who is entirely guided by the spirit of the Lord, resulting in a society marked by justice, equality, peace, and absolute harmony within the creation. The passage is definitionally political theology, in that it is explicitly outlining the society that is possible when the ruler is channeling the will of God. It is also definitionally ecotheology, in that it explicitly outlines the implications for creation when it is also channeling the will of God. Yet, the greatest potential implication of this passage lies in the way it disrupts our expectations of justice, equality, and peace, and a complete re-framing of our narratives of the perfect society and unsullied nature.

The passage is thus, ironically, definitionally “utopian,” in that it demonstrates the inherent flaws at the heart of our narratives of perfection, and rejects them as at best incomplete and at worst dangerous. Instead, Isaiah replaces perfection with the message of dependence: human society, and the creation as a whole, can achieve a state of harmony, but only when they are entirely dependent upon God, and follow God’s will for creation. Before we examine the passage, however, we need to examine “utopia,” in order to first understand the vitally important distinction between utopia and Isaiah’s vision of the “perfect” social order. We also need to explain why utopia is itself impossible, whereas the world this passage describes—one built upon aligning our whole selves with the will of God—is entirely possible.

The first works of speculative politics, which sought to outline the ideals, values, and concerns of a “perfect society,” were arguably Plato’s Republic, and the Analects of Confucius. Yet, neither is “utopian” in any classical sense, for the very simple reason that the term “utopian” is traced to Thomas More’s landmark novel, Utopia, which was written nearly two millennia after these two other works. The commonly accepted definition of utopia is of a perfect society or community—usually imagined—which provides highly desirable living conditions and freedom from any pain or suffering for all of its citizens.

More creates something new with his work, however: the new binary framework of utopia/dystopia. Through his playful satirizing of the concept of “perfect society,” he sows doubt about whether his speculative society is perfect, or actually, the exact opposite. More establishes his intent from the outset with the name he chooses: “utopia.” Hidden within the name is a truly clever pun, for the letter u in English can either match the Greek prefix “ou” (which means “no”), or “eu” (which means “good”). So, Utopia could just as easily mean “no place” as “good place.” Obviously, More took the satirical aspect of his work quite seriously, and this satire extends throughout the work, in that it’s never clear whether More is lauding this society, or simply demonstrating the radical (and potentially quite frightening, depending on your perspective) implications of the society’s core principles.

This satirical cognitive dissonance has been utilized throughout history in the fantasy and science fiction genres to explore how one’s definition of “perfection” is inextricably linked to one’s perspective on the ideal human life. Jonathan Swift took this tension to its logical conclusion when he wrote his essay “A Modest Proposal,” where he suggested solving the abject poverty experienced by many in Ireland by having those same poor Irish people sell their children to the rich for food. In a clever mirror of this concept, the 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green actually solves the problem of massive food shortages by—you guessed it—feeding the poor to the rich. (I admit, I will forever be disturbed that an American company markets meal replacement shakes as “Soylent,” with this exact movie in mind.) Finally, the popular American television show The Good Place plays with our expectations of “heaven”—in some sense, the ultimate utopia—with a wicked twist, where good is not actually good. As I’m not seeking to land in the special hell for those who spoil plots, I won’t tell you what the twist is—but trust me, it’s a devilish one.

As I stated earlier, utopia is impossible, while the world of Isaiah 11:1–10 is entirely possible. This begs the question: if they both present “perfect” worlds, what’s the difference?

The passage opens with a literal “rooting” in the rich and resonant imagery of Davidic kingship, with the claim in 11:1 that a king will arise “out from the stump of Jesse,” who will be rooted, potentially literally, in the Davidic line. This idealized king will be filled with the spirit of the Lord, and as such, the king will be prophetic. As verses 2–5 state, the king will be able to rule prophetically, possessing every quality of a good leader: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, awe of the Lord, righteousness, and justice. His perspective on the world will be framed entirely by the Lord, and he won’t be swayed by worldly desires or judgments. In this passage, Isaiah is clearly recalling the tradition of the idealized David, which has two core elements, held in dialogic tension: the ruler who embodies God’s vision of the human ruler channeling the will of God, and the people who seek to enact that will in every aspect of their society.

In Isaiah’s vision of the “perfect society,” justice and peace are inextricably intertwined, interdependent upon each other, each one incomplete without the existence of the other. Each rests upon the foundation of the other, derives its meaning and purpose from the other, and is incapable of blossoming into its true and complete potential without the other being able to blossom as well.

Now, even a cursory study of human history could teach the dispiriting message that the barest shadow of justice and peace is the “best” that we’re ever going to be able to achieve in this life. In this vision, peace is simply the lack of active violence in the streets, and justice is little more than vengeance meted out by a state seeking to ensure “peace” with an overwhelming show of “justice.” A state of “peace” therefore exists as long as the state isn’t under threat and isn’t engaged in violent conflict somewhere on the globe, while “justice” exists only as long as someone receives an acceptable level of punishment.

In this view, peace is a negative concept, in that it simply represents the lack of something, and justice is solely a judicial action. We might desire that both exist as true states of being, yet we seem to be incapable of imagining how that would actually manifest outside of some utopia. Yet, as we’ve just discovered, utopia does not—cannot—exist. Utopia ignores all tensions as simply illusions to be dismissed, or imperfections to be stamped out.

Isaiah rejects that entirely.

In Isaiah’s vision, tensions are what is necessary to achieve the balance of perfect harmony God desires. In Isaiah’s vision, everyone in society is entirely dependent on the will of God in order to achieve the proper harmony for society, because everyone is human, and thus inherently imperfect. In this, we can see the tension rooted in Isaiah’s vision of this idealized society: God is perfect, humans are not, and in God’s reign the creation’s imperfection is placed in balance.

Thus, harmony is created through ensuring that creation is perfectly balanced, each piece in perfect balance with all others, such that their imperfections align perfectly. The creation is not able to achieve this on its own, but only through absolute dependence on the Divine will. Human society is not immediately free from imperfection just because the ruler has come into power, however. The ruler must still render judgments (11:3). Poverty, vulnerability, injustice, and wickedness all still exist (11:4). The difference is that the ruler will now be literally bound and clothed by righteousness and a faithful dependence on God (11:5).

Through a faithful living into this new order, creation will begin to heal, opening up the potential for the imperfections which are at the root of every single being to align in balanced harmony. Akin to the perfect balance achieved when imperfect stones are aligned atop each other on a wall, or the way that the imperfections of each member of a sports team can sometimes align such that they achieve the perfect game, imperfect creation can balance into perfect harmony. These are temporary situations, however, and as the harmony created by them is inherently unstable, it disintegrates rapidly.

What Isaiah is suggesting, therefore, is that when creation is aligned according to the Divine will, it will eventually be transformed through this alignment such that it can achieve—and sustain—a glorious harmony, thus reflecting the perfect harmony of the Divine itself. Isaiah sketches out the stupendous beauty of this perfect harmony in stunning terms in verses 6–9. When the creation is finally completely aligned with the Divine will, the rigid hierarchy of predation—the current reality of “nature”—will cease to be necessary. Isaiah lays out the implications through a series of predator/prey relationships: wolf/lamb, leopard/kid, calf/lion, and cow/bear. The flattening of hierarchies is implied with the continuous emphasis on youth: the young sheep, young goat, young cow, and, finally, young human, all able to exist without fear that their relative lack of power makes them vulnerable.

This is a complete reversal of the situation of Genesis 3:14–19, where God casts humanity out of Eden, and establishes the binary of predation, with its resultant fear, vulnerability, and discord. Yet, this is not a simple reversal of the human situation, with a simple return to Eden and a creation-wide mass forgetting of the pain, suffering, and fear of a creation not in harmony with God. Instead, as verse 9 states, the earth will become the holy place of God. Instead of the creation returning to Eden, the creation becomes Eden. All beings awaken to a new order, a way to exist that doesn’t involve destruction.

The passage ends in verse 10, with a reminder that this entirely new ecological and political order depends entirely upon the root of Jesse: the Davidic king who, while decidedly imperfect, demonstrated the path the creation must follow to achieve harmony: dependence on following the will of God.

This isn’t utopia. This is complete dependence on the Divine will, and it is perfectly imperfect, in absolute harmony.

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