The Editors

The Politics of Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The Politics of Scripture

The vision of God’s kingdom espoused in Isaiah 61 seems more “not yet” than “already.” Jesus identified the first two verses as a prophecy regarding himself, the Messiah, when he read from this chapter in Luke 4. In spite of Christ’s commitment to the least of these, large segments of the Western church insist on spiritualizing Christ’s mission so that it focuses on poverty of spirit or spiritual blindness—an interpretive move that allows injustice to persist unabated and unthreatened by prophetic witness.

It is unfortunate that the mainstream evangelical church owes its political stance more to John Stuart Mill than to Jesus. The members of many churches worship American individualism and the free market more than the ethical responsibility for the “other,” as encouraged by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and ultimately Jesus himself. In On Liberty, Mill defends the rights of individuals to behave as sovereigns over themselves as long as others are not harmed. Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this perspective, and the government is viewed as an oppressive behemoth bent on snatching away private liberties. What is not mentioned is that our individual economic decisions are often destructive to the overall well-being of fellow citizens.

This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.

The vision of God’s kingdom espoused in Isaiah 61 seems more “not yet” than “already.”  Jesus identified the first two verses as a prophecy regarding himself, the Messiah, when he read from this chapter in Luke 4.  In spite of Christ’s commitment to the least of these, large segments of the Western church insist on spiritualizing Christ’s mission so that it focuses on poverty of spirit or spiritual blindness—an interpretive move that allows injustice to persist unabated and unthreatened by prophetic witness.

It is unfortunate that the mainstream evangelical church owes its political stance more to John Stuart Mill than to Jesus.  The members of many churches worship American individualism and the free market more than the ethical responsibility for the “other,” as encouraged by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and ultimately Jesus himself.  In On Liberty, Mill defends the rights of individuals to behave as sovereigns over themselves as long as others are not harmed.  Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this perspective, and the government is viewed as an oppressive behemoth bent on snatching away private liberties.  What is not mentioned is that our individual economic decisions are often destructive to the overall well-being of fellow citizens.

In their focus on strategies to evade government influence over individual economic decisions, many Christians have neglected one of the church’s primary responsibilities.  Christ’s mission is the church’s mission, especially since he promised that we would do greater works.  This means that good news should continue being preached to the poor.  The brokenhearted should be healed and the captives should be freed. The mourning should be comforted and the despairing should exult in the grace of God. In our rush to render these principles spiritual, we forget that James’ proclamation regarding faith—that without works, it is dead—is firmly correlated with how the poor are treated by Christians.  In James 2:14 the author asks, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” James writes this after he has excoriated classism within the church, where the rich were being given preferred seating and treatment and the poor were being ignored.  How rare is it to hear public Christian political discourse centered around these verses!

In verse eight of our text today, God announces, “For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and iniquity.”  The incessant economic inequality that robs the poor to give to the rich on national and international levels. . .God hates.  When consumers storm the doors of shopping malls to bicker and tussle over imported goods made by workers treated as slaves within export processing zones, God is not pleased.  When the gap between the rich and the poor expands yearly, but the poor are refused free or affordable health care and forced to die of preventable diseases, God burns with anger.

Which Christian political candidate currently running for election as president loves what God loves? Which candidate burns with anger at the injustice perpetuated by capitalism?  Certainly capitalism is not to be demonized, but the political candidates, echoing Mill’s individualism, who advocate for less regulation of markets, and not more, resist the justice that God prefers.

The euro-zone debt crisis is a portent that injustice cannot sustain itself interminably.  Eventually the house of cards must fall.  The cozy trade agreements between the world’s superpowers will not prop of the world’s economy always, and unchecked borrowing to continue profligate spending will one day end in disaster (as Greece and Italy demonstrate).  In the chaos of today’s international economic upheaval, Christians need to commit to a revival of Christ’s mission.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to preach the good news by caring for those who are brokenhearted, imprisoned, and mourning.  Usually the impoverished qualify for inclusion in each of these categories, and the good news is what we must bring. Simultaneously, on local and national levels we must support and vote for those politicians who overtly declare a love for justice and a disdain for the inequality that is exacerbated by legal robbery.  May our collective actions produce more of the “already” and less of the “not yet.”

Aaron Howard is a second year PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ and has been happily married to his wife Mimi for 12 years. He has two children, a son Yosef, and a daughter named Blaine.

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