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Eco-Justice Notes
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Going Home
distributed 12/5/14 - ©2014

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Is it possible to get through Advent without Isaiah? Certainly not for congregations that follow the Lectionary, and probably not for anyone who wants to understand the power of this season of anticipation.

Second and third Isaiah (chapters 40-66), especially, give voice to a people's passionate hope and longing, and lift up a confident promise of God's decisive action. Isaiah's prophetic voice shaped so much of the Jesus narrative that the old and newer texts must be held together.

I wonder, though, how much we -- Christians of the modern, affluent world -- really grasp the message of Isaiah. Many of us live in a difficult tension with those prophetic words of deliverance. The Advent theme of expectation, confronts us with a hard choice.

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Second Isaiah was written in Babylon, and spoke to the exiles from Jerusalem who were captive there. Third Isaiah was directed to the recently-returned exiles, struggling to rebuild a city and a society to mesh with their faith and dreams.

The powerful word to those in bondage is, "You will go home."

Home is so much more than a familiar landscape. Home is a release from captivity, an end to exploitation, and a shared community founded on your deep faith and principles. Home is a setting of complete contrast to exile. The longing for home is driven by the pain of captivity in a foreign and unjust land.

"Going home" restores an understanding of God in covenant and power. Bill Holladay wrote, "The central question, then, for the exiles was a theological question: Where is God, and what is God doing?" The release from Babylon, from the power of a conquering empire, gives the people fresh confidence in their God of action and promise.

Isaiah's words of hope and expectation only make sense to people who are hopeless, who are exploited, who are caught up in a culture that is confusing and offensive. Isaiah says that the empire has no legitimate power, and that it will no longer control them.

What wonderful news to the captives! But how do we hear that as good news? We (to my primarily US-based readers) are part of the modern empire, more willing participants than captives. Claims of "American exceptionalism" even say that this empire is God's chosen agent of power, that it is blessed, that it is the home we should celebrate and treasure.

How do we hear good news in "You will go home" if we are already home? How do we -- who are so acculturated, and who benefit so immensely from our position within the empire -- how do we find hope in going to a place that is completely different?

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Two months ago, I wrote about the confusion inherent in "we." I acknowledged that "we" all participate in a society that is devastating the planet, but we are not all equally complicit. Neither are we all equally "at home" within the empire.

Some residents of the US, and their counterparts around the world, are totally, joyously at home in the realm of wealth and power. The mindset of commodities -- that people and things are objects to be used -- serves them well. They are at home here, and the inclusive, relational, justice-filled and liberating message of Isaiah and Jesus is foreign and frightening to them. I don't have a clue how these people understand Advent.

But many of us have some sort of dual citizenship. We feel ties to both worlds, and we do feel longing for the realm of shalom promised by the prophet. For us, Advent is an occasion to make choices, to pick where we will find delight and where we will locate our allegiance.

And certainly, within the US and around the world, there are captives and exiles, people who take no delight in their setting. These folk immediately grasp the excitement and promise of Isaiah's "Go home" and of Mary's Magnificat.

In the recent news, events of pain and conflict give me hope that more of us than I might have thought feel displaced and alienated within the empire. More than we might have imagined are eager for the promise of a different kind of home.

The cry, "hands up, don't shoot" continues to be voiced by protesters. The passion and the persistence of that lament speaks to far more that the contested events of Ferguson. "Don't shoot" speaks to the daily fear of people of color, profiled and mistreated and disproportionately subject to officially sanctioned violence. "Don't shoot" expresses the anguish of communities where shootings are all too common. It expresses the terror of parents who know that their innocent -- or mildly misbehaving -- children might be the next victim. Those who block streets and shout "hands up, don't shoot" are not "at home" here, and they can hear the Advent promise of going home to a just and peaceful world.

This week, workers have walked off the job at Walmart and McDonalds in protest about low wages. They are speaking truth to their employers, and to the society, when they say that minimum wage work can't sustain them, and their families. They are not "at home" here when they need public assistance to supplement full-time work, or when they have to work multiple jobs. Benjamin Dueholm wrote in Christian Century:

The idea that the price of labor should be allowed to fall below the cost of life's necessities is, among other things, antithetical to the ethics of the Old Testament. It is of course possible to work more than full-time to make ends meet, and many people do just that ... But this can only be tolerated if we believe human life is meant to serve labor markets and not vice versa.

The Advent promise that we can go home makes us choose which home we will claim -- the one centered on labor markets, or the one that honors all the members of our community.

This week, delegates from around the world are gathered in Lima to debate, once again, possible pathways to international climate agreements. There is a shred of optimism about this year's gathering, because China and the US -- the two largest emitters of carbon -- have made cautious statements of emission cuts. The Lima climate talks force world leaders, and all of us, to decide where we will be at home. Do we settle in comfortably with the convenience of unbridled fossil fuels, hoping that the devastated planet won't get too bad within our personal experience? Or do we long for a different home, a world that acts rapidly for climate justice, where the interests of empire are constrained by care for the vulnerable, for future generations, and all creation? (To witness to that different world, join a #LightForLima vigil this Sunday if there is one near you.)

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Isaiah gives voice to God's promise: You can go home! That promise presents us -- individually and as a society -- with a difficult choice. We have to make a decision based on the old question, "Where is God, and what is God doing?"

  • Will we stay in Babylon, in the seat of the empire, in a place of privilege? Will we be at home in a land of false gods and idolatry, where people and nature are exploited?

  • Or will we set off to create a world where we can be at home with our faith and our neighbors? When we hear the Advent texts, do we decide that we can only be at home when we are in a land of compassion, justice and peace?

If we hear good news in the prophetic message of anticipation, then we join in the journey toward shalom with those who are proclaiming that new world right now. We cast our lot with those shouting "hands up, don't shoot," with the ones demanding a living wage, with the climate activists, and with others who embody the good news of God's purposes in the world.

The Advent promise is empty when we are comfortable in Babylon, when we are at home in the empire. May we hear the good news, and respond with joy and action.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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