God is Subversive: Talking Peace in a Time of Empire

God is Subversive: Talking Peace in a Time of Empire

by Lee Griffith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865021
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/12/2011
Pages: 179
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Lee Griffith is a teacher, author, and social activistcurrently working with a community mental health programin Elmira, New York. A frequent contributor to magazineslike The Other Side, Sojourners, and BrethrenLife and Thought, he is also the author of TheFall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on PrisonAbolition, chosen by Christianity Today as oneof the best books of 1993.

Read an Excerpt

God Is Subversive

By Lee Griffith

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Lee Griffith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6502-1

Chapter One

Bathing with Isaiah

Grace and peace to all of you. Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning for worship of God and reflection on the word.

It has been over three decades since the last time I was inside this meetinghouse. I am sure some of the saints have gone on since then, but many of you are still here who will remember those days. I was a student across the street at the college, and it seemed like everybody was marching in front of the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren. When you hosted a visit by a Russian Orthodox patriarch, an angry group of brothers and sisters led by the Reverend Carl MacIntyre gathered in front of your meetinghouse to warn the public that you were basically a bunch of communists. Although you were pleasant communists, MacIntyre said, that should not be allowed to obscure the fact that you were red to the core. Sitting across the street in my dormitory room, I was thinking, "Hmm, maybe that congregation is more interesting than I thought." In Acts 4, there is an admonition for the community of believers to hold all things in common — goods, resources, talents, burdens, joys, sorrows, hopes. It is what sociologists call "primitive Christian communism." Over the decades, I have visited dozens of worshipping communities with affiliations ranging from the Quakers to the Roman Catholics, and I must say, I have yet to encounter a congregation that would not benefit from a stronger dose of that primitive Christian communism.

And then there were other folks marching out front, too. Your meetinghouse served as the college chapel at the time, and there were students out front protesting compulsory chapel. They were saying that faith should not be a matter of compulsion, which is actually a good Anabaptist idea. So, members of your community would go out and join the protest.

And then there was the protest of the war in Vietnam. Gene Clemens would load us into his van and we would go protesting in Washington, D.C., and protesting in Harrisburg, and protesting downtown and on campus, and members of your community would be there. If I have visited dozens of congregations over the decades, I have been to hundreds of antiwar gatherings, and that is not a pretty feather in my cap, but rather it is an ugly stain on the soul of our nation to realize that, in our lifetimes, there has never been a day without war or preparation for war. There has never been a day of genuine peace. It ought to be dawning on the people of this nation that fighting for peace and freedom has not been working; today, we have less of both.

So, I hope that you are still protesting, and I hope that people are still getting mad at you. It can be a sign that you are doing something right.

Of course, there's anger and then there's anger. In today's text from Isaiah 1:10-18, the prophet is communicating the word of an angry God. And who is the recipient of God's wrath? Who else? The chosen people. By the time of Isaiah in the eighth century before the common era, it was already abundantly clear that being chosen by God was not an unmixed blessing. Isaiah confronts the people of Judah and Jerusalem with the reality that being the chosen people was not an honor bestowed but a commitment undertaken.

We know that God is angry because this text begins with a harsh rebuke as the prophet addresses the leaders and the people of Judah and Jerusalem: "... you rulers of Sodom! ... you people of Gomorrah!" (1:10) That is harsh, no doubt, but there needs to be a note of caution about the content of that rebuke. It is because of our post-biblical obsessions that, whenever we hear the word "Sodom," we think of gay people, but that is not the biblical focus. Depending on who is doing the counting, there are between seven and ten texts in the whole Bible that make explicit or implicit reference to sexual contact between people of the same gender. In contrast, there are literally hundreds of biblical texts casting aspersions on wealth and the wealthy, but rich folks are not rejected by the church; they're asked to build new Sunday school wings. In the Bible, the references to Sodomare clear, and they have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Among the many references that could be cited, in Deuteronomy 29, in Ezekiel 16, in Amos 4, and here in Isaiah 1, it is clear that "you rulers of Sodom, you people of Gomorrah" means "you kings of the slaughterhouse, you brokers of injustice."

If you are looking for a lower volume, if you are looking for moderation, do not look to the biblical prophets. Abraham Heschel wrote that the prophets are wild and maladjusted. They are maladjusted to the routine suffering that society takes for granted. They are maladjusted to indifference and to the little acts of bloodshed that others regard as regrettable but necessary. The prophets are unreasonable fanatics who pronounce doom on an entire nation because a few widows have been driven from their homes. And then they turn cosmic with their pronouncements of doom. Why do the mountains quake? Why do the fields lie barren? Because of bloodshed. It is the covenanted people, the chosen people, the beloved people who bear the brunt of prophetic wrath, but the prophets are not oblivious to the bloody ways of other nations. When Assyria is at the very height of its political and military power, Isaiah already sees the empire trampled underfoot (14:25). In the wild and unreasonable calculus of the prophet, the acquisition of power is a certain guarantee of ruin. Et tu, America.

Now, if we wanted to, we could probably write a treatise that would make the prophets sound quite reasonable. Of course, we would first have to discard some of their more outlandish theological claims, and we would have to tweak the shrillness out of their discourse, but once we have accomplished that, we might be able to dress the mup as responsible citizens with progressive leanings. After all, who can doubt that militarism and all of the wars for oil are contributing to global warming, quaking mountains, and barren fields? But the prophets are not interested in being reasonable or in offering power point presentations. They want to be unreasonable and maladjusted in Gomorrah. The adage that "all we have to fear is fear itself" is wrong. In Gomorrah, what we have to fear is contentment. Do not fear becoming a malcontent. Fear becoming complacent.

In Isaiah, complacency is assailed by the anger of God. Of all people, the chosen people should know that this is a God of justice (in Hebrew, mishpat, Isaiah 1:17), but the people are not just. This is a God of righteousness (tsedeq, 1:21), but the people are not righteous. This is a God of mercy, compassion and steadfast love (racham, 14:1; chesed, 16:5), but the people are not compassionate. It is a harsh indictment, a literal indictment, which God is taking into the courtroom of the heavenly council: "Come now, let us argue it out ..." (1:18). And God has already warned the people (1:11-14) that one defense ploy which will not work this time is religion. Through Isaiah, God says that all of this trampling around in these holy places on these holy days with these high, holy pretenses "my soul hates" (1:14). It is an interesting translation from the Hebrew, one that evokes odd questions that could be grist for other sermons: Does God hate? Is it religious people who God hates, or only their religion? Does God have a soul? Is God a soul? Let me try a different idiom for this verse, one that is earthy like the Bible itself: Tell the people, says God to Isaiah, that when it comes to their religion, I have a belly full of it. What did they intend with all of this religion? Did they think that some deity would find it pleasing, that some god might be manipulated by it? Were they trying to tickle the divine ego? Or were these gaudy displays aimed, not at gods, but at other mortals? God does not need religion. We need it. God has a belly full of it. Religion, which is a refined and elevated enterprise for people, produces only nausea for God.

When religion is all that people have to offer, God stops listening. After God has told the people to listen—hear, you rulers of Sodom, you people of Gomorrah — God decides to turn a deaf ear. "When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen ..." (1:15). All this time, our anxieties have been misplaced. We have wondered if our prayers have not been heard because we lack refinement in proskynesis (head bowed, hands folded, eyes closed), or because we need to serve up a greater dose of schmoozing (O Lord and Master, your humble servant comes to you in prayer ...), or because (truth be told, our greatest suspicion) the heavens are empty and there is no ear to hear or God to care. These are not the anxieties of Isaiah. Isaiah has seen the vision (1:1), has seen the word (2:1), and he is compelled to speak that word, but neither he nor God are compelled to listen. What would be the greater burden — to live without God or to live with a God who does not listen? The text does not tell us. Isaiah is not concerned with the burdens of religious people, but with the burden that this people's religion places on God (1:14). "I will not listen." God is not fighting fair. Why no listening? "I will not listen; your hands are full of blood" (1:15). It is not the heavens that are empty. It is not God who does not care. When the hands are full of blood, the emptiness is in the human spirit. "... your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean ..." (1:15-16).

To the modern ear, when this sudden concern for cleanliness pops up in the text, we get the impression that there might be something a little primitive going on here. With Isaiah's God telling people to go clean up, we seem to have entered the realm of cultic laws governing ritual purity, and those laws are based on ideas that are as old as the hills. Anthropologists tell us that, around the globe at the dawn of history, human spirituality entailed elaborate systems of taboo. If someone engaged in an activity that was polluting, that person needed to pass through a ritual of cleansing before he or she was allowed to rejoin the community.

Of course, taboo is not only a concern of a bygone age. I do not subscribe to notions that we modern folks are superior to our ancestors, as if the accident of being born at a later time equips us with an evolved, enlightened consciousness. Whenever I hear talk about how primitive something is, it sets me to looking for examples of it in our sophisticated, technological society, and I rarely have to look very long. If you think that we don't have any taboos today, I invite you to get a big American flag and take it with you to an American Legion gathering. You go in there, spread that flag out on a chair, and plop your fanny down on it, and you will be treated to a ritual cleansing that you won't soon forget.

The contemporary "taboo" is rarely called by that name. The idea of ritual purity and even the word "purity" have fallen out of favor in modern times. "Purity" smacks of something overly sanctimonious, a connotation that is also attached to the word "pietism." Dale Brown has helped my understanding and appreciation for pietism, not just as a word but as a movement of faithfulness. The person who has been most helpful in providing a glimpse of the dynamics behind these cultic laws of ritual purity is the anthropologist Mary Douglas. Douglas examined scores of cultures in which ritual purity seemed to become an obsession. These were cultures of proliferating rules — rules regarding what was clean and unclean in diet and garb and speech, rules listing the circumstances and dates that determined whether certain activities were prescribed or proscribed, rules measuring the space that needed to be maintained when in the proximity of certain people or objects that were held to be either sacred or polluted, rules detailing the meticulous processes of decontamination. What Douglas found in all of the communities that she studied was that these were communities on the edge, communities that were facing extreme threats to their very survival. The danger could come in one of two forms — either the threat of literal extermination, or the threat of being co opted and absorbed into a dominating culture. The response of the threatened community is to try to save its very life by accentuating distinctiveness and creating boundaries enforced by cultic law and ritual purity.

After perusing the collections of laws in the Hebrew Bible, many Christian theologians have charged the Jews with love of legalism. Martin Luther juxtaposed Christian and Jewish faiths and found that the core distinction between the two was the good news of justification through grace versus a vain effort to win salvation through adherence to the law. Mary Douglas helps us to see that the law books are indicative, not of a love of legalism, but of an imminent threat to the existence of the Jewish community, a threat that Luther himself did not oppose.

There is a broad consensus among biblical scholars that the cultic laws governing ritual purity that appear in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers, and elsewhere were collected by priestly writers during the period of the Babylonian exile. With the northern kingdom of Israel disappeared, with Judah conquered to the south, with the best and brightest of Judah carried off to Babylonian captivity, what was left? These laws that strike us as peculiar, these strivings after purity, had nothing to do with a love of legalism. They had to do with a fading hope that this faith community would retain its identity, its distinctiveness, and its very life.

Now, when we take this understanding and apply it to the text from Isaiah 1, there's only one problem. Isaiah lived before the exile, before the period of the compilation and elaboration of the cultic laws. He was a prophet of the eighth century BCE, long before the Babylonians came onto the scene. That's not to say that Judah didn't have its problems. Assyria was making noises in the north, and some were proposing alliances with Egypt in the south, but none of that was new. Surviving as insignificant countries at the crossroads of imperial armies meant that life was always insecure for Israel and Judah. But in Isaiah 1, God is not speaking to people who are threatened by destruction from without. They are threatened by destruction from within. It was the same prophetic point that Jeremiah would make in quite treasonous fashion a century later. Let the enemy come in and take over (Jeremiah 21:8-10). What could they possibly do to us that we aren't already doing to ourselves? Are they going to take away our freedom? Are they going to siphon off our wealth and use it for some military exploits? Are they going to make us lose our compassion? Are they going to make us forget about the poor? Are they going to make us abandon our faith and trade it in for some hate-filled religion? O Mr. Enemy, you have nothing to worry about. Your work is already done. We've done it to ourselves. So come on in, says Jeremiah. (Jeremiah, by the way, was not well-loved. And neither was Isaiah.)

So in Isaiah 1, the call to "wash yourselves; make yourselves clean" was not based in Levitical laws about ritual purity. This was before the period when those laws would be brought to prominence by exilic compilers and redactors. But in the whole experience of the Hebrew people and their relationship with God, it did not take cultic laws to tell them that there was something fundamentally impure about the shedding of human blood—something that could not go uncleansed. The requirement that warriors undergo a rite of cleansing before being allowed to rejoin the community antedated the compilation of purity regulations (Numbers 19:16-20; 31:19). But Isaiah 1 is not addressed to warriors. It is addressed to all the people: you people of Gomorrah. Before you enter back into community with God, go cleanse yourselves (plural).

Prophets are keen on corporate responsibility, and that is something that often eludes the modern individualistic consciousness. How quick we are to say, "Don't blame me. I didn't vote for the guy." Or, "Don't blame me. I'm Brethren. I opposed this war from the beginning." When all others have washed their hands of responsibility, the only ones who stand in need of being cleansed are the soldiers, who are actually among the first victims of the whole bloody system. Isaiah's message is clear, not just for the soldiers but for all the residents of Gomorrah. If you are not engaged in ending bloodshed, then you are engaged in shedding blood.


Excerpted from God Is Subversive by Lee Griffith Copyright © 2011 by Lee Griffith. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Bathing with Isaiah....................1
2. Radio Questions....................19
3. Old (Anti)War Stories....................33
4. Peacemaking and Prison Abolition....................47
5. Against Patriotism....................77
6. In Praise of Inutility....................99
7. Arguing with God....................123
Index of Authors....................153
Index of Names and Subjects....................157
Index of Scripture References....................163

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