Faith: The Journey From Oppressive Pain to Imagination and Faith
By Ray Slaybaugh
Recently I have been doing a great deal of research, and study in the Old Testament and as a consequence thinking about the social changes that occurred in ancient Israel and how they affect us even today. The more I have read and researched the more I found that it is possible to follow in the footprints of faith laid down thousands of years ago.
Freedom and Justice
Out of Israel's situation came the total engagement with God's freedom with the politics of human justice in order to have a politics of justice out of which we will find God's freedom..
One place in the Bible where justice is very much the subject is the message of the prophets. The theme of justice in the sayings of the prophets describes and . takes on a resonance with the actualities of the world.
Justice is a term used in three different spheres of discourse by the prophets in their role as a public speaker who proclaims; exhorts; and criticizes. The prophets use the term justice in such a way that its immediacy is often so tantalizing in its assumption that they hurl the word out in their messages as though it were self-evident. The core of inner meaning of "crying out for justice" is that something has gone wrong in the relation between a society and its members.
Amos spoke to a festival assembly at the royal sanctuary at Bethel:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I will not accept the; and the offerings of well-being of your fated animals I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).
Isaiah, in the public square of Jerusalem, sang a song about a vineyard that belonged to his friend. The friend spared no effort but the grapes were bitter. In fact the song was a parable of God's relation to his people. The concluding lines interpret the parable and make its point:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant planting. He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; righteousness, but behold, a cry for help (Isaiah 5:7).
The concept of justice will still remain abstract and nebulous unless we learn the answers to further and more particular questions. What was in Israel's society that provoked them to cry out for justice? What was the nature of the social crisis which they addressed? What can be said about the content and structure of their notion of justice? What criteria mark the good society for them?
There is a consistency in the prophets; in their singleness of focus which makes it possible to sketch a general description of what they indicted. Their primary point of attack was economic development. The problem, among others, was the ownership of land and its benefits and rights. Land was being accumulated in estates and used as a basis for status and to generate surplus wealth. Those who lost their land were deprived of status and material support. They had to become slaves or wage laborers to live. The leverage employed was the administrative apparatus of the monarchy and of the courts where all social conflict in Israel was settled. The rights of the widow, the fatherless, and the weak for protection against the economic process was widely ignored. The result was a growing differentiation between rich and poor.
The injustice became entrenched by the shift of the primary social good, land, to that of capital, the reorientation of social goals from personal values to economic profit, and the subordination of judicial process to the interests of the entrepreneurs. These developments had a long history that was laid with the introduction of monarchy into Israel as a system of government (I Samuel 8). When the prophets spoke they frequently addressed specific groups whom they called officials, chiefs, or heads, leaders, elders, which were all titles for persons who had roles within the royal machinery of authority and power in the social and administrative structure of Judah and Israel. The emergence of these officials created a group who had a vested interest in accumulation of land and goods as capital. The development of these officials was legal and desirable by the addresses of man and the royal prophetic oracles. But to Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah it was a crisis. Micah and Isaiah say it best:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field. Until there is no more space and you alone dwell as full citizens in the midst of the land (Isaiah 5:8-10; Micah 2;1-2).
It was the specific social and economic actuality against which they the prophets cried out for:JUSTICE!!!
The Exodus narrative (Exodus 8-14) is not about autonomy but about the freedom of slaves and their willing subjugation to Yahweh. Yahweh must necessarily liberate Israel because of his previous promises to Abraham. Ezekiel 36:22-32 says in its essence that: "Israel-it is not for your sake.". Israel is the necessary but almost accidental beneficiary of Yahweh's action.
The Exodus generally moves from slavery to worship, from Israel's bondage to Pharaoh to its bonding to Yahweh. More specifically it moves from the enforced construction of buildings for Pharaoh to the glad and obedient offering of the people for a building for the worship of God. Israel goes from an oppressive situation in which God's presence is hardly noted in the text to one where God is filling the scene.
In the greater context: God uses the weak, what is low and despised in the world, to shame the strong. Jeremiah 9: 23 states it in this manner:"Thus says the Lord: do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might."
The ironic nature of this is that it fosters a sense of hope amid any situation in which God seems to be absent. What appears to be a hopeless time is actually filled with positive possibilities but it takes faith. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1; 2-39). Perhaps there are four things that strike a cord even today: (1) God heard their groaning; (2) God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; (3) God saw the people of Israel and; (4) God knew . This is the God who's promises are kept in taking sides with the oppressed.This is the God who hears and remembers and sees and knows.
Then the lord said, I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I have heard know their sufferings (Exodus 3:7+).
The Rise of the Monarchy
The rise of the monarchy began with the much awaited birth of Samuel and ended with the appointment of Saul as the first monarch in Ancient Israel history. In I Samuel 8:1-8 the old guard represented by Samuel had reached the end of its usefulness. The result is that once again the social world of Israel is about to require a new imagination and to present a quite new social reality under kingship.
The corruption of the theocratic authority has evoked a crisis that cuts deep into ancient Israel's life and faith. Samuel's sons had committed the affront against which the prophets decree (Isaiah 5:23; Amos 5:12). Their deeds had struck at the foundational social commitment of Israel. In fact, the very purpose of this community, which is the practice of Justice for all with no privilege or preference is at stake.
The three-way exchange between Samuel, the elders and Yahweh is reflective of the deepest tensions in the life of early Israel (I Samuel 8:4-9). In this confrontation the elders proposed to abandon their self-understanding. Samuel recognizes the implications of the request by the elders. The request of the elders and their supporters is nothing less than the a change in Israel's foundational commitments (Jeremiah 2:6,11). Yahweh in the end did not forbid but did voice important concern.
1. The problem of monarchy is theological not political.
2 This demand for a
monarchy is a characteristic of ancient Israel in its
constant forsaking and going after other gods.
Our review of society is legitimated by our own world view of God. If we gather around a static god who guards the interests of the wealthy we will not experience faith. Amos 4: 1 describes this situation:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, bring me something to drink. The Lord God has sworn by his holiness, the time is surely coming upon you.
The prophetic tradition offers a genuine alternative to a theology of God's enslavement and human enslavement. This authentic alternative, entrusted to us, is rooted in righteousness not a sociology of human enslavement. It is rooted in God's righteousness- in the authentic evangelistic imagination that Yahweh makes possible and requires of us if we want to experience the joys of covenant living. It is an alternative theology and a alternative conception of society where compassion and justice reign, not oppression.
The capacity to grieve in the midst of oppression and injustice is vital. Insensitivity results from being constantly pressed and invited to pretend that things are going well. This process will continue as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive. The result is that there will be no criticism of the current regime. To bring hurt to public expression is an important first step in the dismantling of the old regime. This is a criticism that permits a new reality to emerge, the cry which begins history is an acknowledged by Yahweh. Exodus 3:7 says:
...then the Lord said, I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their task masters ...(Exodus 3:7-8-10).
The Prophetic Imagination flows from the alternative prophetic community which has been given the task of criticizing and energizing. This alternative community is to show that the dominant consciousness (royal) will indeed end and that it has no final claim upon God's people of the covenant. It is also the task of the alternative prophetic community to present an alternative consciousness that can energize the community to fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality. The royal consciousness leads people to despair about the power to new life. It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.
The royal consciousness plans to overcome history and by design the future loses its vitality and authority. The present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. This means that there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it. This insidious form of realized eschatology requires persons to live without hope. The present is unending in its projection, uncompromising in its claim of loyalty and unaccommodating in having its own way.
The reign of Solomon created such a situation of despair. Inevitably it had to hold on desperately and despairingly to the present. The future had already been annulled. The lack of promise in Ecclesiastics 1:9-10 is highly pertinent to the royal consciousness:
What had been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and these is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, See, this is new! It has been already, in the ages before us.
The task of the prophetic imagination and ministry is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping than seems to have no end or resolution. The prophet must do this through the mining of the memory of this community and to educate them in the use of the tools of hope. The prophet must also recognize how singularly words, speech, language, and phrasing shape consciousness and define reality. The prophet is the one who contradicts the presumed world of the kings, showing that the presumed world does not square with the facts and that we have been taught a lie and have believed it.
The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearning that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion and one does that only at great political and existential risk. The goodness of God takes the form of liberation for exiles. In other words:
Remember not the former things, nor consider things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19).
Thanks for taking this journey with me.
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© Copyright Ray Slaybaugh &
© Copyright GlobalChristians.Org 1997
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