The Church as a Community of Justice: A Reflection on Isaiah 58

Written by Chris Smith : February 25, 2008

Isaiah 58:6-8

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

For me, the striking thing about Isaiah 58 (and a similar passage, Micah 6) is that they are written to a specific people in a specific time and place. I point out the specificity of these passages not to dismiss their message as irrelevant to the Church today, but rather as a key to understanding how they apply to us. My tendency in reading these passages (and I know this applies to others as well) is to read the call to action (Is. 58:6-7) as an inspiration for getting engaged in the struggle against the largest global injustices of our age (hunger, poverty, AIDS, slavery, etc.). While I do believe that such struggles are important, I don’t believe that they are primarily what the prophets are addressing in these passages. I am particularly wary of this sort of large-scale interpretation of these passages in an election year, when the political parties co-opt the Church into believing that a vote for their candidate is a valuable expression of one’s desire for justice.

In contrast, the message of these passages seems to be a call for a just people, a community that embodies justice in its daily life in the place and time that it finds itself. It is important to note that the audience is a community, not an individual. It is, I believe, our good-ol’-American individualism that leads us to jump to interpretations like the one I have described above. Given the assumption that I am an isolated individual, what can I do to stand for justice? Well, I could vote for this candidate or that one, or give money (or even time) to this service group or that one. This tendency to interpret these passages individually stands in contrast to the warning in the text itself to “[desist] from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word” (Is. 58:13). Perhaps we jump too quickly into the “doing justice” parts of these passages and miss the prophet’s point that the sabbath fast to which we are called begins with self-denial, a setting aside of our own agendas, desires and even our own convenience. We cannot ultimately live justly with our brothers and sisters if we cannot prefer them and their needs over ourselves. And, of course, the words of Isaiah serve as preparation for the way of Jesus, which also began in self-denial. If, however, the primary audience of these passages is a specific community and not individuals, what is the meaning of the prophets’ message for that community. First and foremost, I believe that the call is to be a community shaped and characterized by just living. Are there hungry people in our church communities? Are there homeless ones? Are there people enslaved by drugs or debt or workaholism, etc.? As we struggle to be a people marked by justice, we inevitably will come into conflict with the injustices of our local environment. Although it is perhaps easiest to see the injustices of an urban neighborhood, injustices abound in any locale. The planned environment of suburbia that inhibits community, isolates people and requires frequent gasoline consumption is the origin of a host of injustices. In rural places, the rape of the land by big businesses (coal mining in Appalachia, agribusiness in farming areas) reaps both poverty and a host of environmental injustices.

The German theologian Gerhard Lohfink often refers to the Church as a “contrast society,” and I think this language is useful for understanding the prophets’ call to justice in these passages. As we strive to live justly together, we demonstrate that another way is possible, a way that stands in stark contrast to the pattern of the world (Rom. 12:2). The tendency of individualistic interpretations of these calls to justice is that we often are trapped into pursuing good and just ends through the world’s channels. What then typically happens if we are persistent enough to follow these paths for some significant amount of time, is that we begin to make compromises and our ends get more and more watered down until they are swallowed up by our pursuit of the means. Let me be clear, I am not advocating isolation for the church, but rather that church communities engage the powers of the world as communities and not individuals. Furthermore, our engagement can and should be formed by the shared life of the community in which we are seeking to live justly together. I see more hope of discernment and resistance in this way than in that of individualism. It is interesting that the language of bearing witness that Paul uses throughout Ephesians 3-4 is that of the church bearing witness to the powers, not individuals.

Frankly, being a community of justice is hard; it demands that we know our brothers and sisters and daily give of ourselves to make sure that they are taken care of; the closeness of life together brings out the worst of our brokenness, which we would much rather keep hidden away (Thanks be to God that “where sin abounds, grace abounds even more”!). But despite the difficulties, this is the way in which we have been called to follow: to live justly with each other, with our neighbors and to watch the justice of Christ flow outward from our communities into our states, our nations and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Lord, have mercy upon us, may we heed your call to live justly together and may your justice flow through us and heal our fallen and rebellious world!

Author Bio:: Chris Smith is editor of Doulos Christou Press and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in Indianapolis.

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5 Responses to “The Church as a Community of Justice: A Reflection on Isaiah 58”

  1. Steven Kippel on February 25th, 2008 9:44 pm

    I wrote a bit on that same passage from Isaiah, however I have tied this passage to the current climate in Israel.

  2. jurisnaturalist on February 25th, 2008 10:37 pm

    This was the fourth word on Fasting I heard in so many days. Tomorrow, I fast.
    Do you believe in the supernatural? I believe that when believers willingly take on a fast, and put themselves needlessly into the position of suffering and denial to their self-interest, that those who are suffering innocently receive relief. I don’t have much textual support for this belief, but the Isaish passage implies it.
    Christ denied Himself and took on suffering needlessly and we enjoy the relief it has provided.
    My second cousin has cancer. We are not close, but we live nearby. I heard about it and decided to fast, but didn’t. Then in Sunday School we learned that 2 members of our flock were diagnosed with cancer also. Then I mentioned to a friend that as Americans we were blessed to die of cancer rather than of starvation or bacterial infections. She replied that her mother had died of cancer when she was 8 years old.
    Lord, help me to keep my mouth shut! May I fast from words of presumption, as I also deny my mouth. Comfort the sick and the needy. Be glorified.

  3. Jordan Peacock on February 26th, 2008 7:27 pm

    I’m really struggling to try and build community here where I live. The culture is so strongly individualistic that I’m lucky to catch my neighbors ducking into their apartments.

    On Halloween we tried going door to door and introduce ourselves; out of the entire area we only caught 1 neighbor, an amusing 80-year-old man named Al who makes himself out to be meaner than he really is.

    We’re slowly starting to make some acquaintances, but it’s harder work even when you’re being deliberate about it.

  4. Meditations on Community « The Progressive Prophet on March 1st, 2008 4:34 pm

    […] idea of community within a Christian context, the good folks over at Jesus Manifesto have written an article which expresses my thoughts almost word for word. It was enough to make me wonder whether repeating such thoughts here beyond simply linking to them […]

  5. michael tawd on March 2nd, 2008 10:30 pm

    amen, and amen.

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