A Biblical Faith

by Berry Friesen (April 4, 2017)

“. . . . to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, 
the oil of gladness instead of mourning.”
                                                                     Isaiah 61:3

If one believes—as I do—that life’s purpose and meaning are found within the unfolding of time and events, then paying attention is pretty important.  There’s no alternative to “getting into the weeds” (as the expression goes) and observing the details.

To say it another way, we humans are highly malleable products of our time and place, contingent through-and-through. Yes, we are spiritual creatures too, but even that aspect of our existence is mediated through history, not via a separate and independent dimension.

The text from Isaiah—quoted above—promised a community living at a specific place and time that the bleakness of their lives would not endure, but would turn to joy.

Now, 2,500 years later, do we claim that promise?  If so, we will pay close attention to events, eager for signs that the great reversal YHWH has promised is crossing yet another threshold.  And yes, “paying attention” will include political events, a few of which I note here.

1. The media’s case against Russia for providing the American people with information about Democratic National Committee (DNC) corruption has fallen apart.

The only specific evidence to date of Russia being the source of the DNC emails published by WikiLeaks has been CrowdStrike, the private computer security firm the DNC hired to investigate a security breach.  After a one-day investigation, CrowdStrike pinned the blame on Russia.  Recently, CrowdStrike’s credibility has taken major hits (see here and here and here).

Meanwhile, the only government agency with knowledge of the DNC computer network (the National Security Agency, which surveils all of us all of the time) has produced no evidence of its own and has said it has only “moderate confidence” the Russians were involved.

2.  The Democrats are showing themselves to be unworthy of national leadership.

Rather than accepting responsibility for losing the presidency to Donald Trump, the Democrats spend endless hours blaming Russia.  Rather than working with House Republican Intelligence Chair Devin Nunez to get to the bottom of President Trump’s claim that he was surveilled by the Obama Administration, the Democrats blame Russia. Rather than articulating and advancing an agenda representing the interests of the wage-earning class—the group whose votes proved decisive in the last election—the Democrats blame Russia.

Relations between the US and Russia are worse today—and the risk of a nuclear war greater—than at any time since Cuban missile crisis of 1963.  In collaboration with war-loving Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that’s what the Democrats have accomplished.  It's crazy.

3.   Donald Trump is showing himself to be the charlatan his critics said he was.  He is gutting worker protections; dismantling environmental protections it took a generation to assemble; cutting investments in infrastructure, public health, housing and rural development; supporting a health insurance plan that strips coverage from folks as they get older and approach Medicare eligibility; and failing to assemble a fully staffed Administration.

4.  The stunning hypocrisy of the USA remains its hallmark.  The suffering of the people of Syria, Yemen and Iraq continues, as does the policy initiated by presidents Bush and Obama to carve up those nations, render them vassals, and use them to deprive Iran of its independence.

Indeed, on March 29 US Central Command’s General Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee that Iran is a major threat to the “stability” of the Middle East and the US military will “look at opportunities where we can disrupt [Iran] through military means.”  On the same day, the new US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, boasted that the US—the primary cause of instability in the Middle East—serves as “the moral conscience of the world.”

So we see that paying attention can be an emotional downer, causing us to mourn the passing of our hope that America will be a land of peace and opportunity for our children and grandchildren.  It’s often so unpleasant that we stop paying attention and look away, sometimes using religion to rationalize our response.    

Yet when Isaiah speaks of “a garland instead of ashes,” it is promising a great reversal in human history when those who now mourn “will be called oaks of righteousness . . . they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations, they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:3-4).

As I’ve said before, institutional Christianity in the West has settled for a metaphysical faith built around abstract notions of god and the promise of eternal bliss in another dimension.

In contrast, biblical faith starts with the promise of YHWH that “my salvation will come and my deliverance will be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). It is thoroughly historical; even the spiritual dimension so prized by religion is accessible only through history.

I’m not sure how to recover this understanding of faith.  Certainly it’s helpful to contextual the scriptures we read.  I find it significant that much of the Bible was written by authors inspired by specific historical events.  To be specific:

   ---Many of the great texts of the First Testament—Ezekiel, Job, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, Leviticus, Genesis, Esther, Malachi, Ruth, Jonah—were written during the years immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judea’s elite to Babylon.  YHWH’s salvation—so unexpectedly experienced in their survival as a community in a strange land—inspired those texts.

   --- Most of the great texts of the Second Testament—Ephesians, Matthew, Hebrews, John, Revelation, Luke, Acts, 1 Peter—were written by Jesus-followers following another razing of Jerusalem, this one by the Roman Empire in 70 CE.   Again, the authors were inspired by historical evidence that the long-promised historical reversal was underway.

Whether we 21st century Westerners can recover a biblical faith is much in doubt.  We are entrenched in an understanding of salvation that makes individual happiness the center of all things and a loving god the guarantor of personal immortality.  We have lost the capacity to perceive salvation in biblical terms:  a vision giving birth to a prophetic way of life that powerfully challenges and attracts the nations, thus changing the course of history.

Still, circumstances are conspiring to challenge our metaphysical faith and raise very uncomfortable questions.  The world is not sustainable on its present course; its destructive dynamics are spinning out of control.  Increasingly in coming days, we will find ourselves asking a very down-to-earth question:  where is there a community resilient enough to weather the storms and nurture a shalom-giving life for our children and grandchildren?

If we take it seriously, this is the question that will lead us back to a biblical faith.