The text from the book of Isaiah needs some explanation. It is part of what we call 2nd Isaiah – a group of anonymous writings, probably by a single author, penned nearly 200 years after 1st Isaiah. The context is that the author has witnessed the fall of Judah and Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and writes to encourage a group of middle to upper class exiled Jews in Babylon. This audience had doubts about the ‘chosen people’ mythology, indeed even doubts about the existence of God, given the evil that had befallen the Jewish people. It is a context of loss and despair – the loss of divine promises of land, king, temple, priesthood; and the loss of purpose.
Our passage from Isaiah 49 is partly about the identity of ‘the servant’, and then, more importantly, the purpose of the servant. Christian theology has often simply plucked these verses from their Babylonian context and applied them to Jesus – naming him as the ‘servant’. But the author of Isaiah 49 talks firstly, maybe autobiographically, about the servant being an individual prophet and not being a public prominent figure. Secondly, the author in verse 4 talks about servant being “Israel” – the people of promise, called out of Egypt, and forged into the nation/servant of God. Thirdly, in verse 5, it’s clear that the servant is not in fact the whole people of Israel, but perhaps a special group within the nation whose function it has been to "bring Israel back to God."
Whether the servant is an individual, a nation, or a group within the nation, the purpose is not simply to revive the fortunes of Israel. This writer is calling for a much bigger universal vision: Israel is to be ‘a light to the nations’, hope for the whole world. The purpose of Israel’s ‘chosen-ness’ is to be a blessing to all people.
So, this vision is not about promoting one faith, or one nation, or one ideology; or privileging one religion or race. It is metaphorically about offering light so that all can see. It is a vision of those who follow this God to ‘serve’ their fellow humans. This is about creating a hospitable human culture where all people find a welcome, and a home, and a purpose.
Some 600 years later Saint Paul, appropriating a very early credo of the Jesus movement, wrote to the community at Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
These words continued and expanded this vision of Second Isaiah. They speak of a vocation for the universal and point to an ethic of social justice and solidarity. This vision has shaped not only Jewish identity but Christian identity
Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of the humble circumstances of the birth of Jesus, represented in the nativity scene, and retold every Christmas, are in the same spirit, identifying Christ with the marginal, the maligned and the impoverished.
In this Epiphany season the Church remembers this big universal vision of offering or being light, being hope, being love for all.
It has therefore, for many of us who follow the Jesus tradition, been depressing to witness the Christian faith being used to justify the abandonment of such principles in a number of European countries, Donald Trump’s America, and beyond. For liberally and progressively minded Christians, 2019 was the latest in a succession of horrible years, during which a cultural appropriation of our religion did service for aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-environmentalism.
In Poland, the Law and Justice party was re-elected, with the enthusiastic backing of the country’s Catholic establishment. It made the demonization of LGBT people a key part of the autumn election campaign. In doing so it received the active assistance of the Catholic Archbishop of Kraków who warned voters that a “rainbow plague” had replaced the “red plague” which blighted the country in the communist era. Poland also stands accused of breaking European Union law by refusing to comply with a refugee quota programme, instituted in 2015.
Fear and undisguised hatred of those considered sexuality ‘other’ has supplanted the hospitality and compassion for the ‘other’ that is central to the Gospel of Jesus.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Orbán, has forsaken talk of democracy and now speaks of “Christian liberty”. His ambition appears to be to turn Budapest into the capital of right-wing Christian thought, an arch-conservative counterpoint to Pope Francis’s Vatican. In late 2019, at a conference convened in the Hungarian capital to highlight the persecution of Christians in places such as Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, he repeated his argument that Christian culture was under threat from Muslim migration, and warned that the persecution of Christians in Europe was “much closer” than generally understood. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation, has accused Orbán of systematically denying food to failed asylum seekers held in detention camps on Hungary’s border – an action it described as “an unprecedented human rights violation in 21st-century Europe.” Orbán has also made homelessness a criminal offence.
Denying refuge (regardless of the refugee’s faith), denying food, denying shelter, denying participation in political policy formation… these are denials of the faith and ministry of Jesus.
In Italy, the leader of the League party, Salvini, uses Christianity to pursue his agenda relating to migration and national identity. When Salvini, as minister of the interior in Italy’s previous government, proposed in 2018 that crucifixes should be displayed in all Italian public spaces, including ports he had closed to vessels carrying rescued migrants, he was reprimanded by a close adviser of Pope Francis. The Revd Antonio Spadaro tweeted: “The cross is a sign of protest against sin, violence, injustice and death. It is NEVER a sign of identity. It screams of love to the enemy and unconditional welcome.” But Salvini has since doubled down on his politicisation of Catholic symbols, claiming he is “the last of the good Christians”. Support for him among practising Catholics is high.
We must never forget that first and foremost the cross is a symbol of torture and suffering – not just of the torture and suffering of Jesus but for thousands of others. It is a symbol that confronts any Jesus follower when we consider not helping the suffering, or tortured, or imprisoned; or being discriminatory about whom we help, or – heaven forbid – using our faith as an excuse not to help.
The popularity of Donald Trump among American evangelical Christians is well known. In 2016, 81% of evangelicals and a large majority of US Catholics put Trump’s flawed personal morals to one side, voting for a candidate who would fight their corner in the culture wars over same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as on migration. The Pew Research Centre survey in 2019 found that only 25% of evangelicals believe that the US has a responsibility to accept refugees. President Trump’s Catholic former adviser, Steve Bannon, has been a prominent promoter of the supposedly “Judaeo-Christian” values that inform Trumpian nationalism.
The struggle to defend the rights and human dignity of all, irrespective of divisions of gender, class, or race, is ongoing. The 2nd Isaiah and Pauline vision of universality I would now theologically expand and broaden to include the one-ness of not only the human race but all life and ecosystems on this planet. For the God of Jesus I believe was never comfortable with the boundaries we construct to privilege some and impoverish others.
In Aotearoa New Zealand we have long had a quiet respect that in the political sphere while a Member of Parliament may have a religious faith the public alignment of that faith with policy before the House needs to done cautiously, if at all. Some minor parties and some individuals have been more forthright – particularly around issues like abortion – but, by and large, there has been an unspoken acknowledgement that people of a religious faith may have differing views on a subject, and bringing the word ‘God’ into a debate is really not helpful. That said there have been of course many Christian MPs who have lived and expounded their faith by their actions.
This New Zealand way is very different from the American context where the word ‘God’ is regularly used in public debate and the designation of a candidate as ‘Christian’ is in most electorates a necessary perquisite to being elected. So recently as candidates compete in the race to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President we have, for example, Elizabeth Warren, the senator for Massachusetts, referencing the gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus talks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for the sick; and Pete Buttigieg, the gay Christian mayor of South Bend, Indiana, criticizing the Republican party, saying, “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, [that party] has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Napoléon Bonaparte once famously said: “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” And there is unfortunately some truth in what he said.
If however we wish to follow the example of Jesus, and follow the vision of 2nd Isaiah and St Paul, then we will need I suspect to increasingly develop strategies of resistance to the misuse of our Christian faith in the political sphere. Not only will we keep on supporting and developing social services for those in need, and keep on supporting and developing organisations and campaigns for social justice and equity, but we will need to publicly and vociferously expound the basis of why we are doing this, expound what this has to do with our religion, and, critically, expound why those – like Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Orbán, Italy’s Salvini, the USA’s Trump – are misusing the religion founded in the name of Jesus. And we do this not for the purpose of proving we are right and others are wrong, so we might ‘win’ and others ‘lose’, but rather for the purpose of building a vision of one human race bound cooperatively together, where the stronger help and value the weaker (and vice versa), where kindness and mutuality are normative, and where we together build a global community in which everyone can belong.
I have made significant use of this Guardian Editorial: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/25/the-guardian-view-...