The thing to fear is not others, and not fear itself, but ourselves.
I recently sat down to read the book of Isaiah. The book opens with Isaiah calling Israel to task for its rebellion and estrangement from God. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master, but Israel does not…..(1:3) Isaiah prophesied at a time of great political vulnerability and danger. Israel was surrounded by imperialist, rapacious civilizations whose tactics make ISIS look restrained. Isaiah warns Israel of the horrific danger they face. What’s interesting is what God, speaking through Isaiah, doesn’t say. He doesn’t say:
Know this, Israel: Babylon is evil, and Assyria a ravening lion
Idolaters and lovers of violence
they are what you should fear, their cities you should hate!
Defend yourself with spear and chariot
ride with me to purge the earth.
That’s not what God says. What he does say is this:
Bring no more futile sacrifices…
The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies
I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.
Your New Moons and your appointed feasts
My soul hates…..
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood. (1:13b-15).
God had advice for Israel:
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
How is Israel to do that? The next verse explains:
Rebuke the oppressor,
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow (1:17).
What else is God angered about?
Their land is filled with silver and gold
and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is full of horses,
and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is also full of idols;
they worship the work of their own hands
That which their own hands have made.
People bow down
And each man humbles himself;
Therefore do not forgive them. (2:7-9).
God’s warning is not about the Babylonians or the Assyrians, the Egyptians or the Philistines, the remaining Canaanites or the Amorites. God’s warning to Israel is about the Israelites. What is God angry about? The overwhelming message of Isaiah is that God is angry that the Jews are failing to defend the weak and vulnerable among them. “The orphan, the widow” are the most economically vulnerable members of society. Isaiah also rebukes the Jew for thieving from each other, taking bribes to be unjust, and amassing wealth. Isaiah reports God’s word, where God presents himself as standing up in court for the poor like a public defender:
The Lord stands up to plead,
And stands to vindicate the people.
The Lord will enter into judgement
With the elders of His people
And His princes:
“For you have eaten up the vineyard;
The plunder of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing My people
And grinding the faces of the poor?”
Says the Lord God of Hosts (Isaiah 4:13-15, NKJV modified).
God’s warning to Israel is, in one sense, about the surrounding cultures and their violence. God warns, repeatedly, as in other prophetic books, that if Israel does not “seek justice” than God’s blessing will be withdrawn and Israel will be vulnerable to attack from their neighbours. God’s advice is not to invest more in their military or to make pre-emptive strikes. God’s advice is: “Do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, him you will sanctify: Let him be your dread (8:13).”
If there is one thing about the history of classical Israel that stands out it is surely this: the remarkable nature of their self-understanding. Israel was defeated, brutalized, exiled, tortured, and slaughtered. Throughout there is one consistent theme is the way Israel assigns blame: the blame is assigned to themselves. This consciousness continues past Biblical times at least into the Talmud, where frequent reference is made to “the enemies of Israel”. Who are the enemies of Israel? This phrase is a Rabbinic euphemism for Israel itself.
All of this should call us to wonder. Israel was guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. They were also estranged at heart from God. One thing they were not was members of “the wrong religion”. They were religious Jews, very much so. Yet being outwardly religious Jews was far from enough, in fact it was a righteousness God compared to filth (Isaiah 64:6).
What of us? Here is North America our society is guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. Most of us are estranged at heart from God. The truth is that we are far more guilty than ancient Israel. We know more. We have better resources than they did. Our crimes are also not just against the poor of our country, but against the poor of the entire world. Our crimes are not just against humanity but against nature and millions of animals every day. Most grievously our crimes against the climate and the land, water and sky are not just against our generation but against future generations. It is remarkable, by any estimate, that God has been as forbearing with us as He has.
In the wake of the horrific violence against the civilians of Israel, Paris, Lebanon, and elsewhere it is easy to stand up and declare “our enemy is Islam” or “our enemy is Jihadism”. Yet in saying that Jihadis are our enemy, or that dealing with them is a political priority, we risk misleading and endangering ourselves. We face very great dangers today, yes, but they mostly come to us in the shape of ourselves. Climate change is in every way a massively bigger problem than Jihadis. Our communal spiritual state is the barometer of our strength. If we do not “learn to do good, seek justice” than we will be weak and without God’s blessing. That is a scary place to be. In times past when the community faced violence or danger the response was repentance. Maybe it’s time, in the face of ISIS and the other threats that face us, to relearn that careful art.