The past month has made it abundantly clear that black people in this country suffer the fate of the exiled: those who live in an Empire as conquered, imprisoned, displaced, and invisible to the dominant institutions of power. What does Isaiah’s prophecy to the exiles of his day have to say in our moment?
Raymond Arsenault tells the following story in his book Freedom Riders: The Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in interstate travel and facilities, and yet no one had tested how that ruling would fare in reality, with a bus carrying both blacks and whites together through the deep South. And so, on a day in early May 1961, fourteen passengers boarded a Greyhound Bus in Atlanta headed towards Birmingham.
Arsenault says that around 1 o clock that day, the bus crossed the Georgia-Alabama line headed towards a town called Anniston. Anniston, Alabama, he points out, boasted both an active NAACP branch and a Klansmen network known for fueling violence. The bus pulled into the town’s terminal with an eerie silence. Then, he writes, “as if out of nowhere, a screaming mob…rushed the bus.” Someone heard the bus driver say to the Klansemen, “Well, boys, here they are.” Around fifty Klansmen surrounded the bus carrying metal pipes, clubs, and chains.
The police were strangely absent even though they had received advance warning that a mob was gathering. One person fire-bombed the bus so as to force the Freedom Riders exit, then they streamed out of the bus, choking and met with beatings. They even tried to receive medical care at the local hospital, but the Klansmen gathered there, too, and threatened to burn down the hospital facility. The Freedom Riders were only rescued when a Baptist preacher named Fred Shuttlesworth sent a car convoy of his deacons to drive on Alabama back roads and pick the Freedom Riders’ up.
Because of the Freedom Riders’ courageous travelling, Robert Kennedy directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce desegregation on buses and bus facilities throughout the country. The bus riders risked their lives to demand that America’s roads, even in Alabama, be highways of liberation. (This summary comes from Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, or check out this NPR program.)
From the center of another unjust system, the system of Babylonian imperialism, the prophet Isaiah relays a promise of liberation for his people in exile. The Babylonian armies under King Nebuchadnezzar sieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE. They starved the city’s inhabitants and deported up to a fourth of the population. (See Jewish Encyclopedia entry.) Isaiah’s words in chapter 40 are the prophet’s proclamation of God’s promise for the displaced people to return home.
Scholars say that what we know as Isaiah is split up into three books, and that this passage, chapter 40, is the preface to what’s known as Second Isaiah. It’s the opening manifesto with a first line hook that would have reverberated throughout the hearts of Babylon’s voiceless ones: Comfort, Comfort my people. God’s comfort for Israel is not only the soothing voice of nurturing for those who lost relatives and land, those who were forced to follow Nebuchadnezzar’s armies into the Empire. God’s comfort for Israel is also the action-oriented, God-ordained news that a new Exodus-deliverance is at hand.
To return home requires a road on which to travel, and Isaiah’s promise of liberation from exile paints a picture of a highway of liberation. This passage includes some of Advent’s most beloved biblical metaphors, which the gospel writers put in the mouth of wild man John the Baptist: Prepare a way in the wilderness for the Lord. Make straight a highway for God. Every valley shall be lifted up. Every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.For years I thought the highway in the wilderness was an ambiguous but important sounding metaphor having something to do, in general, with God’s arrival. But I’ve learned that this highway has a specific purpose for Isaiah-it is a road on which the exiles will return home from Babylon. Or, one way to think about it is that Isaiah is envisioning a freedom ride for ancient, exiled Israelites; because this highway runs straight from the deep south of the Empire’s unjust heart and into God’s promised Land. These subjugated, enslaved, oppressed, invisible ones are going to walk on God’s justice road from under Babylon’s gates, led by no greater authority than God Herself.
The past months have made it abundantly clear that black people in this country suffer the fate of the exiled, those who live in an Empire as conquered, imprisoned, displaced, and invisible. Black men are imprisoned nearly six times as much as white men; young black men are 21 times as likely to be shot dead by the police than young white men, and what this tells us is that the experience of black people in this country is that of being systematically disregarded by our dominant criminal justice institutions. Why else would a police officer in New York City be able to put a long-banned and fatal chokehold move on a man named Eric Garner? Why else would this police offer continue his chokehold while Garner uttered “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times? Why else would Garner’s death be ruled a homicide and still not go to trial? Why else would a police officer move with such aggression towards a man whose only crime was not confronting the police, not brandishing a weapon, but selling loose cigarettes, trying to make a quick buck on the street?
The answer to these questions, and similar questions surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and untold others, lies in the mammoth gulf that separates the white experience in America from the black experience.
In dire days of unjust exile it is tempting to disbelieve Isaiah’s promised highway of freedom. And in fact, Isaiah himself struggles with God’s promise. Often at the beginning of a prophetic book, God will call the prophet to a heroic and visionary task only to have the prophet recoil in fear and self-doubt. At the sight and sound of God speaking through a burning bush, Moses demurred: “I am nobody. How am I supposed to speak to the king?” Isaiah hears an anonymous voice that says: “Cry!” But he protests: “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, the grass withers and the flower fades. As if to say, today: what’s the point? We are going to die. Institutional injustice is insurmountable. Why believe in a hope-filled possibility for the future when evidence seems to be stacked against it?
God’s response to Isaiah’s doubt is a command for all who are disheartened that the day of justice may not come. God’s response is a command to treat hope as if were a verb, to place ourselves in a position in which we can see the promise’s imminent fulfillment: “Get you up to a high mountain. Lift up your voice with strength, and say to the cities of Judah, Behold your God!” I hear Isaiah speaking to the exiles and their allies in America today: if you think that the status quo of institutionalized racism is all there is, pick your head up and taste the collective power of a movement! Or, if you’re feeling despondent by reading too much news: Go stand on the top of a mountain, check out the crowds amassing in the streets, and breathe in some perspective! Take a look at the highway of liberation that God is building, that God has promised God’s people, and do your part in leveling uneven ground. Join God’s freedom ride.