As I created the oil painting above, I couldn’t help but think about a song I sang as a child. The painting is for an art show featuring artwork that is primarily white. The song was based on the scriptures, so I decided to look it up. Isaiah 1:18 (NIV) says, “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” As I read the chapter, the context of the verse interested me. God was concerned about justice and the systemic sins of corruption and greed.
Systemic Sins Matter
Though this scripture is from the Old Testament, preachers generally apply this to the personal salvation Jesus brings as the Lamb of God. And I am okay with that application, but I’m not sure that’s the only meaning or application for this verse. When you read the whole chapter, another, broader theme appears. In verse 4, the Israelites are called a “sinful nation.” In verse 17, just before the verse about forgiveness of sins quoted above, they are told to “learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” A footnote to the verse says that part about the oppressed might also be translated “rebuke the oppressor.”
A Gentle Rebuke of My Tribe
So maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, ever so gently. I’m rebuking the oppressor, admitting that I may also be guilty of oppression. The sin of systemic racism has benefitted my family over the centuries. My point is that the idea of systemic sin, national sin, is biblical, and we need to face it and teach it to our children. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God was not impressed with the sacrifices of his people. Instead he wanted them to care about the oppressed, the orphans and the widows. We would call those things “social justice” issues today. And for some reason, many Christians don’t seem concerned about justice for the oppressed or help for the needy. I don’t get that. God is clearly interested in social justice.
From Crimson to White as Wool
In the red and pink areas of the painting above I used a favorite paint color called alizarin crimson. It’s the dark red in the lambs’ ears above. It also made the pink mixed with the white in the foreground. I wonder if the imagery of crimson refers to the fact that the nation has blood on its hands (verse 15). It would be impossible for me to start with alizarin crimson paint and turn it to white. But God says that can happen to our sins.
I believe in a merciful God who is concerned with us as individuals as well as with us as a society. Systemic sins as well as individual sins matter to God—maybe not so much because God can’t deal with sin, but because of how sins hurt people. Systemic sin hurts so many. It’s so awful that beautiful people made in the image of God are denied human hopes, rights and necessities because of racist and oppressive policies built into our social and political systems. Jesus as the Lamb of God is not just a get-into-heaven-free card for those who have repeated the right words. I’m trying to learn about the heart of God, and I pray for ways to “encourage the oppressed.” Let’s seek justice together in our communities and in our nation.
What do you think? Is God concerned about social justice? I’d love to hear your views in the comments!
In September, KORE Gallery is hosting an exhibition called “Black and White.” All of the artwork will be mostly black or mostly white. The above artwork was created for that show.
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