My favorite bit in the language of Isaiah recited by Frederick Douglass is this passage from Isaiah 1:11-14. This, according to the prophet, is the Lord God Almighty speaking:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
The divine exasperation here is so very human-seeming. “I have had enough” of this nonsense, saith the Lord. “I am weary of bearing” it. “Trample my courts no more,” i.e., get your nonsense out of my house.
God’s complaint here also shows why passages like this can be bewildering for a certain kind of religious reader. That bewilderment, I think, is part of what helps to render such passages invisible for many white American Christian readers. “Who asked this from your hand?” the Lord God Almighty says of burnt offerings, incense, Sabbath convocations, appointed festivals and solemn assemblies.
That seems to be a rhetorical question, but it seems reasonable that both Isaiah’s original readers/listeners and contemporary religious folk would try to answer it. “Who asked for this?” Well, God, You did. And You didn’t just ask, You commanded all of this stuff. You gave us a whole set of books full of commandments demanding this from our hand.
That’s a fair point. I mean, it seems strange that God should spend so much time explicitly telling us “thou shalt … thou shalt … thou shalt … thou must” only to turn around later and be all, like, “Where did you people get the idea that any of this was something I wanted?”
Plus, it’s not just all the direct-commandment stuff explicitly telling us that God asks this from our hands. There are also scores of biblical passages assuring us that God delights in all of these offerings, incense, assemblies and festivals.
But the prophets are very clear about the difference here. They don’t leave any room for confusion about the difference between worship and assemblies that delight God as a sweet-smelling form of obedience and worship and assemblies that offend and sicken God as a despicable, wearying burden.
The difference is justice. Justice is the necessary ingredient without which no worship, prayer, assembly, offering or other form of religious expression will be regarded as legitimate by God Almighty. Injustice delegitimizes all religion. It turns that which God has commanded into something that God detests — something that God detests in language harsher and angrier than anything even Frederick Douglass could muster.
A sacrifice, a prayer, an act of worship or obedience may be something God accepts or something God rejects — something God celebrates or something God finds disgusting. And the difference between the former and the latter — according to all the prophets — is justice. Isaiah says this. Amos says this. Hosea says this. Jesus says this. 1 John and James and Romans all say this.
I’m not saying this as some would-be prophet standing outside of white American Christianity. I’m saying this as my personal testimony, like someone seated in a circle of folding chairs in some church basement — “My name is Fred and I am a white American Christian.” (“Hi, Fred.”)
When I wrote last week about those read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year schemes, I was writing from personal experience. That was me. I did that. I did that three times before I’d finished high school. Plus one more cover-to-cover, G-to-R read through besides.
That means I’d read all of Isaiah at least four times. And Amos, Hosea, the Gospels, 1 John, James, Romans 12 — all of those, four times over and then some. And yet I never saw this stuff. It was, for all practical purposes, invisible to me.
I read the Bible. I studied the Bible. “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways,” God says in Isaiah 58, and that was me. But I couldn’t see it. If you’d asked me what the Bible had to say about justice, I would’ve started talking about justification instead — about penal substitutionary atonement or some such. I missed it completely.
Appreciate how strange that is. Reading the Bible four times over without ever noticing the major theme of justice is like reading through The Lord of the Rings four times over and somehow not noticing any of the bits about hobbits and elves. But that’s what happened to me.
And not just to me. To many, perhaps most, white American Christians. That’s astonishing.
The short answer, I think, is injustice. More specifically, slavery. Yes, still, now, in 2017.
The longer answer involves all the hermeneutical gymnastics and acquired blindnesses we developed over the centuries because of it. Unpacking all of that gets a bit more complicated.