Summit Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2010
Isaiah 62: 1-5
A New Name
These words from the book of Isaiah were first spoken and written about 2500 years ago, at a terrible time for Israel. The nation lay in ruins. The Babylonians had conquered the last of the territory once ruled by King David. Jerusalem was in a shambles, the temple destroyed, the leaders in exile, the people destitute. Being so long ago, there's a lot we don't know about that time. We can only guess at the number dead or exiled. We don't know a lot about Babylonian rule. But we know that for the people of Jerusalem, it was a catastrophe. It was a catastrophe because of the death, destruction and hunger: but it was also a catastrophe because of the questions it raised about their God. Why had God allowed this disaster? Had God abandoned them? Or was their God weak and worthless? It was a catastrophe because of the shame, their loss of standing among the nations: Isaiah says that Jerusalem has been named "Forsaken" (capital F) and her land "Desolate." In the book of Lamentations, also written in the exile, the writer claims that Jerusalem had become a mockery, all who honored her now despised her. Derided by the nations, bewildered by the disaster, the people of Jerusalem struggled to understand. Was it a punishment, they wondered, for their worship of other gods? For disobeying the law, for neglecting orphans and widows or other kinds of wrongdoing? The prophets had warned them. Were they doomed forever to be a lonely city, bound in servitude to others?
In our scripture today Isaiah says no, and offers words of comfort. God has not abandoned Jerusalem; she will be vindicated. Nations who now call her Forsaken will soon see she is really named God's Delight is In Her; the land that people now call Desolate will be called Married. All the kings will see your glory, says Isaiah; your vindication will shine out like the dawn and your salvation like a burning torch. Jerusalem will again be renown throughout the earth. Israel may be suffering now, but that is not God's final word: God has sworn that those who now garner the grain and labor for wine that's taken by others will soon eat and drink it in God's holy courts. And indeed, the leaders soon returned from exile: Israel would continue to struggle and know foreign rule, it was not yet the Day of the Lord or the coming of the Messiah, but the temple was rebuilt, and the people saw God's faithfulness.
This week Haiti, and her capital Port-au-Prince, suffered a disaster surely on the order of Jerusalem's. We've all seen the heartbreaking pictures of suffering and destruction. As we've watched the tragedy unfold, we've also heard people talking about Haiti. The most notorious comment, predictably, came from the evangelist Pat Robertson. On his show the 700 Club he explained why Haiti had experienced this disaster. I'm quoting: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti that people may not want to talk about. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever . . . and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."
[As an aside, when I was watching clips from the 700 club, I saw interviews with the leader of their relief organization, “Operation Blessing,” and was impressed. I was also surprised to hear that they are coordinating their relief efforts through “Partners in Health,” and organization which Summit supports and which comes from a very different political perspective. I think it shows that on the ground in the face of need Christians can work together – and be known by our love].
The comment was roundly - and rightly - condemned. Even the young woman with him on the show seemed a bit stunned. But it didn't come out of nowhere. It was a striking example in long tradition – inside and outside the church - of blaming victims for tragedy. That tradition comes out of a theological problem: if God is loving, just and powerful, why is there so much suffering, especially in the natural order? I think it's bad theology to point to the sins of the stricken and see it as punishment from God, but faithful people have done so, from the prophets to Christians struggling with their own illnesses, even - according to one report I read - from some Haitians after the earthquake. Such explanations can come from honest theological wrestling with a question that has no good answer.
But Robertson's comment also comes out of another, less honorable tradition: that of Haiti bashing. That story about a pact with the devil began when Haitian slaves freed themselves with the first successful slave revolt in the New World and struck fear into the hearts of slave owners everywhere. More recently, people point to Haiti's terrible poverty and environmental destruction, and shake their heads. David Brooks, in a column for the NY Times this week, dismissed centuries of slavery, colonialism, foreign military occupation (ours) and their niche in the world economic order to lay the blame for poverty on Haitian child rearing practices and a culture of poverty.[i] Others shake their heads at the violence and political corruption in the country, overlooking our long complicity in it. And then there's voudou: thanks to Hollywood, a religious faith held by millions of people worldwide has been reduced to a grade-B horror movie script that portrays it as the source of all kinds of evil. And then there were the hurricaines. And now the earthquake. The nations look at Haiti and they see a nation called Forsaken. They see a land called Desolate.
But the words of Isaiah echo across the centuries to say the nations are wrong. One can imagine Isaiah speaking today: “For Haiti's sake I will not keep silent; and for the sake of Port-au-Prince I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the rulers your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” Just as God assured Israel that her ruin was not a sign of abandonment or a badge of shame, we can trust that God is standing with Haiti, that God has not left the land. The suffering of Haiti's people is not what defines Haiti and it will not be the last word. One day justice will come: the greed of the powerful - inside and outside Haiti - the violence among nations, the sinfulness of the world, will be reversed. People will see that Haiti's suffering does not come from a deficiency in her people. And Haiti will have a new name among the nations, her true name, "God's Delight is in Her."
So what is our call, in this meantime in which we live? It's to get ourselves in line with God's purposes. To witness to God's compassion, justice and love. First, with prayer. Second, by being generous. With our money. Third by seeking to better understand Haiti and the root causes of her people's suffering, which are complex, with plenty of responsibility to go around and in which we share. And then to work for justice, to change those systems that underlie poverty and violence, as we turn our hearts to God and all God’s people.
Today is the day we remember the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King devoted his life to fighting racism and poverty, so it's fitting to acknowledge that racism fuels the Haiti bashing that we hear, and underlies much of her suffering. I'd like to end with a quote from his speech "Beyond Vietnam," given at Riverside Church in April of 1967:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
Let us pray:
[i] David Brooks, “The Underlying Tragedy,” New York Times, January 14, 2010. Mr. Brooks has a more nuanced view then I’m presenting here, but I believe I’m summarizing his basic argument accurately: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html?scp=2&sq=david%20brooks%20column&st=cse