We tend to shy away from big emotions, don’t we? Especially ones like anger.
Is that what makes this passage so difficult to hear this morning?
That God is angry, upset, flat-out mad.
It’s hard to hear God as angry, isn’t it? Especially because even the things we do to try to please God, according to God’s own commands, are making things worse! It is hard for anyone with an abuse history to hear passages like these – those where the writer places threats of violence into the mouth of God:
“…if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
Any of us who have grown up listening anxiously for the exact quality of a parent’s footsteps, or the fury behind the silence in a room, might be inclined to read this and shut down. We hear this passage as a diatribe from a punishing parent God.
But is there another way to read this angry passage?
What happens when we read this passage from Isaiah, and imagine God not as a parent with the power to punish, but as the collective voice of all those who have been disenfranchised by the concentration of power among the elite – in Isaiah’s context, “the oppressed,” “the fatherless,” “the widow,” and “the stranger?”
What if we hear this, in our context, as the disgust and anger of Black and Indigenous people, migrants, queer and trans people, people who can get pregnant, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, the very old and the very young?
One commentator points out that this passage is clearly directed at the elite. Read in context, it refers to magistrates and rulers – those who have the power to set policy.
Imagine this collective outcry:
“When you promise change,
I hide my eyes from you;
Even when you make your rousing speeches,
I am not listening.”
Read this way, the words of the prophet puts in the mouth of God are not threats or disregard, but warnings about the weakness that results for entire nations when the needs of the most vulnerable are ignored. In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 58% of respondents said that the U.S. democracy was not working.
The prophet warns the leaders of Judah that their failure to heed their covenant with God – in other words, to prioritize those who otherwise would be systematically excluded – will result in overthrow, not because God is a big powerful bully who will punish them, but because this disregard weakens and divides the people and prevents them from being able to defend against a greater threat.
One could certainly make an argument that the persistent disregard for suffering people, on the part of our leaders in this nation, has set us up for the existential threats we now face.
“We, The People,” who are our last and only safeguard against encroaching autocracy and/or theocracy, are so beaten down and traumatized and divided that it is difficult for us to come together to (re)create democracy.
Many have lost the ability to hear each other’s pain; indeed, we are triggered by it.
We need not more lip service to justice, but actual willingness to hear the outrage, anger, and despair of hurting people without shutting down and then a willingness to act with conviction toward justice.
And perhaps this requires us to re-examine who we think God is.
This is not God as angry parent threatening abuse. This is God as the fed-up voice of the people, speaking truth to power. This is God who loves those who have been excluded, and loves those occupying the position of the elite, too, recognizing that most of the elite will ultimately fall with the rest.
This is love that does not coddle or shy away from anyone’s pain.
This is love without sentimentality.
This is love with good boundaries and no codependence.
This is love that stands up and dismantles whatever works against love.
This is a love that stands up and dismantles whatever works against love.
A lot of Christians have an ambivalent relationship to anger – God’s or anyone else’s – and to any emotion that could be perceived as “negative.” Such emotions can be confusing for Christians for whom piety has become more important than emotional authenticity.
Somehow, a “good, pious Christian” is supposed to look on the bright side, be grateful always (“too blessed to be stressed”), and speak calmly and rationally, without showing any strong emotion.
This silences suffering people.
It also further privileges those who are not directly impacted by the pain of oppression.
Inauthentic gestures toward piety are condemned in this passage in graphic and embodied language.
God has had more than enough of (literally “is gorged out from”) burnt offerings.
The phrase “I hate with all my being” may be an idiom meaning “I am made nauseous by” your ceremonies.
God cannot bear it. God is honest about what God cannot bear.
Created in the image of a passionate, emotional God, maybe we are built to cry out with strong feeling, even anger, when we experience suffering, or witness someone else suffering.
But there is a lot that gets in the way.
The expression of anger can be dangerous for people who lack the systemic backing to support it. Many of us have learned to withhold our anger and protect others from our feelings. This has been a survival skill for people without systemic power.
How can we back each other’s anger, passion, grief, and prophetic fire, recognizing that hearing about and addressing harm to any person ultimately benefits the entire group?
Sometimes, hearing someone else’s righteous anger can bring up our own. Faced with the pain some have experienced as a result of racism, for example, white women might urgently attempt to redirect the group’s attention to sexism and misogyny, or white working or middle class men might redirect the conversation to focus on class.
We need to talk about all of it—all of the anger at systems of oppression is valid and interconnected—but we also need to maintain an intersectional focus that honors how, within each oppressed group, oppression lands differently according to one’s other identity markers.
“Intersectionality” is a term that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to clarify the specific oppression faced by Black women in the legal system. She describes intersectionality as a “…lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
For example, it is true that misogyny affects all women, but the impacts are greater on Black women, and perhaps greatest on Black transwomen with disabilities.
Whenever we talk about any issue, we can ask ourselves and each other how this issue affects people differently according to the social positions they occupy.
We can welcome everyone’s anger at oppression.
Can we be as honest with God as God is with us?