Isaiah and the Politics of Utopian Thinking (Isaiah 11:1-10)
by Brennan Breed
Earlier this month--just in time for the holidays--an automatic cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) decreased food aid to 47 million Americans who struggle to afford food on a daily basis. It is the largest cut to food aid programs since the beginning of the "War on Poverty" in the early 1960s. And that's not all: Congress will likely cut food aid programs even more in the coming year. How could this be?
The explanation is simple: "America's going broke--we can't afford it." And food aid to the poor isn't the only thing that many people are saying we can't afford. Apparently we also can't afford to provide healthcare for the poor, we can't afford to continue to offer unemployment to those seeking work, we can't afford public transit and new infrastructure, and so on.
This isn't merely an American problem: around the globe, "austerity politics" reigns. Almost every nation is looking to cut their budgets. Somehow, it always ends up that programs for the poor are the ones on the chopping block.
The message of austerity is incredibly powerful. It resonates throughout our media and finds its way into our daily conversations. We begin our political conversations with the assumption that we're desperately tight on resources and we look for the easiest places to trim our national budget.
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But this thinking is as limited as it is deceptive. In the United States and Europe, at least, we are collectively the wealthiest people to have ever lived on the planet. We have more money and more resources than have ever been at any community's fingertips. When we begin the conversation with "We can't afford anything anymore," we buy into a false premise of austerity. We can afford a lot of things! The real question is this: what do we as a community want to do with our resources? What do we want our community to look like?
The prophet Isaiah often found himself talking to people who were preaching the austerity politics of ancient Judah. In Isaiah 7, we find Isaiah meeting King Ahaz of Judah at a crucial moment in the history of Judah: the city of Jerusalem is under siege. The enemy surrounds the city walls and is gradually starving out the populace. King Ahaz stands by "the conduit of the upper pool" (Isa 7:3) in order to survey how much water the city has left in its reservoirs. Ahaz asks himself: can Jerusalem withstand another week of the siege? How closely can they ration the water?
But into this situation of austerity, Isaiah speaks a shocking prophetic alternative: within a short period of time, he claims, there will be abundant food in Jerusalem, enough to feed hungry children luxurious honey and curds (Isa 7:15, 17).
And in chapter 11, Isaiah paints a picture of a remarkable utopian kingdom that contrasts with Ahaz, who is consumed by austerity politics as he stares at near-empty wells. Isaiah proclaims that from the kingly family tree of David's father, Jesse, there will come a flourishing (11:1). God will bless the nation's leadership, and by extension the nation as a whole, with wisdom, discernment, courage, and righteousness (11:2-3). This promised righteous king will look first to justice for the poor and equity for those who are without power (11:4). And the whole world will be at peace, even the animals, and the weakest in the community--the child--will be able to play with the most powerful of animals without fear of being hurt
(11:6-8). Finally, there will no longer be violent oppression throughout the earth (11:9-10).
Utopian thinking is important. Before we close our minds to opportunities and possibilities of change, before we resign ourselves to picking from amongst the worst possible political and economic options, we should take some time to imagine a world that resonates with the call for justice, righteousness and peace that we find in Isaiah 11. What would a just economy look like? We could certainly provide for more people if we wanted to. What would a righteous social system provide for the weakest members of society? We have the resources to do it today. What would be required of us to achieve true peace--not simply the cessation of hostility that keeps all other things the same, but a radical transformation of our world into a model of shalom, the wholeness exemplified by God? And, by the way, what roles do the animals, the mountains and the skies play in this picture of a perfect world?
We will, no doubt, face real crises in the future which will call for us to make tough decisions. But at the moment, we are the wealthiest group of people to have ever lived. We live in a world of sheer abundance. For us to look at ourselves and continue to say, "we can't afford it," is nothing but a shocking poverty of imagination. Let's make sure that justice, righteousness and peace were the highest priorities in the budget. And maybe when we face real crises precipitated by physical things such as temperature, depleted natural resources, and violent strife, we will have our priorities in the right place. When real cuts must be made, may we protect the least of these.
Questions for Reflection:
What parts of our current economic systems are unjust? What would a just economy look like? What steps could we take as a society to move towards that vision of justice?
How would a just society deal with the imbalances of power and resources among its members? What steps could we take to look more like that utopian image?
What would true peace look like? How could we move in that direction as a society?
How might the physical and animal worlds participate in a utopia? What would they look like in a perfect world? How might we move in that direction?
For Further Reading:
Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1988).
Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Robert Kuttner, Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity versus Possibility (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
Dr. Brennan W. Breed is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Dr. Breed's research focuses on the reception history of the Bible, which traces the divergent uses and understandings of biblical texts from their ancient contexts of production to the present day. His other interests include Hebrew poetry, biblical theology, textual criticism, ancient and medieval visual art, and philosophy. He earned a BA from University of Virginia, M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Emory University.
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