Selfie Culture and True Community (Isaiah 63:7-9)
By Walter Brueggemann
The modern world for the last four hundred years has been largely committed to the autonomous self, an individual who is without social burden or obligation. From the mathematical logic of Rene Descartes to the Enlightenment rationality of Emmanuel Kant, our Western world has taken a dramatic "turn to the self." Many people who have never heard of Rene Descartes or Emmanuel Kant have embraced the unburdened self as the center of all reality. This in turn has led variously to consumer satiation for the autonomous self, a satiation that becomes popularly expressed in "selfies": cannot get enough of self! The same commitment has led, more ominously, to a predatory economy that readily takes what may belong to another because one has no social obligation or bonding. That predatory capacity of the disconnected self gets expressed in "privatization" so that the powerful can enjoy private medicine, private schools, and private police protection apart from the common good, and in "deregulation" which means a lack of restraints that may protect the vulnerable from the powerful.
The Bible maintains a strong critique of such a "turn to the self" and resolutely insists on a "turn to the Thou," to the Other from whom the self receives its life. This has been classically expressed by Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou, wherein he articulates the dialogical, covenantal sense of self that pervades the Bible. In that purview, the self is always a member of a community of obligation and response that refers to itself to the Other in praise, trust, and obedience.
In our reading we have only an abbreviated snippet of a longer poem that is situated in a period of Israel's history when the Jews were subject to imperial control and were exposed to political and economic exploitation. Our verses yield a grand doxology in which Israel remembers God's transformative solidarity in times past. It is a wonder of Israel's faith that they knew the name of the "Thou" who gives life, a name we translate in verse 7 as "Lord." That name, in unpronounceable Hebrew, is YHWH (see Exodus 3:14). Israel's faith has filled that indeterminate name with glad memories of saving miracles, most especially the Exodus deliverance. Thus Israel, in its praise, has an inventory of remembered miracles that attest to YHWH's mercy and steadfast love toward Israel. These two terms, mercy and steadfast love, are reinforced in verse 9 with love and compassion (pity); the sum of the four terms affirms YHWH's deep and abiding commitment to Israel over "all the days of old." In its doxology, Israel is fully confident of YHWH's commitment.
But Israel can also remember that YHWH had complete confidence in Israel's corresponding faithfulness to YHWH. YHWH is sure that Israel will be an obedient covenant partner how keeps Torah commandments (v. 8). And that is when our reading gets both tricky and interesting. In what follows in the verses after our reading, it is reported that Israel "rebelled" and vexed YHWH's holy spirit by its recalcitrance (v. 10). This in turn led to God's hostility toward wayward Israel that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of some into exile. Israel's conduct contradicts and violates YHWH's generous goodness.
If we read on, however, we see that in the midst of the trouble that came upon Israel because of its recalcitrance, Israel returned to its defining memory that it had tried to scuttle. Israel can remember "days of old" (v. 11). What follows is a recital of the Exodus under Moses (63:11-12), the sojourn "in the desert" (63:13), and the arrival at wellbeing in the land of promise (63:14), a narrative that enhanced YHWH's glorious reputation (name) (63:14). The sequence of verses 11-14 recites the way in which the "Thou" of YHWH had rescued the hapless members of the Israelite community.
All of this, however, is an introduction to the pathos-filled petition of Isaiah 63:15-64:12, a prayer that YHWH would act as in the days of old and deliver Israel from its present wretched historical circumstance. The prayer pivots on two statements:
For you are our father...
You, O Lord, are our father;
Our Redeemer from of old is your name (63:16).
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter (64:8).
Israel, in dire need, throws itself on the mercy of YHWH as "father" who in a patriarchal society has responsibility for the wellbeing of the entire household.
The prayer describes for God the sorry situation of the abandoned landscape and the devastation wrought by military occupation (64:10-11). The prayer bids YHWH not to be angry but to remember that even in their recalcitrance, these are "your people" to whom you are obligated (v. 9). The prayer in its sadness and feeble hope ends with two painful wonderments in the form of questions:
After all this will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely (64:12)?
Israel does not know whether YHWH will answer or keep silent, whether YHWH will remain in anger or has moved to compassion. Israel's hope in verses 63:7-9 is premised on God's mercy, steadfast love, love, and compassion. That hope, however, is voiced in a dire circumstance of impotence and need in which there is not yet any relief in sight.
This same dialogic interaction between a holy Thou and a needful world is a prayer that we say comes to fulfillment in Christmas. It is the audacious claim of Judaism to know the enigmatic name of this holy Thou, YHWH. It is an even more audacious claim of Christian faith to claim that this God with the enigmatic name has come "bodied" among us in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we read this text at Christmas in the claim that this pathos-filled prayer of Israel (that turns out to be the pathos-filled prayer of the world) is answered in the Christmas birth. Our long prayer has ended with two questions (64:12). And now, in Christian horizon, we say that the questions have been answered. God will not restrain God's self but will act in self-giving ways.
God will not keep silent to let the punishment continue, but will speak in a world-transforming word made flesh. Thus we read Israel' prayer that is the prayer of the church that is the prayer of the world. It continues to be a prayer that has confidence in the faithfulness of God. It is still the prayer that acknowledges God as father/mother who has responsibility for the entire household. It is still the prayer uttered in dire circumstance, uttered in hope and with wonderment. It is still our prayer that we pray with confidence at Christmas.
Even at Christmas we do well to linger over this poem. We do well to linger over "days of old" that have been filled with divine fidelity and generosity; we do well to linger over many days filled with recalcitrance. We mostly do not know, in our own circumstance, whether the Christmas we celebrate is an illusionary liturgical project, or whether it is the real thing with the real arrival of the God with the enigmatic saving name. We may echo the final wonderment of 64:12, because we do not know.
What strikes me most powerfully in this text is that Israel, in this poem, knows that finally it must reckon with a Thou who is our source of a good future. It must reckon with a Thou whom we forsake in our self-preoccupation. This is a Thou who is capable of anger in the face of recalcitrance. And now we address that same Thou, first in doxology (63:7-9), but then in a pathos-filled petition. We pray for the gift of well-being that we cannot conjure for ourselves.
Our "modern strategy," in the face of this enigmatic Thou, is to screen out all such engagement by an insistent "turn to the self." If only we can bracket out this Thou from our lives we can get on with the business of being successful, autonomous selves who need only look after ourselves. We can, if we are rich or fast or smart or lucky, be self-sufficient without noticing the left-behind. In such an ideology of the self, the neighbor disappears and we have no obligation beyond face-to-face charity. We can, as we have, imagine a society in terms of power, fear, greed, and violence. But then we notice that such a "self-ordered" society does not work. It does not work because neighbors linger whom we thought we had disposed of. It does not work because the holy Mystery of life is beyond our administration. Christmas is a birth that shatters the bubble of autonomy. For that reason it is a season of honesty about the non-negotiable requirements of a good future. But it is also a season of hope; when we turn back to this holy Thou, gifts are given, wonders happen, the world is made new. It is no wonder that both heaven and nature sing in this moment of divine response to our pathos-filled prayer.
Bible Study Questions:
Look back at 2016. Where have you seen the obsession with self, as Brueggemann states 'without social burden or obligation' show up in your life, in your community, in US political rhetoric?
Brueggemann discusses a turn to self versus a turn to thou, in terms of the Divine Thou and the community or neighborly thou. What are some ways we can pivot from our self-fascination to authentic engagement with Thou and thou? How do those differ and how are they similar?
This season we hope, but we do not know. We look at the past year and find moments when God has been generous and faithful in spite of our turning away and focus on self. What are some ways that you will fill the rituals this holiday season with hope and expectation, as we wait for Emanuel in faith: hoping the God of our past will be the God of our future.
For Further Reading:
Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination.
Martin Buber. I and Thou.
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture