Let Us Bring Down the Walls and Open Pathways Towards a Culture of Compassion and Caring
Bible Study on Isaiah 58:6-12 given May 5, 2006 at United Methodist Women's Assembly 2006, Anaheim, California.
Silvia Regina de Lima Silva leads the Bible study on Isaiah during morning worship at the 2006 United Methodist Women's Assembly in Anaheim, California. Credit: Mike DuBose/UMNS, May 5, 2006
Good morning sisters and brothers. For me it is a source of great joy to be here with you this morning and to share a lecture from the word of God. I feel an immense strength coming from you when I stand up here and look at you. And what we want to be able to look at this morning is how this strength that we represent here can be utilized to transform our societies.
We are living in difficult times in which power is becoming more and more centralized, dividing human beings and nations into good and evil, and is creating enemies and fabricating wars. The gap between the rich and the poor is now visible in walls - walls that are going up to separate the north of the rich from the south of the poor, like the wall between the United States and Mexico. Other walls are coming up like the wall separating the Palestinians and the Israelis, which create new Apartheids, destroy homes and erase memories and common histories. The increase in border patrols is a manifestation of a growing racism and xenophobia which are becoming part of everyday life. The violence faced by women at home and within institutions is becoming a permanent threat to life, and the word "femicide" must be introduced and placed in the dictionaries and brought to the attention of the news media. We ask ourselves, "Where are the religions? What do the churches say?"
Regrettably, the answer can be seen in the strengthening of religious fundamentalism which claims the lives of thousands of people, and in which some fundamentalist leaders are persecuted, while others admired and their actions justified. Both at the personal and at the community level, we see growing attitudes of indifference, insensitivity and disillusionment, in which we "turn our backs" on the pain and suffering of the other.
With our eyes wide, in search of answers to these tragedies and with the desire to find other ways, we turn to the prophet Isaiah. What inspires us? What moves and renews us? We read this text from the perspective of our bodies, women's bodies that are wounded and hurting; bodies that must be released form the mechanisms of oppression. But in reading the text we become sensitive to other bodies which are also crying out for salvation. We search for the meaning of faith - of a faith that will emanate from within and at the same time sustains human life with solidarity, compassion and caring.
Let Us Listen to the Text
"Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins." That is the vehement call of the Prophet Isaiah at the beginning of Chapter 58 where we find the biblical text that challenges us this morning. But what situation does this call reflect?
In the third part of the book, Isaiah tells us of a time when the people were returning from exile. For the deported, it meant living far from the land for many years, and experiencing the pain of living in exile in a foreign country. The text that we are studying takes place in the time of the return from exile. Those who returned did so with the desire to rebuild everything that had been destroyed by the occupation and the war. But they did not return to an empty land, to an unoccupied land. There they found those who did not go into exile, those who stayed and faced, during those years, the challenge of living and rebuilding life in the midst of destruction. The group that stayed and the one returning formed a poor community attempting to organize itself after 70 years of exile. It was a divided society. There were tensions and conflicts over the land. There were new social inequalities. A system of taxation gave way to the system of slavery.1 In the society of Isaiah's time, the exploitation of brother by brother emerged. The recently arrived considered themselves the true Israel and pretended to lay claim to ancestral properties. They sought to separate themselves from anyone and everyone they considered impure (Hag. 2:10-14). It was a community that felt threatened, and fearful of losing its identity. Thus it closed itself off to others and excluded the foreigners. At the same time, seasonal weather changes caused the loss of crops and therefore hunger was also a threat to life.
We can divide the text into four parts which are common to prophetic literature. It is divided into denouncement, commands, promises and blessings.
The First Part - The Denounces - To Break The Chains Of Oppression (v. 6)
The call for a fast that would be pleasing to God corresponds to denouncing a social practice related to injustice. The text presents images of chains and prisons. It sounds like an insistent, strident melody: Untie (the unjust chains), undo, free, break (v. 6). It begins with three verbs which more than a command, define the practice of a true 2 fast, of a true religion. The social inequalities during Isaiah's time quite possibly had to do with debts and imprisonment. In a society marked by oppression, it was necessary to make the unjust relations visible. There was an urgent need to untie, undo the yoke and let the other go free.
But now, listen carefully. The text, the words of Isaiah are directed towards those who have the power because they had the power to untie those who had been subjugated. On the other hand, the prophet also makes a call for solidarity among those who are tied to the same yoke. He invites them to change everyday relations, to seek forms of life in which bread can be eaten and shared, to live together, and to cover each other, and to protect and take care of each person's body. We understand this to be a call to compassion and caring.
The topic of a fast that is pleasing to God, which comes from the previous chapters in Isaiah, shows us how in times of crisis there exists the temptation to create ritualistic religions concerned with appearances and with fulfilling meaningless obligations that lack any real commitment to peoples' bodies and to social transformation. Such people worship a God that rejoices in the smoke from the incense and in the flesh sacrificed on altars, but they are incapable of taking responsibility for the human flesh that is sacrificed every day. This religion is the religion of self-satisfaction: "We are satisfied with our fasts, happy with our celebrations and worship services." Is this our religion sisters?
This was the situation Isaiah faced. This is the situation that continues to challenge us. In this text, we are faced with a question regarding the meaning of our faith and the meaning of our religious practices.
Isaiah insisted that the meaning of a true religion was to recover the unattended and abandoned bodies - the bodies of those who were the victims of injustice.
The Practice of Solidarity: Towards a Culture of Compassion and Caring (v.7)
In Isaiah's time, the bodies of women, men and children were subjected to an unjust system and the numbers of the hungry, the homeless, and the naked increased day by day. Where verse number 6 presents elements of bondage, the 7th verse is based on what was lacking and what was needed by those whose who were suffering from injustices: a home, shelter, food and clothing. These bodies were, and continue to be privileged places of God. A religious practice pleasing to God implied a transformation of social structures, as well as interpersonal relationships. The practice of solidarity consisted in letting the oppressed go, and not pointing a finger at the weak, nor speaking ill of others (v.9).
And now we open the text gently so that we can see more closely the pathways and practices of a life of commitment to one another. We find a program of a life of solidarity. It consists of small steps that lead to small utopias. The words speak concretely about life; they are mixed with images, symbols and silences that make you think …
"Open your house" and "break bread with the hungry" is the response of the religion of caring, the religion of life. It demands that we take the homeless into our home. The message of the Prophet Isaiah is clear: Take care of those who are displaced, of the immigrants, of those who wander, and take them into your home. The fast that God calls for is not that you stop eating, but that you share the bread that you have. He states out loud: If you see someone naked, cover them, shelter them and care for them. In the face of a culture of indifference, we must create a culture of solidarity, compassion and caring.
The Compassion and Caring That Challenge Us Today
Isaiah leads us to reflect on the suffering in our time. We began this study by remembering the pain that affects us as humanity. We frequently hear and see so much violence, so many injustices, that the absurd becomes an acceptable and normal part of life. Insensitivity makes us indifferent to the suffering of the other. We put up walls and barriers that distance us from those situations and those people which constitute a threat to us and to the society in which we live. Walls are no longer part of a symbolic language, but are made out of cement, iron and steel. They are a manifestation of our culture of no-solidarity, and we recall two walls in particular that produce humiliation and shame.
We recall the first wall - the one that separates Mexico from the United States. It is a wall that speaks, that shouts, that denounces the hypocrisy of a North that wishes to protect its wealth and resources, yet continues to exploit and be indifferent to an increasingly poor South. But my sisters and brothers, the 3,200 kilometers of construction are incapable of eliminating the sensitivity of the bodies separated by that wall. There are also walls that speak of intolerance and of the inability to live together, such as the wall that separates Palestinian and Jewish territories built at a cost of more that $1 million dollars per kilometer and twice the height of the old Berlin wall.
And I remember a part of a poem by Jan Lucas Solera:
Gray, hard, smooth and indifferent wall
Tall and sleek, compact and cold
One piece placed on top of another
Built upon the road, built upon homes,
Lands, olive trees and the memories
Of generations of ancient citizens of this land
A wall that personifies indifference, a wall of shame.3
The great challenge of Isaiah's text to us this morning, is to bring down these barriers, eliminate the walls. While the powerful of the world continue to build walls of domination, we women continue moving forward, insistent, and stubbornly making holes in the walls. We reinvent geography with the Chicanos and other Latinos, and with the entire human race, in Spanglish or in other languages, we create new words, new vocabularies, new gestures that translate into solidarity and stand up to domination. In the midst of no-solidarity and indifference, let us dare to rise and create a culture of compassion and caring. Sisters, are we willing to do this? Yes!
Then if we are willing to do this, let us return to Isaiah's text which holds one more thing: a promise and a blessing for us.
The promise is announced in metaphors and symbols. The promise comes from our commitment to the other - to bring down the walls, to break with indifference, to not turn our backs on our sisters, on our brothers. To stand close to the other and to look in to the other's face and read in it their history, desires, needs and dreams, is to rediscover the wonder of life. To care for the other is to already live out the promise and in this way the world is filled with light and healing. "Your healing will quickly come forth" (v.8). Health springs forth and the bodies are restored because justice and solidarity become reality. Where there is solidarity and compassion, there is God. The light becomes the food that sustains us on our path. These works will accompany us on the path of life and will open up new pathways before us.
We End This Reflection With a Blessing - To Participate in the Energy and Glory of God
The works, the gestures of compassion go before you "and the glory and the energy of God will gather you" (v.8). The blessing is to be able to participate in this glory, in this divine energy.
Sisters, when we are able to live our lives in this way, then we participate in the strength of God (v.8). Our light shines just as the light of God shines. In other words, when we live compassion and caring we are in the company of God, because God is compassion and caring. Everything that was destroyed by an anti-solidarity system will recover its form, and the paths that were erased by the destruction will be restored. The people will slowly return to a life with dignity, a simpler, happy life. The foundations will no longer be utilized to build walls that separate, but to build homes that shelter. It is a permanent effort that must be renewed each morning. But our humble works go before us and create lights that illuminate the path. The dry land that was once a desert will become moist and the garden will begin to show its first sprouts. The flowers will bloom and bring joy to the path.
Let Us Rise
Come, let us rise. Let us rise and hold hands. Let us rise earlier each day. Let us wake up the sun and greet the morning we have waiting for. Come, let us join the girls and the boys in building the life we desire. Let us build homes without walls, without racism, without sexism, without violence. On this day we will see in the smile of the little girl, the beautiful smile of God and the glory of God will embrace us. We will no longer hear so many crying and when someone does cry we will be there to console them. Come, let us rise.
And I now invite you to end this with me with a very special gesture. Where we wish to express everything we just finished reflecting on. We can now let go of our hands. And let us now with both hands push, push away from us all indifference. Push and bring down all of the walls that separate us. And let us all build in front of us a new path. In this path we can see the face of the other. There is the face of God. Let us take that strength, that force, that energy of God and place it in our own hearts. We are many. We are thousands. We don't want to hold on to that strength only within ourselves. Using a child's imagination, let us take this strength, the Spirit of God that is within us, and let us blow it and send it to different parts of the world. This is the force, the strength that is capable of breaking with indifference. This is the force that is capable of bringing down the walls. Let us blow this force towards the four ends of the world!
1 Carlos Mesters and Biblical Team of the CRB. Lectura profética de la historia. (A Prophetic Reading of History.) Estella: Verbo Divino, 1999, p. 30
2 J. Severino Croatto. Imaginer el futuro - Estructura retórica y querigma del tercer Isaias. Buenos asires: Grupo Editorial Lumen, 2001, p. 120.