Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 17) transports me to a lovely jaunt through the countryside of northern Buncombe County, where I got a bit lost this past Saturday evening on my way to the wedding-non-wedding of a good friend who was exchanging vows and promises and rings with the woman of her dreams. I must have made a right when I was supposed to go left (in more ways than one), when I passed what appeared to be a house church of the Christian Zionist variety, with lots of interesting signs in the yard and along the road. Most had something to do with America supporting Israel. Two stuck out to me; one was a sign simply saying Jerusalem with the three middle letters USA capitalized and in a red, white and blue font. The other stated that Real Americans Defend Israel with a painting of the American flag in the background, and an eagle flying with the Israeli flag in its mouth in the foreground. Some of the other signs had apocalyptic messages, but I didn’t linger to read them all as I needed to make my way back to the route and find the barn that had been transformed into a chapel of love, where the wedding of these two wonderful women would have surely had some end-times implications for this neighbor.
A lot of the Christian Zionism rhetoric I hear and read today reminds me of the kind of thoughtless patriotism touted by Merle Haggard in his pre-progressive days, when he sang about squirrely guys running down our country, who were in his immortal words walking on the fightin’ side of me. His advice to the harsh critics of American foreign and domestic policies was simply, if you don’t like it, leave it. That’s the gist of the bumper sticker theology touted so much today; there’s no room for genuine critique of the policies of God’s chosen people. It’s un-American to question the Israeli government’s policies or America’s unconditional military support. I wonder how the Hebrew prophets would have fared with Merle’s style of patriotism and the Christian Zionist style of advocacy for Israel. Isaiah and his comrades were among the fiercest critics of Israeli foreign and domestic policy; he gave voice to God’s rebuke in the harshest of tones. Israel, aka Jacob, aka Ephraim, aka the northern kingdom, was playing footsies with their northern neighbor Syria, favoring realpolitik global power alliances for their defense over trust in the security of God’s presence and covenant love. In the midst of this reality Isaiah prophesies that the fortified cities of his beloved promised land will disappear, and the glory of Jacob will fade. Only a remnant will survive to continue the covenant relationship and carry on the promise of a people who would be a light to the nations. From the prophetic point of view, mindless patriotism and an uncritical love of country made no sense. The prophets understood that the real strength of the nation, its only strength, was moral strength, demonstrated in the extent to which they maintained fidelity to the covenant, with its clear principles of justice laid out in mandates to welcome the stranger, to redistribute the wealth every generation, to love neighbor as self, with all of this based on a whole-hearted and whole-minded love of God. It was all about the covenant, and if you dared break the covenant and put more stock in worldly power than in the power of holy love, then you were walking on the fighting side of both God and the prophets.
My friend’s wedding-non-wedding was one of the most beautiful demonstrations of sacred covenant-making I’ve seen in a long time. The vows were incredibly powerful statements of lifelong commitment to fidelity and deep love. The readings were moving; I especially resonated with a quote from the Frida Kahlo movie, which underscored the radical nature of this act of commitment in a state that outlaws such covenants: I don’t believe in marriage. I think at worst it’s a hostile political act, a way for small-minded men to keep women in the house and out of the way, wrapped up in the guise of tradition and conservative religious nonsense. At best, it’s a happy delusion – these two people who truly love each other and have no idea how truly miserable they’re about to make each other. But, but, when two people know that, and they decide with eyes wide open to face each other and get married anyway, then I don’t think it’s conservative or delusional. I think it’s radical and courageous and very romantic. I think the Hebrew prophets would have said the same thing about religious covenants. From a historical perspective, they are terrible, and they have a terrible track record. But when communities of faithful people, be they Christian or Jewish or any other tradition, recognize the horrors of that failed history and decide with eyes wide open to face one another anyway and vow to be faithful to the ideals of sacred love of God and neighbor, it, too, is radical and courageous, if not a bit romantic. It’s enough to make you want to put on some Merle Haggard and do the Spanish Two-Step at the reception.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.