Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 61) transports me to A Thousand Splendid Suns that hide behind the war-torn walls of Kabul and the failed state of Afghanistan. If you haven’t read Khaled Hosseini’s terribly sad sequel to The Kite Runner, I highly recommend it (if you have the stomach for a well of suffering that seems to know no bottom). It gives a very personal account of the horrors of war and the breakdown of civil society, through the eyes of two tragic characters, Mariam and Laila. From a historical perspective, the cycle of oppressive violence started out, as it generally does, with good intentions; a corrupt and oppressive monarchy was overthrown in the 1970s by people promising democracy and human rights. These liberators brought much progress, particularly in the area of women’s rights, but they soon over-reached their bounds as they received more and more backing from the Soviet Union. They became oppressors themselves, torturing and killing many in their efforts to totally secularize the country and rid it of religious influence. Their violent repression led to revolt; this time it was the Mujahideen, armed by the US, who were the heroic liberators, using the force of Islamic jihad to send the communists packing. Once in power, the Mujahideen soon splintered into factions led by various warlords, and they proved they could be as repressive and corrupt as any of their predecessors, plunging the country into a civil war that ripped the fabric of society to shreds. The ravaging repression and violence they brought to the population gave birth to a new set of celebrated liberators, the Taliban, a group of young students largely recruited from refugee camps in Pakistan, who came in and conquered the various warlords and established their own rule that quickly proved violent and repressive. They also opened the country to radical jihadists from around the Arab world, including Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which gave rise to yet another liberation, this time led by US forces and drones. As history would have it, it looks like these latest liberators are going to exit the stage before continuing the cycle of liberating hero turned repressive tyrant. We will have to wait and see who fills the vacuum, and it’s a safe bet that the next set of rulers will start the cycle once again.
As much as we love some of the lofty passages in the book of Isaiah, there are hints throughout his prophecy that the lofty goals of liberation he proclaimed would usher in repressive rule. Today’s passage gives us one of those hints. It begins with the wonderful intention of liberation – the Spirit of the Lord is upon the prophet, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor, to liberate and release the captive prisoners and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. That all sounds wonderful. If it only ended there. The very next line tells us it is also the day of God’s vengeance. While the messianic hero is busy binding up the brokenhearted and rebuilding the ancient ruins, we are told that the new regime will also grant the people of faith all the leisure time they want for religious observance, because conquered foreigners will be conscripted for forced labor to do all the difficult work. While verse 8 tells us that God hates injustice, verse 5 assures the faithful that they will enjoy the benefits of having strangers shepherding their flocks and working their fields and vineyards. Hardly a just arrangement. While verse 8 also tells us that God hates robbery, verse 6 assures the covenant community that they will soon be looting the wealth of those they’ve conquered, and they’ll be able to brag about it. Hardly a reassurance to the rest of the world that God hates robbery.
All this makes it even more interesting to me how Jesus chose to appropriate this passage in his inaugural sermon. He lifted out the first verse and half, and cut the rest short. He quit reading before he got to the part about vengeance. For those in his listening audience who were familiar with the text, Jesus’ reading could have been a signal that he was out to stop the cycle. Instead of preaching about the hope of conscripting foreigners for forced labor so that the home folks could have more time for r & r and religious ritual, he celebrated the faithful ministry of a foreign widow. Instead of boasting about feeding on the wealth of foreign nations, he told the story of a wealthy foreign king who received miraculous healing. Deciding what verses to read, and where to stop, and deciding what stories to include, gave definition to Jesus and his mission and ministry. Reading books like Khaled Hosseini’s makes me hope and pray for a time when Afghanistan can make a similar decision and stop the cycle of repressive violence, when they can start telling other, more hopeful and inclusive stories. It’s what happens in the truth and reconciliation process, which has helped stop these cycles of vengeance and violence in 24 countries around the world. Hopefully Afghanistan can be the 25th, so that the Afghani people, especially women like Mariam and Laila, will once again be able to glory in the light of those thousand splendid suns.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.