This is the second post in a series … you can read part 1 here.
Describing the problem
Isaiah 58 is a text written to Israel describing life after the Babylonian Exile. Israel have been liberated from oppression – they were set free. But they were not free. While a segment of Israel sought God in their privilege others were desperate in their oppression.
With the danger of being anachronistic one can compare their situation with South Africa in a post-apartheid society. We are free – but not. We live in the New South Africa but we still carry a lot of scars. In South Africa today most people, mostly those in privileged positions, just want to forget the past and move on. They want a spirituality that connects them with God and not the past or present.
The prophet is placed in a position to challenge the areas wherein the post-exilic Israel are still bound and need liberation (v1). Just like the South African talk of being a “rainbow nation” without actively working towards justice and reconciliation, Israel became complacent and didn’t walk into the fullness of what their liberation really could mean.
The “rainbow” and the “new” in South Africa are definitely there for some – but not for all.
Accepting the fact that our current situation is a process and not a final reality is crucial. Katongole wisely states that,
“ … terms like “postcolonial” and “post-apartheid” can be misleadingly deceptive, especially when many people uncritically adopt these terms as a good description of our situation. What is deceptive of these terms is that they often involve a naïve optimism of having moved on from the bad past (colonialism, apartheid), and are now living within a new dispensation: “a new South Africa”. To be sure, there might be a lot that is new within the postcolonial or postapartheid establishment, but if there is no serious effort to confront the stories and imaginations that sustained the colonial or apartheid establishments, it is often the same imagination which will live on, even as the external formalities change. But since the memory of colonialism and apartheid is a memory of violence, perhaps it is not surprising that quite often violence becomes an ever-present performance in the so-called postcolonial and postapartheid societies”.
In the midst of Israel’s ‘liberation’ the religious establishment sought God through spiritual practices designed for self-indulgent pleasure and entertainment (v3b), which had a strong emphasis on spiritual technology – the ashes and sackcloth (v5). Their religion also had a manipulating tone to it – moving God into action by doing spiritual exercises (v2). They asked why God is not with them and doesn’t show Himself to them (v3). For them, spirituality was a means towards moving God to act on their behalf.
God would have none of this.
How could Israel conceive of a liberation that is only ‘spiritual’ and don’t include the physical and especially those people who lacked in the physical? How could they miss their responsibility in bringing liberation and being the cooperative friends of God? How could they create enclaves of privilege while ignoring those on the margins?
When I think about Isaiah 58 and how it speaks to myself I recognize myself in Israel’s conception of religion and the ‘spiritual journey’. I’ve also been trapped in a self-fulfilling spirituality that is all about me. Like Israel I’ve also practiced ‘spiritual technology’ in order to move God into action, a spirituality that became the ultimate dualism between spirit and flesh a utilitarian spirituality – where God is the one being used.
The spiritual technologies I practiced led to a blinding towards the country I live in, and are called to be in.
White friends and I congregate(d) in churches where we practice our spirituality in a bubble of benefits created in part by the oppression of others.
I live(d) a “social ruthlessness” while practicing a brand of spirituality that progressively left me empty and with a lot of questions,
“Why have we (practiced our spirituality), and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”(v3).
My yearning manifested itself in the seeking of more spiritual technologies. Which also left me empty.
It is this kind of ‘seeking’ that God challenges, Brueggemann succinctly states,
The complaint attributed to contemporary worshipers is that they dutifully fast and humble themselves, but their acts of devotion are unnoticed by Yahweh. The notice of Yahweh, however, is the only reason they do such acts. That is, worship is to call Yahweh’s attention to themselves. Implicit in this alleged prayer is the accusation-here indirectly admitted- that the purpose of worship is to gain advantage. That is, worship has become instrumental, as a means to an end, no longer an end in itself. Yahweh is thus useful for advantage.
The danger is always moving from being used by God to using God.
What do we do with a Christianity that revolves around a Sunday meeting, which will be evaluated with the standards set by a consumer narrative? “The service was good for me” or “that service did nothing for me” or “that,he,she was good”- isn’t this the exact thing we’re warned about in v2-3, seeking your own pleasure?
While rich Christians evaluate worship services and seek God for more material blessings a segment of our South African society are still ignored.
Brueggemann names the paradox in this kind of spirituality succinctly when he states that,
Ostentatious efforts at piety, devotion, and morality are not congruent with God (v.5). Religion is being used to avoid the reality of God. Such religion leaves its practitioners autonomous, apart from God, and therefore, predictably, indifferent to neighbor.
This is a frightening prognosis. That we can actually create forms of spirituality that can be used to avoid the reality of God! I guess this is why Jesus always coupled love of God with love of neighbor – and explained that we can only know that we love God if we love our neighbors. But who is our neighbor?
 A telling sign of the era we live in is how the definition of a prophet has become almost synonymous with a person who will “give you a word from the Lord”, usually in terms of your future with prosperity emphases. It has degenerated into a concept of someone who will prophesy to individuals to help them with their future. In the Isaiah sense, a prophet calls the people (corporately) towards God and neighbor by usually waking them up to their implicit practice of idolatry and social injustice.
 Katongole, Emmanuel (2005:22) A future for Africa: Critical essays in Christian social imagination
 Carson, D. A. 1994. New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Is 58:1). Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA
 Brueggemann , Isaiah, p.187 Isaiah 40-66
 Texts for Preaching: Year A / Walter Brueggemann p.128