“Release the Prisoners"
A sermon preached by Matty Strickler
April 30, 2017
University Baptist Church
This is a long and complicated piece of scripture that we have to unpack this morning. It is from a long and complicated book that is part of an even longer and more complicated volume. I can easily become over whelmed when faced with something that feels this big and complex. I have recently been a bit stuck in my Baptist History and Polity work because it feels unwieldy – too broad and too removed for me to know how to tackle. Luckily, I was able to take some time to talk with Pastor Doug about my difficulties and in his wisdom, he reminded me to take a step back, to find what speaks to me, and to use that as my point of entry. He helped me to remember that the issues of history and polity are not removed from my life or my faith. In fact, the issues of history and polity can be directly connected to the things I care about, to my life and the lives of others.
So, let’s approach this passage from Isaiah in the same way. What are the parts that speak to us and what connections can we make to our own lives and the lives of others? The passage that first stands out to me, given this year’s worship theme, and the conversations that the congregation has been having around mass incarceration and prison reform or abolition, is verses six and seven, “I am Adonai, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of those who have been kept from seeing, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
I need to acknowledge here that I included my own translation of verse seven. In the bibles in our pews verse seven begins. “To open the eyes that are blind…” For several reasons, I chose to translate that as, “To open the eyes of those who have been kept from seeing.” First, as we read in chapter six of Isaiah, it is God who stops the people from seeing or understanding. Isaiah 6:9 reads, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’” Think about that for a second, God is so angry with God’s people that God doesn’t even want them to see the error of their ways or hear the rebukes of the prophet, so God dulls their minds, stops their ears, and shuts their eyes.
Setting aside for now the deeply troubling picture this paints of God, and returning to the passage from verse 42, I thought it was important that the language acknowledge that this was not actual blindness that was being addressed, but a figurative blindness. It’s not that the people couldn’t see, it’s that they were kept from seeing, intentionally, by God.
And this brings me to the first “prison” that I want to address this morning. It is a metaphorical prison, because as Doug teased in this week’s email, we all struggle with the things that keep us from being the person we want to be in the world and creating the communities we want to have in the world. In this case, I refer to the issue of ableism. When I use there term “ableism,” I understand it to mean the cultural and structural systems which oppress people with disabilities. One of those systems is religion, and another is language. Throughout the bible we see disability used a metaphor for sin, for ignorance, for wretchedness. The first verse of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that I love, equates blindness with wretchedness - with being lost to God. Think for a moment about how that language might impact people who actually are blind, not metaphorically, but literally. Or, if you are blind or visually impaired, consider how it affects you.
To have a component of your being regularly used as a metaphor for sinfulness or stupidity takes its toll, and particularly for young people, it can be internalized. I know this from personal experience. I grew up in an era in which anything that was bad or uncool was described as “gay.” As in, “I hate that band, their music is so gay.” The epithet would be applied even though 99% of the time the item, person or activity in question had nothing to do with actual gay people. Gay was synonymous with all things bad and wrong. Growing up, knowing that label also applied to me did lead me to internalize the idea that I was bad, that there was something wrong with me.
Likewise, this passage does not actually address the lives of people with visual or hearing impairments; blindness and deafness are used as metaphors. Using parts of people’s identities as metaphor can be harmful. It can be harmful to the people who have those identities and, I believe, it is harmful to those who don’t, as it limits the ability to connect with people of those identities. The use of ableist language leads us to internalize the idea that disability is bad, that there is something essentially wrong with people with disabilities. This impacts many more of us than you might imagine, since many of us already live with both visible and invisible disabilities, and almost all of us at varying points in our lives will experience some level of disability.
So that’s the second reason I chose to use my own translation of this verse. I wanted to create an example of how we can make our language more inclusive. We already regularly do this with gendered language. It is generally the practice of this congregation to change language that casts God as only male. That change liberates us from a confining image of God and reflects our belief that God created all of us in God’s image. All of us.
Unfortunately, abelist language like this pops up over and over again in scripture and hymnody. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of Jesus’s ministry is that he healed people with disabilities, and those healing miracles are often used as metaphors as well, so the issue becomes quite complicated. I have not yet integrated enough inclusive language to be able to address every instance, even in this morning’s passage. So, in verses 16-20. I left the language mostly as it has been translated by biblical scholars. But, at the very least we name the issue, we recognize it and we make conscious choices about the language we use. This is how we begin to release ourselves from the prisons of oppressive language and make our communities more inclusive.
These metaphors have been used in this passage to achieve a certain goal, to communicate God’s agency in the world. God punished God’s people for their disobedience, allowing them to be conquered and exiled, but now the Babylonian empire has fallen, God’s punishment has been meted out, and now God is ready to create a new thing, “Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.” Why does even this generativity also sound like punishment and destruction, or at least like painful chaos?
Perhaps this is yet another show of strength from the “warrior” God we see in verse 13, all boast and bombast, crying out and wielding destruction, or perhaps it’s something more instructive. Perhaps God is trying to show us the kind of disruption, the kind of chaos that is necessary to truly bring down prison walls and set the imprisoned free.
“God cries out, God shouts aloud,” the scripture says. And God calls us to do likewise, to cry out against injustice, to shout aloud for freedom and equality. For too long we have kept quiet - going along to get along. Now we must gasp and pant like those who labor to bring a child into the world. That is not easy; it is not neat or comfortable. It is loud and painful and messy. God’s example in this passage is a scorched earth campaign, drying up rivers and laying waste to mountains.
Does God call us then to violence? To destruction? That is a complicated question, not least because those are complicated words. If I call for the abolition of the prison industrial complex, am I calling for violence? Am I not doing harm to the shareholders of the commercial corrections industries and all the ancillary industries that profit from incarceration and detention? Do I not put corrections officers, their families, and communities at risk of poverty if those jobs disappear?
I believe that there is righteousness in drawing the line, of saying, “We will not perform acts of physical violence to achieve the changes we seek,” and I also believe we must be honest with ourselves about the potential “collateral damage” that is done, even in acts of non-violent protest. Lives and livelihoods may be disturbed, relationships may rupture, wealth and property might be damaged or lost. At the very least there is the personal upheaval that comes from the destruction of the psychic barriers, the internalized racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism that exist within us.
I also believe that it is meaningful to note that we are not called only to destruction, but also to creation. The passage opens with a reminder that God is a creating God. Here, I also did a little of my own translation work. For some reason, the NRSV that we have in our pews and that is my standard go-to translation, puts the first verse in the past tense - referring to a God who created. But the Hebrew - and this is shown in the New International Version - describes a God who now creates or is in the process of creating.
For me, this shift in tense makes a huge difference. With it, I understand that the destruction God promises in this scripture is part of an ongoing process of creation. We are called by God to participate in this ongoing creation. This call is echoed in Jesus’s ministry and in the prophetic visions of “a new heaven and a new Earth.”
In order to release ourselves form our various personal, metaphorical prisons, we must create new ways of being, new ways of speaking, and new ways of relating to others. Likewise, in order to literally free the prisoners we must also imagine and create a new culture, new systems, and new communities.
It is tempting as we consider issues like immigration to believe that we can reform our way into a solution, that we can keep existing structures in place and work around them. I would ask you to prayerfully consider if that is what God calls us to, or if God truly does call us to create something new, a Divine Realm, even if t creation requires the destruction, or at least abandonment, of old systems, old structures, old ways of being.
What does that destruction look like and how can we carry it out with the least harm possible? I don’t have those answers, but I think that answering them is part of why we come together in community, why God calls us to free ourselves from the prison of isolation and engage in community building. In coming together we can explore and dialogue and create. We can build relationships that allow us to trust and risk, to share our most tender prophetic visions of the kingdom to come. Together we can prayerfully imagine and engage in the creation of the Divine Realm.
It will not be easy, comfortable or neat. Life in community never is, because people rarely are. We are unwieldy and complex like this scripture passage, but if we look for opportunities for connection, common passions, and shared values, we can find meaning in the muck and move together through destruction to creation.