Choral Evensong reflection
Isaiah 60: 1-14
This is one of the glorious passages of Isaiah, but it is one where the poetry obscures bitterness and the vision of peace is utterly compromised.
Think of a city whose history is ravaged and scarred with the wreckage of war; where every monument, building, every sign of civilization bears the scars of war. Where the basic infrastructure of life – water, power, roads, transport and hospital are no longer and where even amidst the ruins is the menace of unexploded ordinance or IEDs. There is no lack of choice for such a city: Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Kabul, Gaza all come immediately to mind – we have all witnessed the evidence of destruction. But how do you rebuild in the aftermath of such dreadful destruction, and on such a scale?
How do you rebuild a society after such wholesale death and destruction? So many have fled the violence; will they return and start again? What about the children? Many are deeply damaged by their experience of war.
The region is still a very troubled place. How can you be sure that peace will continue and that this carnage will not return? How do you build for peace?
These are all questions that arise out of the reading from Isaiah chapter 60.
The city about which Isaiah writes in such hope is in fact Jerusalem, and Isaiah is looking back over a devastated city and at a time when the population had been removed by force and were only now starting to make their way back.
We are invited to imagine a city where the sounds of war and destruction are now replaced by the noise of a building site, and the clamour of reconstruction.
This is a poetry of exuberance, triumph and celebration. This is a story of restoration, a reversal of fortunes. But sadly, it might even be read as a revenge fantasy : the reversals are the revenge; the former masters become the slaves; the once wealthy are the poor .
Those who have been oppressed are now in charge and their former oppressors are to feel the pain of oppression themselves. In verse 12 we are told that “the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish, those nations shall be utterly laid waste.” We should take note. This vision of peace is not also one of reconciliation. It savours a bitter taste of revenge; as in verse 14 where we hear ”The descendants of those who oppressed you, shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet .”
It is disturbing to read this section of Isaiah because it is such a powerful statement of hope and restoration. It is often used to inform our thinking about the future of creation. And yet this passage never really moves beyond a discourse of domination; it is ironic that this is a story of the people whose great story was their escape from slavery in Egypt.
How do we as Christians respond to this? We can and should be aware of the dangers of this vision. It is not a vision of peace; it replaces one domination with another; one form of empire with another. When we think of the current reports and evidence of violence on the Israel-Gaza border, we can question this text. Likewise we can also question the possibilities of peace in Syria where the underlying issues have not yet been addressed.