[Text: Isaiah 1:10-18]
There’s a popular misconception that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about sex. In fact, the Genesis version of the story seems to have more to do with hospitality to strangers; and indeed welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, is a central concern of Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel, never one to shy away from talking about sex, says however that “this was the sin of Sodom”: they had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” And here we have the prophet Isaiah, addressing the rulers and elite of Jerusalem as if they are Sodom and Gomorrah, an indictment that surely struck many Jerusalemites as wrong and even unpatriotic. Not only that, but Isaiah shares God’s revelation that God hates their religious festivals, since they are paired with injustice to the poor among them. As one preacher put it, “Social injustice nullifies sacrificial good.” That is, allowing or perpetrating injustice cancels out all the good our worship might do.
What would today’s passage from Isaiah sound like if Isaiah were addressing our modern, American context? And how would we respond to it? As I was asking myself this question, a new chapter in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest began to unfold. Not a lot of mainstream media has been covering this ongoing protest, so let me give a bit of background: The Dakota Access Pipeline, also known as the Bakken pipeline, is a project intended to carry hydrofracked crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to an oil terminal in Illinois, from which it would be transported to various other locations. Now, setting aside the fact that using water to frack oil is both extremely energy intensive and wasteful of water—as much as 3 gallons of water per gallon of oil produced—the main issue is that the original pipeline was planned to pass by the city of Bismarck, North Dakota. But concern arose about Bismarck’s water supply. So the pipeline route was moved to the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation, and its water supply. Now, to a coldly utilitarian perspective, this might seem reasonable: avoid poisoning the water supply of a mid-size city, and limit the possible number of people affected to a little over 8,000, the population of the reservation. The term for such out-of-the-way places that are or might be damaged by spills and other types of pollution is “sacrifice zone.” A sacrifice zone is usually rural, often populated by people of color and poor folks generally, and nearly always opposed by residents. And though the possibility of a pipeline spill might seem remote, it’s shocking to learn that the first Keystone pipeline, which was called the safest pipeline ever built, suffered 12 spills in the first year of its existence. But residents often don’t get to decide what’s best for their communities when a Fortune 500 company wants to mine or drill or build a pipeline there. They are sacrificed along with their land.
Add to this the fact that the indigenous people of the United States have been systematically impoverished and deprived of their rights and territories, and you can understand why members of the Standing Rock Sioux might resolve to resist this particular project. Add to that the fact that Indigenous groups all over North America—and in many other parts of the world—are tired of their lands being used without their permission and made into sacrifice zones, and you can probably see why the protests at Standing Rock have become the largest gathering of Native Americans in over 100 years.
It’s easy to take our current economic system for granted. We’re inured to the way things are, and change is hard to imagine when you’ve never seen an alternative way of being. It’s even harder when the current system makes us comfortable and secure, and we don’t see the sacrifice zones—or the people sacrificed with them—up close and personal.
But that is exactly what the prophets—and biblical religion in general—demand of us. The Scriptures teem with reminder after reminder that true religion is not showing up for worship, but loving God and your neighbor. Worship is undeniably important, but only as a reminder itself that religion consists of what you do, not what you say or believe. And one’s neighbor was the focus of one’s religious and ethical life. Especially the poor neighbor—the Bible often uses the phrase “widow and orphan” to stand in for oppressed people in general, because in a society where protection came from the male head of the household, widows and orphans were uniquely vulnerable.
Isaiah, like some of the other prophets, goes so far as to say that God will refuse to hear the prayers of those who oppress the orphan and the widow. The great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that Scripture consistently stresses that God will, however, always hear the cry of the oppressed, the widow and orphan. In Exodus, for example, God tells Israel: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” God may elect not to listen to the cries and prayers of the oppressors, but will always heed the cry of those they oppress. And note that, in Isaiah, it’s not enough simply to refrain from doing evil; one must actively “learn to do good.” Only then, God says, will the people have any chance of their prayers being heard. Only by actively doing good, by reorienting themselves to the true religion of loving one’s neighbor and helping the oppressed, can sins be washed away.
In our world, as in Isaiah’s, there are the haves and the have nots, the elites and the widows and orphans. On the one hand, there’s Kelcy Warren, the billionaire who wants his company to build the Dakota Access Pipeline across reservation land. Mr. Warren’s estate reportedly features a putting green, “a pole-vault pit, a four-lane bowling alley, and a 200-seat theater where the billionaire’s musician pals play private concerts.” The average annual income on the reservation, on the other hand, is $4,400, and two-thirds of residents are unemployed. Even without the possibility of a pipeline spill on their land, they have very little water, and what they have is poor in quality. Whose cry do you think God is listening to?
It makes me wonder, does God listen to our cries? When we are too comfortable to be bothered, when we sincerely want to help but put it off because we’re busy—the category I myself too often fall into—when we convince ourselves there’s nothing to be done, is God with us? Or is God, as in this passage from Isaiah, weary of our false religion? And to imagine even further—what if all of us who sit and pray and preach and sing hymns in church every week—what if we opened our hearts to God’s message that the true religion is loving our neighbor, is doing justice, is seeing the connection between ourselves and the oppressed? What if the voices of Indigenous Americans at Standing Rock are the voices of our Isaiahs, our Ezekiels, our Amoses?
The core of biblical faith, as I talked about with the younger folks, can be summed up, as Jesus said, in two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Or as church father St. Augustine famously put it, “Love God, and do what you will.” That is, when you love God, you will act in a way that is in accordance with true religion; when you love God, you end up loving your neighbor as well. When you truly love God, you will act in justice and mercy.
True religion is not in the least about pursuing profit at any cost, pursuing individual wholeness and well-being, but about situating every single ethical question in the context of neighborliness. This religion was born in the deliverance of our spiritual ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and commanded solidarity with strangers and outcasts. True religion isn’t what we do here in church; both prophets and Jesus’ own words attest to that: instead, religion is what we do every day in our families, communities, and workplaces, what we pursue in our politics, what kind of world we are trying to build. In our religion, no place is a sacrifice zone, and no people can be abandoned. Everything matters. What we do here, in this building, is to remind ourselves of that, to feed together on God’s word, to pray together, to hear again and again the message of Scripture, because God knows we need reminding: Love God. Love your neighbor. Love God. Love your neighbor. That, as Jesus says, is the whole of Scripture. Love God. Love your neighbor.
Love your neighbor whose politics you don’t understand. Love your neighbor whose protests you don’t understand. Pause, rather than reflexively ignoring or dismissing their ideas, to consider how the world might look to their eyes.
Put the welfare of people and communities and the natural world that supports us all, above profit and power. Be aware of the “widows and orphans” of our own time and place—whether they are a Sioux tribe in North Dakota, or a single mother in rural Vermont trying to choose between heat and food.
Look outward, not in. Work for the flourishing of the common good, and not only for your own. Then and only then, as Isaiah says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Please pray with me:
Open our eyes that we may see the needs of others;
Open our ears that we may hear their cries;
Open our hearts that we may feel their anguish and their joy.
Let us not be afraid to defend the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, because of the anger and might of the powerful.
Show us where love and hope and faith are needed, and use us to bring them to those places.
Open our ears and eyes, our hearts and lives, that we may in these coming days be able to do some work of justice and peace for you. Amen.”
[Prayer from the Sabeel Center, Jerusalem]