A priest friend of mine once told me a story that has really stuck with me. His church was going to engage in a building project that would displace a childcare center that had served families in the area for many years. The church had concerns about how to break the news to the preschool without alienating those involved. After they were notified a Board member of the childcare center asked permission to come to a meeting of the church’s governing body to present their case. He gave a slide presentation that showed imaginative plans for growth and renewal for the childcare center. There was no resentment or anger in his voice; only creative imagination and relational power. Someone asked how he could take the loss of the space so casually. He replied, “When people say ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ the leader responds, ‘I believe it because I see it.’” The child-care center’s leadership saw a future beyond loss.
The 11th chapter of Isaiah describes a future leader who will see like that board member saw. That leader will bring into focus a picture of justice and of peace – two major themes of Advent. The church understands the future leader to be the Messiah. That’s why we read these texts in Advent. But Isaiah was contemplating a leader closer at hand – a king at the horizon of the eighth century BCE. The point of reading the text during Advent is not to predict the Messiah but to link Jewish expectation with the reality of Jesus. The two horizons introduce a new way of seeing rather than a particular seer.
What is the new way of seeing? How do we see things before they are visible to the eye? Isaiah talks about it as seeing with rather than what we see. The first half of the passage is about seeing with justice. The second half is about seeing peace with imagination–a vision from inside rather than outside. Justice is more a lens than an object. “The root of Jesse shall not judge by what the eye sees, or what the ear hears; but will judge the poor with justice, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
There was a deep conviction in Israel that the royal government is the equalizer that intervenes on behalf of the poor and vulnerable who can’t supply their own social leverage. It reminds us that Jesus was received, celebrated, and crucified because he embodied and practiced this vision of social possibility. We can’t overstate the importance of this vision to our current reality, wherein governmental power is largely in the hands of the wealthy & powerful and is operated almost exclusively to their advantage and benefit. Such an arrangement completely contradicts the biblical vision of government.” (Breuggemann, Isaiah 1-39 Westminster Bible Commentary p 101)
For Isaiah, justice is acted out in the here and now, but it is not rooted in what can be seen and heard and perceived with the senses. Justice is rooted inside, at the spiritual center of our lives. That means that justice doesn’t depend as much on a careful review of the merits of individual cases as on seeing the world through God’s eyes. It’s not a question of whether this particular poor person deserves compensation or whether this particular powerless person warrants a favorable ruling. Justice comes from right judging; and right judging is a matter of judging with the eyes of God rather than of what the physical eye might perceive. As Richard Rohr likes to say: Most people do not see things as they are because they see things as they are!
In the second half of the text Isaiah switches to imagining peace as he describes the animal kingdom. There will be conciliation and peace among these species that have been at war with each other since the beginning of time. All things will be new in creation when God fully authorizes the right human agents. The distortion of human relationships is at the root of all distortions in creation. Peace is rooted in justice, and justice must issue in peace. Peace requires seeing with imagination, which once again comes from inside rather than outside.
The image of the peaceable kingdom is familiar to many – the wolf living with the lamb, a little child leading them. The reign of peace will transform the entire created order; not only will nations cease from warfare, but even natural enemies, predators and prey, will not hurt or destroy. Cows and bears, lions and oxen, snakes and human children will coexist without injury or harm. It is the fullness of Peace—the Harmony of harmonies, reconciling intensities in mutual richness of life; shalom, completeness, shared well-being and wholeness. All this will happen because earth—not just humans, but the entire world-fabric— “will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The vision proposes that every human society can strive to embody to some extent God’s aims for creation. While no actual earthly society, human community or ecosystem may achieve the fullness of Peace under the conditions of this world, the vision serves as an ideal against which any society can be measured. It invites us to ask: What signs of this fullness of Peace do we see emerging in our own difficult time? What concrete actions might we take to further embody the divine ideals Isaiah reveals to us here?
Yet, in the same way that the practice of justice is rooted in our spiritual center so the vision of peace starts on the inside. The Advent question that really matters is, What is the path to seeing? How do we come to see like that? In the previous chapter of Isaiah we learn that the reason there was only a stump of Jesse is that all the tallest trees had been cut down, and the thickets of the forest had been hacked down with an ax. (10:33-34) Chapter 11 opens with a picture of a dry tree stump lying alone in what used to be a forest. But out of the dry stump a shoot had begun to emerge. To the Hebrew mind the presence or absence of the Spirit is what signaled life or death. So it’s natural for Isaiah to begin talking about the Spirit: The spirit of the Lord shall rest on that one, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of God (11:2). That is the precursor to judging with rather than what.
Isaiah points out that in order to see and judge in God’s way, a person must develop the openness to experience loss as both good and bad. That’s precisely the quality that the member of the childcare center’s board demonstrated. The loss didn’t devastate him; it became the vehicle for a new vision.
This perspective is rooted in a rereading of the creation story. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Were they being punished, or were they being taught? Did our archetypes of the human race, succeed or fail? Joan Chittester shares the story of her own movement from the view she was taught by the nuns as a child, that when Adam and Eve were expelled it was a punishment for the mess they had made of things. She discovered a different answer when she realized that Adam and Eve were not quasi-divine beings who utterly failed in their vocation, such that God has had to clean up their mess ever since. They were human; “the eating of the fruit was the most humanizing thing they did. What if the real message in the Garden story is that it is of the essence of humanity to stumble from apple tree to apple tree, trying to get it right, searching for ‘the difference between good and evil’ but able to learn it only the hard way? Then the lesson was not that God was angry that Adam and Eve were not gods, but that God knew it was necessary for them to learn that they were human, that life would not be easy, that there would be pitfalls aplenty, and that they could survive them one after the other after the other.” Chittester There is a Season, p 25-26
What does this have to do with peace and justice? Chittester speaks to that too: “It is what we lack in ourselves that agitates us. What we do not have in our own hearts we will always look for someplace else. What we do not cultivate within ourselves we will always demand from others. If we have not learned how to live a rich inner life, we will want the tinsel and glitter of the world around us and someone else’s money to get it. If we have not set ourselves to the task of self-development, we will want someone else’s skills, someone else’s gifts, someone else’s advantages. If we are insecure, we will demand the control of others. If we have not come to peace with our own life, we will make combat with the people around us. If we have not learned to listen to our own struggles, we will never have compassion on the struggles of others.” (Chittester, Time, p. 108).
Isaiah invites us to a cycle of life that involves being open to loss in a way that leads to wisdom. Wisdom creates space to welcome the poor and the meek into a realm of justice. Some who are so welcomed will become open themselves, such that rights are transformed into gifts and failures into necessary and redemptive mistakes. That transformation creates the space in them to carry forward the work for justice with others. In that way, justice and peace multiply.