In my previous post, I introduced what will become my dissertation topic: culture, education, and how we frame the sacred. In this post, I’d like to continue that conversation by reflecting on just how the sacred is both healthy and sick. One of my friends and colleagues, Ben N., in addressing the issue of a healthy and sick society, made this observation: our city, Oklahoma City, seems, in just about every way that an observant Martian might acknowledge what we hold as sacred, to be a healthy, vibrant city on the rise. We have new skyscrapers dotting our landscape, new schools being built, plans to extend the city from Core-to-Shore, a big league professional sports team, recession-proof industries, and our commercials boast that “Oklahoma City is alive and well.”
In other words, the sacred is winning, and winning big. And yet, as my friend routinely points out, we are also a city full of children abandoned, abused, and neglected, filling up foster care centers as fast as we can build them. We incarcerate more women per capita in this city than just about anywhere else on the globe. We are the crossroads for the billion-dollar sex slave industry. And we consistently rank near the bottom in education. It certainly seems that, in the ways in which we live out our sacred practices, we have achieved the world we want. And yet there seems to be a disconnect between what we claim we want and what we work to achieve. We tend to accomplish the things that we value. We should celebrate innovation and growth, but not at the expense of basic human dignity for the most marginalized amongst us. We should welcome new job creation and excitement in a city on the rise, but not at the cost of our common humanity. When what we hold as sacred is reflected in our bottom lines and prime-time television rather than in a shared sense of human flourishing, we need to re-evaluate what we mean by “alive and well”.
This, by the way, is what grieved the prophet Isaiah under the reign of King Jeroboam II. In a world where the markets teemed with life, commerce thrived, the temples were full and the land brought prosperity, wealth, and power to the many, Isaiah saw through the clutter and the crowd to address the sickness in the very institutions that made the widows, the orphans and the outcasts–the people Yahweh’s followers were called to defend.
Isaiah saw a people loaded with guilt; a brood of evildoers whose children were given to corruption (Isaiah 1:4); rulers who were rebels and companions of thieves who loved bribes and refused to defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow (1:23). He saw that the plunder of the poor existed in the rich houses of the elders and leaders (3:14), and the women walked around with expensive finery while the poor were crushed (3:15-16). Against such inequalities and lack of justice, his words rang out with a bitter fire:“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2).
Isaiah was not an outsider throwing barbs at the opposition; rather, like most true prophets, he was an insider, a lone figure who at first fled from his task. Isaiah spoke words of critique not from a position of moral superiority, but from a position of grief. Isaiah longed for the day when nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;” when “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). His distress came in watching a city once full of justice venerate those who command power and become a people ready to kill and die at the call of kings. Isaiah’s vision was of an end to war, violence, and the numbed silence that locked in both the powerful and the oppressed into vicious, morally corrupt cycles. He longed for the day when the oppressed and oppressor lay down their arms; when the wolf could lay down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6).
Isaiah knew that, for Israel, the sacred was no longer sacred and what had been claimed as sacred no longer existed. The faithful city had become a harlot (1:21), selling its morality and mission for the allure of prosperity and the pretense of safety. Redeeming the sacred once more become Isaiah’s deep longing, and for this, Isaiah (much like my friend Ben), was willing to give his life.
What I hope to do in my work is to couple this idea of the sacred with the prophetic critique that calls us to account for the ways in which we fail the most vulnerable in our city. If our culture is to promote a vision of health and wellness, it must do so for every citizen, not just those who stand to benefit from its riches. We cannot claim to be alive and well while so many zip codes in our cities continue to breed generational poverty, lifetime illiteracy, offer attractive entres into a life of crime and pipelines to prisons, and ingrain habits of identity and lifestyle that perpetuate brokenness, barrenness, hopelessness and an overwhelming sense of malaise and despair.
We must dare to do the difficult, costly, sacrificial work of redeeming the sacred.