A century and a half ago, as he led the faith-rooted struggle against slavery in America, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked.”
Recently, I have found renewed comforting and wisdom in the writings of Fredrick Douglas, who spoke out with bravery and clarity during a time of of great persecution and national crisis. There is indeed a wide difference between the Christianity of Jesus, who practiced a faith of resisting empire and standing with the marginalized, and the Christianity of empire. And as Douglass names so well, the two are constantly at odds. He is talking to America in the midst of the abolitionist movement as he sought to drag our nation out of the atrocity that is slavery. Douglass critiques a brand of Christianity that did not admonish slavery and instead acted in ways that were entirely self-serving and protected their own interests.
In the text from Isaiah, Isaiah is calling out the Israelite people for practicing a faith that also serves their own interest. He is naming the same struggle, between a faith of God and a faith of empire and power. The Ancient Israelites fast, a religious ritual of abstaining from food or certain foods as a way to make more space for God, with the expectation that their prayers will be answered all the while ignoring their responsibility to community. They expect that by going through the motions of the commandments, that by sticking to the “letter of the law” while ignoring the intent that they will garner the same blessings and benefits. They thought they had figured out a sweet loop hole.
In the book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself Rabbi Donniel Hartman, offers that God’s highest value is creation, the Earth and all living things, including humans. Based on this, he proposes that to truly honor and worship God we should prioritize God’s highest value as our own. Simply put, to worship and honor God we should worship and honor all that God created.
At the coffee shop recently a guy, who I think was more interested in debate than true conversational, wanted to know what I thought the “point” of Christianity was. He had a whole litany of times he has seen Christianity or Christians fail and while I agree that there are many times when religion and Christianity has failed, miserably, I told him that I continue to return to the idea that our responsibility as people of faith is to love, honor, celebrate, and worship God by loving, honoring, celebrating and worshiping each other and all creation. Love God, love neighbor, love God by and through loving neighbor. Over and over through the sacred texts this is the central theme. Reiterated throughout time by every prophet.
In this text from Isaiah, the writer is naming the disconnect between the Israelites’ human values and God’s values. Saying to them, “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, acting as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” Acting as IF you were a nation that practiced my ways.” The people go through the motions of fasting and praying, expecting God to show up and they are frustrated when God doesn’t. God questions their rituals, I can imagine God saying “really? This is what you think I want you to do? No friends, you’ve got it all wrong. Remember how I said to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself?’ I actually really meant that. If you want to honor me, you should break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. Share your food with the hungry, invite the homeless and poor into your homes offering them shelter and clothing, be available to your own family and community. This is the offering and ritual that what I want.”
In his own study of Isiaha, Rabbi Hartman says, “while claiming to be a people who want to follow the divine path, they have abandoned it by ignoring their moral responsibility to others.” We often think about idolatry as worshiping a false idol, a golden statue perhaps, but I think a far more dangerous idolatry is when we have contorted and transformed God into a comfortable God who validates and commends our own self-interests. The Israelites were idolatrous because they forgot the core tenet of their faith, caring for each other. When faith practice becomes about following rules and rituals more than caring for people our faith is at risk of becoming distorted and disoriented. When people seek to follow the letter of the law but ignore the intent of the law the point is missed entirely. Religious ritual when unaccompanied by social action is self-serving. It is empty. In isolation, the actions of worshiping God do not result in ethical treatment of people and creation. If the act of fasting and the religious practice is not integrated into the other areas of life it is empty and self-serving.
As is usual, long after my conversation with the guy in the coffee shop I wish I would have thought to share that religion is not only about a set of beliefs but it is a way of life, lived and embodied beyond the walls of sanctuaries, temples, mosques and bookstores. It is a lens through which we view the world. The ritual provides a tangible learning opportunity to strengthen our lived faith practice. They can be deeply meaningful and I think necessary for our faith practice together. But there is always the potential for them become selfish, to become divorced from social engagement in the world. More than anything, Isaiah reminds us of the need for social justice.
Faith, practiced only on Sunday morning, only in the safe confines of our segregated churches, is empty idolatry. Fredrick Douglas also said, "I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Our faith is meant to be lived with our whole bodies, it requires our whole selves to show up. Fredrick Douglas embodied his faith with action. Jesus embodied his faith with action based on the words of Isaiah.
Our call, as people of faith and as citizens of the world, is to love God, love neighbor and most importantly, love God by loving our neighbors.