Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rag Pickers

You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64.5-6)

A Trick of the Eye

There’s a big difference between being righteous and acting righteous—and it’s not hard to figure out. True righteousness defends. It sets aside personal preferences and popular opinion to uphold compassion and mercy. It places no credence in earthly approval and seeks only to please God. Thus, being righteous also means being courageous, steadfast, and humble. Feigned righteousness, on the other hand, is defined by totally opposite principles. It’s driven by a personal agenda shaped by popular ideas. Its judgments are based on favor rather than fairness. It courts approval by speaking for God, not listening to Him. Its operative elements are fear, inconsistency, and hubris. For all these reasons, feigned righteousness offends. And the most chilling irony: it offends on purpose, because acting righteous demands an audience. It must be seen and heard to achieve its desired effect.

Isaiah 64.5-6 paints a stark contrast between genuinely righteous people (“those who gladly do right, who remember your ways”) and poseurs (“we who continued to sin against them”). It also contrasts God’s response to both groups. He helps one and unleashes anger on the other. These elements are obvious. If we were to illustrate Isaiah's text visually, hang it on a gallery wall, and gaze at it, however, we’d discover a very interesting dynamic that reverses their meaning. It’s what art majors call a trompe l’oeil—a trick of the eye that simulates three-dimensional reality by deftly drawing attention past the foreground to deeper planes of vision. Isaiah positions the righteous up front and identifies them as people unjustly scorned by mainstream society. They command primary focus because they exemplify true righteousness that God honors. Further back, he depicts their adversaries as helpless, unclean rag pickers: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one unclean, and all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” The picture flips from accusing the falsely righteous to imploring the truly righteous to have mercy on their accusers. The tragic realism of the situation comes to life in all of its dimensions.

The Rag Trade

In fashion terminology “the rag trade” refers to cheaply manufactured, readily available knock-offs of designer originals, while media experts have co-opted the phrase to denote recklessly inflammatory newspapers and punditry. Both usages apply to Isaiah’s portrait, as well as to what’s happening with increasingly regularity today. The “acts of righteousness” the prophet bemoans are no different than those dominating current mainstream media. They’re cheap imitations of what God originally designed righteousness to be and they’re mass-produced for no purpose other than inciting fear and injustice. In just this last month, we’ve seen:

  • Congregations committed to social and economic justice vilified as “Nazis” and “communists”
  • A state board of education promoting radical rewrites of textbooks to reflect extreme conservative bias in the guise of a “Christian worldview”
  • A vehemently anti-GLBT state legislator exposed as a secretly gay man
  • A gay Congressman resigning office amid a mudslide of filthy rumors and accusations aimed at him and other leading political figures
  • A cable news network airing a lengthy diatribe in defense of McCarthyism
  • An allegedly Christian organization citing Mosaic law to call for stoning a captive whale that fatally wounded one of its keepers
  • A self-professed Christian governor quietly excising non-heterosexual employees from his state’s equal employment opportunity policy
  • A Ugandan pastor hosting a night of hardcore gay porn to rouse support for a proposed death penalty for certain types of homosexual offenders
  • An eminent prelate council renouncing a movement within its communion that advocates inclusive worship regardless of sexual identity.

Daily, it seems, more “righteous” pretenders leap into the rag trade. The ingenuity of their cheap imitations—their “acts of righteousness”—accounts for how quickly they trickle into hearts and minds easily seduced by irrational fears and fervor. And it’s a safe guess each of us knows someone gulled into buying and believing these rags, which raises the question: how do we respond to this and remain righteous before God? Can we happily do right and follow His ways?

Impoverished Souls

When we meet false righteousness, it’s our duty to perceive its practitioners as abjectly impoverished souls. Despite their claims, numbers, and appearance, they’re helpless, ragged people who’ve flocked to the fringes. Those of us striving to be righteous extend our compassion and mercy to them, never pausing to assess merit or seek approval. Because we adhere to God’s ways, He helps us. This is a good thing, too, since interactions with people who act righteous are often so degrading, without His help, we might let them to walk in shame, completely oblivious to their sorry condition. We might hope they get what we think they deserve. Such thinking belongs in the rag bin.

Paul nicely summarizes righteousness in action with this advice. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12.19-21) Although we know we’re not helpless outcasts in rags, being viewed as such enriches our understanding of how it feels. “Nobody should be treated so shabbily,” we say. Do we mean that? If so, we’ll make every effort to see nobody—not even our worst enemy—is.

We see those who practice intolerance and injustice in the name of righteousness as they really are—abjectly impoverished souls—and we respond to them with compassion and mercy.

Postscript: Mercy On Those—A Prayer

I’m trying something new with today’s Lenten selection. First, I’ve turned to a secular recording, “Mercy on Those,” by the incomparable Phoebe Snow. Second, I’ve chosen to post it in audio form. I invite you to pray as you listen to its sorrowful depiction of powerful people unaware of their defeat. See the many around you suffering with similar delusions, pray God’s help to show them mercy.


Sleep is a mercy to men with no feelings

To our tragic heroes, sleep is relief

The battle was won, but the war has been lost

So now take a restless bask in your greed

Have mercy on those men with no feelings

Shouting is over, the silence is louder

The once brilliant argument has lost all its edge

Here is King Pyrus alone down on Wall Street

Sexy lights up and out on the ledge

Have mercy on those men with no feelings

Mercy on those who fight 'til they're spent

So long and so hard they forgot what they meant

Have mercy on those men with no feelings


claire said...

Ah, Tim, I like this. I will read again and again.
Thank you.

Tim said...

Claire, I've read this text--and quoted it--more times than I can recall without seeing what was going on. "Our righteousness is as filthy rags" was my big take-away. I set out to hit that note. And then...

Once again, the Word proves to be a truly fascinating read that speaks to us on multiple levels, all of them true, placed ,and planned in advance to reach us at just the right time. The recent events mentioned above have pained me greatly, less for their targeted biases than their deceit. I've prayed for guidance and strength, because doing harm in the name of righteousness calls for a response. I didn't anticipate finding it here, but there it was.

"The word of God is living and active," Hebrews says. And I'm constantly amazed at just how true this is.

Thanks for your kindness. As always, it lifts me. And I apologize for my delayed response--I've been tied up all day on a project and haven't been able to get back here, over by you, and other places I love to be!