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Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears – Daniel Berrigan

June 5, 2016

Isa BerriganI first read this book eighteen years ago but reread it when I heard of the author’s death. It is a reflection on the prophet Isaiah. He lived in a time like ours — a time of immense violence, social upheaval, and gross neglect of the poor. In the great prophetic tradition, he intervened directly in political and diplomatic events. Like our age, his was one of whetted swords and rusted ploughshares. Then the oracle came to him.

Berrigan’s book is important for anyone seeking to apply biblical truths to contemporary life. After all, most Christians only read Isaiah for ‘prophecies’ of th virginal conception and the Crucifixion of Jesus, thereby missing out on his most important message.

“Here I am, send me!” With these words Isaiah  accepted to be the minister of God’s word and bearer of what Daniel Berrigan called unwelcome news. He was to act as a kind of father confessor, holding his people to a public repentance. He was to enlarge upon the specific of their sin: injustice, militarism, greed, aping the nations, making the covenant a dead letter. He was also to tell the other nations of God’s generous and passionate love for them. Isaiah’s vision of the holy One had its price; it would require the complete gift of himself to a cause that, by human reckoning, appeared impossible or at least improbable. But, like all the other prophets, Isaiah’s mission originated in and was directed by God, because of this, his words continue to speak, challenging the recalcitrant and comforting the contrite.

Behind Berrigan’s acts of civil disobedience…there was always a profound theology of peace and resistance to evil…There is poetry and prophecy here to inspire all.

In an interview,  he said: Isaiah goes immediately into the ecological damage of this kind of idolatry. In verse 5, he said “the rivers will be parched and dry. All the vegetation will dry up and blow away and the fisher folk will mourn and lament all who cast hooks in the Nile.” Isaiah then began a diatribe against atrocious authority, preaching the likes of which we don’t ordinarily hear in the pulpit. Verse eleven reads: “The princes are utter fools,” “Pharaoh’s wisest counselors are stupid.” I suppose if a preacher tried this, there would be a great walk-out! “How can you “he means the great advisors) say ‘I am a disciple of bygone kinds’.” It is kind of a marvelous deflation of this kind of absurd “voting.” Isaiah invites us to a kind of skepticism of this.

Isaiah continues: “The princes of Zoan are fools, the princes of Noph, self-deceivers; Egypt is led astray by the governors of her provinces. On them Yahweh has poured out a spirit of giddiness. They have Egypt slithering in all she undertakes as a drunkard slithers in his vomit.” (Is. 19:13-14) Oh, the preacher is in trouble now! An absolutely fantastic and shocking image. All this business about wisdom from on high and look, he is really a drunken man.

I don’t offer all this as a downer on such an afternoon. Now let us remember that Isaiah 19 tells us that the oracle continued in the next generation. Evidently 50-100 years later someone said—hey good things have happened since then and let’s write that down and we need to incorporate that into the nineteenth chapter of Isaiah. And it was a very different version.

It was something like Eastern Europe frozen in 40 years of horror and then liberated. So that someone else gets to write a little chapter. Let me read it—it’s a kind of P.S. It’s a sign of hope.

In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of the oppressors he will send them a savior and will defend and deliver them and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and burn offering and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them.

And it ends with this inspiration….In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth who the Lord of hosts has blessed saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.

So there is hope—there is hope. We have to see that. Who would have predicted 15 years ago everything that happened in Eastern and Central Europe, Southern Africa and so many places in between. It really happened because so many good people were not enchanted and bought and sold at not having to see the outcome of their good work.

And there were so many people in prisons. So many of our friends were in prisons and there was seemingly no hope. My brother is in prison as we meet, during this election year, and there seems to be very little hope. But there is hope. There is. There is Agape and there is ourselves!


“In this book I comment on certain of the crucial passages from Isaiah, using my own translation. In reading these portions one may reflect on Isaiah’s prophecies against Judah, his call to be a prophet, his visions that carry the hope of the child named Emmanuel, his word of judgment and hope regarding the nations, and his portrayal of the faithful servant of God. Isaiah lived in a time of whetted swords and rusted plowshares, of immense violence and social conflict and neglect of the poor. Then the oracle came to him – swords into plowshares! What does Isaiah have to say to us?

Isaiah displays fury also against temple religion. His vision has not been granted the approval of the conventional religious estab­lishment. The established religion, deprived of a vision, cannot embody or foster truly human behavior. It continues to function and even to prosper, but it presents dead relics of vision or the remnant of tradition or rite or even Scripture.

Such an establishment might reflect a strict sexual morality at the same time it is implicitly lax on public violence, especially toward war and the military state. The North American Roman Catholic bishops debated for more than a decade the morality of nuclear deterrence. It finally became obvious that they were so divided as a teaching body that they were unable to offer a clear message on the threat of mass murder.

The congruence of the times of Isaiah with our own times is striking, even unsettling. Isaiah lived in the eighth century before the common era. It was an age of imperial darkness, of wars and rumors of wars, of duplicity and conniving in high places.

But the oracle is also impossible of fulfillment. Who in the time of Isaiah, who at present, believes it could come to pass? After Vietnam, after Granada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia—who believes? Indeed, who in the churches could be said to believe?

War, any war, erupts. Shortly thereafter the “moral theologians” enter and the just-war nonsense is dusted off. With a great spasm of casuistry, the war is forced and fitted to the Procrustean theory. Swords are vindicated again, even as they kill.

Yet the conclusion of Isaiah must be vindicated. Although every poll and prevailing authority and purveyor of conventional wis­dom and the preachments of ecclesiastical warriors proclaim it to be radically impossible, the task of transformation is crucial.

Those who have worked hardily against the war-making state 1 know well the impossibility of the task. More than forty years of cold-war impasse, successive American wars, wars without issue or end, have frozen the hearts and minds of political and religious leaders. Citizens and churchgoers are literally stuck where they stand.

There are opposing versions of the human, devastatingly alike—Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Rome. One after another they rise and shine with splendor. One after the other they flourish, devastate, invade, plunder, enslave; and, learning nothing, they fall.

The people, then and now, are helpless to arrive a a godly ideal. Their religious, political, and cultural resources, assembled from various icons, heroes, saints, ancestors, warriors, kings, or priests, fall short. How can virtuous people deal with each other? How can they construct prohuman social, economic, religious, and political systems? Can they imagine a prohuman military system, or is this term itself an oxymoron?

Prophecy is a harsh and dreadful work. It stands between a stone and a hard place. This Isaian spirit learned his lesson in a hard school indeed, in Babylon and Egypt, exile and slavery. Is he obsessive? If so, so be it. He harps on essentials barely salvaged from the dung heap of empire.

Have we been able, in-such times as literally drive many mad, to salvage something of sanity? If so, have we not found that our souls were ransomed, salvaged by the likes of Isaiah?

Whence but from these few unsubdued spirits will we come on the truth of life today, distorted, twisted, throttled as that truth is by the megamachinery of untruth?

In an election year the airwaves and video waves heat up. Promises, promises pollute the air; glib henchmen utter their fool­ishness, the media echo like a cave of bats—mewings, strokings, choler, anger, vituperation, verbal abuse and scufflings, much dust flung about, no clarity. Bread and circuses are expended broadside, money seduces and unsettles and buys and sells opinions and promises that are of absolutely no sense or worth.

Isaiah or Christ or Martin Luther King or the numerous Plow­shares prisoners stand, hands bound, answering nothing to the absurd fabrication of charges. They offer a reproof even in silence, even in custody. For those who are thus castigated, only the removal of the servants from public gaze, from the streets, from utterance, even from the earth itself, can bring a peace of sorts. For the sake of law and order, take them away!

The servant has become the resister and, according to our oracle, she is to be severely tested—physically, psychically, beaten, spat upon, degraded. To think of the servant is to recall Stephen Biko, and so many thousands of others—the disappeared, the tortured of every time and place and especially of our own. For such inno­cents, the so-called legal process has broken down. It functions, in sane eyes, as the cruelest of jokes. Nearer the point, it was never really applied.


He thrives, he battens, he justifies, condemns, he makes a wreckage of landscape and heart. “The end of the world,” Thomas Merton wrote, “will be legal.” Until we understand that, we have underestimated the pernicious force of the law, hailed by the nuclear powers into the justifying of the Final Omnicrime.

In the final analysis, Isaiah, and we, are instructed to seek justice only from God.

The text emphasizes the silence of the servant before the accusers in court. In contrast, conscientious defendants in the courts of America habitually open their mouths, vociferously, in the course of their trials and confinements. They regard this speak­ing up as part of the responsibility that led them, in the first instance, to violate unjust laws. Subsequently they must tell why. Sane politics and spirituality demand it.

Perhaps there is no great contrast here. We remember how Christ played it both ways. In the course of his trial, at times he held his peace in face of the frivolous or overweening. And again he spoke up, loud and clear.

The illegitimate or intemperate questioning by judges and pros­ecutors, their hectoring, bickering, mocking, provoking of defen­dants are rightly met with silence, a silence that spells scorn. But when the truth can be conveyed, or evidence of good faith is shown (how rarely!), or when the larger public can be addressed (the media being largely ignorant or indifferent), then we are well advised to speak up.

Perhaps a deeper meaning is implied here—the will to stand by one’s actions, come hell Or prison or death itself. At peace with one’s conduct, and in full view of consequences, one pays up.

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