American Isaiahs: Keeping the National Faith against the Bloody Idol Fear

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

Biblical Judah was a nation tempted by fear in the face of invasion. Instead of turning to God, it tried to place its trust in the might of a foreign army. Judah’s prophet Isaiah, echoed centuries later by the prophet Ezekiel, condemned this move as a lack of faith—predicting both that it would come to ruin, and that it would ruin Judah’s relationship with God.

The Prophet IsaiahAmerica is not a divinely-chosen nation. But it is afraid. It does not look to foreign allies for deliverance—it looks to its own power instead. As in Judah of old, prophets condemn this strategy as a trust misplaced. America’s boasts betray its national aspirations to a humble freedom and a dignified liberty. Judah suffered because it betrayed a holy covenant. America still has the chance to heed its prophets’ call to turn back from abandoning its highest ideals.

First, recall Judah. In the Old Testament, God called the people who would become Judah to be His own portion among the nations, a chosen people living under a divine covenant. The people would trust God, and He would provide for their wellbeing. Judah’s highest national obligation was to trust in God’s plan for its history.

Judah did this imperfectly. One of the tensest moments in its covenantal history was when it faced the threat of invasion by Assyria, a powerful and terrifyingly cruel neighbor. The leaders of Judah sought to form an alliance with another great power of the day, Egypt.

By all worldly logic, the move made sense. For a weak nation to look to a stronger one for aid is hardly a rare occurrence, and for good reason. But the prophet Isaiah, addressing the people with God’s word, condemned Judah’s political leaders:

“Oh, rebellious children, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt: the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation.”

Why would the alliance turn to shame and humiliation? Isaiah accused Judah thus:

“Because… you put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them, this iniquity shall become for you like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant. Its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a sherd is found for taking fire from the hearth, or dipping water out of the cistern.”

Isaiah’s prophecy accused Judah of leaning on worldly might—in particular, the military strength of Egypt—instead of its covenant with God. Turning their backs on the best values God called them to honor, Judah’s leaders let fear conquer their hearts. Their only answer to anxiety was violence, not faithful trust.

And it failed miserably. Assyria met the same success in its invasion as Judah did in negotiating the alliance. Isaiah was no coward before the Assyrians; he encouraged the people during the ensuing occupation, and tells readers that several years later, God cut down 180,000 Assyrian troops in their own camp to set His people free. But the victory Isaiah relates comes from God’s faithfulness to His wayward people, not from Egyptian arms. Several centuries later in Israel, Ezekiel prophesied that God would leave Egypt powerless among the nations. “Then Israel will no longer be tempted to trust in Egypt for help. Egypt’s shattered condition will remind Israel of how sinful she was to trust Egypt in earlier days. Then Israel will know that I alone am the Sovereign LORD.”

Isaiah and Ezekiel’s call to the chosen people to have national faith rather than seek worldly security foretold Jesus’ words to His own fearful apostle, Peter: “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

America does not have a divine covenant with God. It need not fear, as Judah did, of profaning a sacred relationship by associating itself with nations that believe differently than it does. Many of its people do not share Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s faith in the existence of God, let alone in His divine providence. But America is a nation afraid, and its fear is tempting it to betray its own highest ideals. For believers, its highest ideals ought to be recognized as America’s faithful response to God’s plan. For non-believers, the American covenant of dignified liberty should still resonate as one worth keeping faithfully. America can learn, then, from Judah’s example.

After all, America faces similar fears of war, terror, and destruction. September 11 forever changed our generation, making us aware of the threats evil can pose to unassuming people in their ordinary lives. Continued reports of foiled plots—and one that went unfoiled last summer—show that there are still many who would kill us. Even events taking place oceans away challenge our sense of security: two long bleeds by American troops in Asia over the past decade, the collapse of morally-decayed but tactically-important ally governments in North Africa, and, most recently, the alleged use of chemical weapons in violation of humanitarian law all send the same message. They make clear that the world is not a predictable place, despite America’s confidence in its power.

This confidence is reasonable enough by worldly standards. The National Security Agency has the power to see almost everything, from the private emails of foreign leaders to the web-search histories of American citizens. Drones give the American military the power to deliver ordnance in almost every place at almost every time, all without being detected. American military supremacy in general makes it clear that almost no other nation on the planet, let alone Syria, could withstand the force of American violence. Almost omniscient, almost omnipresent, almost omnipotent: it is understandable that Americans would think we are almost God.

But this faith is as false as that of Judah. Where it turned to Egypt, America looks in a mirror. Where Judah betrayed its covenant with God, America has betrayed its constitution’s dignified liberty. America no longer believes that its strength is in limits to searches and seizures, the guarantees of due process, and the separation of powers (even in seeking Congress’s authorization to attack Syria, President Obama and Secretary Kerry say the vote may not matter), any more than Judah believed in divine providence. Judah forgot its God, America forgets its humanity, and both fall under the sway of the bloody idol Fear.

Some, however, remember. Judah had Isaiah and Ezekiel. America will have to make do with a renegade military contractor named Edward Snowden, who leaked information revealing the government’s illegal surveillance programs, and Glenn Greenwald—the lawyer-turned-journalist who publishes Snowden’s leaked documents and defends peaceful civil liberty for The Guardian. America will have to look to Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky eye doctor who stood for thirteen hours on the chamber floor to condemn our drone strikes, and who has threatened to do so again to make Congress’s vote on Syrian intervention binding. These three men, among other principled men and women, urge America to be true to its constitutional heritage. They are prophets, calling the people to trust in higher ideals over the allure of military might.

And two of them are paying a prophet’s price for it. Tradition suggests that Isaiah was martyred by an apostate king. Jeremiah, another prophet who urged his people to reject idolatrous confidence in their own power, ran afoul of a king and was tossed into a dry well. Neither Snowden nor Greenwald have yet had cause to fear for their lives, but Snowden has been denied the freedoms both to return to America and to seek asylum elsewhere. And Greenwald, though not yet sunk into a muddy cistern, had his partner interrogated for nine hours by British police at London’s airport under a vast anti-terrorism law. Perhaps they can take comfort in knowing that they are not the first to face such sorrows for calling a country to trust in its best aspirations, rather than take weapons from Fear’s outstretched arms.

Perhaps America, too, can remember old Judah and its prophet, and choose differently. Perhaps it will yet believe, with the author of Psalm 118, that “it is better to take refuge in the Lord”—or, at least, in ideals honoring the dignity He has given to humanity—“than to trust in princes.” Isaiah did prophesy that a faithful Judah would be a place the whole world would flock to bearing gifts, a nation that beat its swords into plowshares, a pasture where the lion laid down with the lamb. And Americans ought to remember well enough what their own country looks like when it is faithful to its aspirations.

But the question remains: is America still the land of the free, and the home of the brave? Or will it surrender, a terrified homeland? How it responds to the prophecy in its midst will be the answer.

 

Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

One Comment

  1. Josh Cochran says:

    Bravo!

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