During the last presidential election, the Rev. Howard Bess became the unwilling focus of international press attention. His book, “Pastor, I Am Gay,” was targeted by the Wasilla, Alaska, city council in the 1990s for removal from the local library. Future Gov. and future Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a member of that council.
The book was written as a training guide for clergy dealing with gays and lesbians, and I was among the media chum that invaded the now-retired Reverend’s world and he was the soul of graciousness. I’ve stayed on his e-mail list, and he recently sent the following (it’s long but worth it):
ISAIAH, THE PRINCE OF PROTEST
In late June of 2009, the streets of Tehran filled with protesters. In 1989 protesters filled Tiamamen Square, the largest public square in the world. Massive protests played a key role in bringing the Viet Nam war to an end. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the American South constantly vibrated with the massive protest marches and gatherings in the pursuit of equality for Americans of color.
In the early 20th century in order to gain decent wages, working conditions, and benefits American workers organized protest gatherings and marches. In recent years, American gays have relied heavily on public protests and marches in their pursuit of equal rights.
The stories and teachings of Jesus were disruptive to the power brokers of his day. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his actions at the Temple were acts of protest.
Protest plays an important role in the shaping of history. All protesters follow in the legacy of Isaiah of Jerusalem, who lived in the 8th century B.C.E. I consider Isaiah the fountainhead of righteous protest. The book of Isaiah in the Old Testament writings is a report of his heritage.
The story of Isaiah begins in the 6th chapter of the Isaiah writings with an account of his experience with God while worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple. The Judean kingdom was corrupt and headed for extinction. The nation’s leaders had abandoned their unfettered devotion to God. Isaiah was given the task of protesting and demanding change. It was also his task to depict the abundant life that results from complete devotion to God. These messages became his life-long calling.
Most Christians have an inaccurate understanding of the role of a prophet. A prophet is not someone who forecasts the future! A prophet in the Bible tradition is a speaker of truth, and is typically involved in protesting the behavior of leaders. Isaiah of Jerusalem is the first and, I believe, the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets.
Isaiah was not an organizer of mass protests and public marches. Rather he was a poet. He lived in Jerusalem, the home of kings and priests. Reading and reciting his poetry in public was his vehicle of truth telling and protest. A typical warning is found in chapter 31.
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses;
Who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are strong.
Look to the Holy One of Israel and consult with Yahweh!
If leaders changed their ways, a new day was the promise of the prophet. A typical promise of a new day given by a gracious God is found in chapter 11.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.
The calf and the lion and the fatling will be together and a child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will feed together and their young will lie down together.
No one will hurt or destroy among my holy people.
These two passages reflect the essence of Isaiah’s message. While he was hard on the rulers and leaders of Israel, he faithfully held out the hope of harmony, integrity, peace, wholeness, and justice shaped by a relationship with the creator God.
Isaiah left a legacy. Isaiah had his followers and disciples who perpetuated his ministry of protest and promise. Major portions of the material that are found in the book of Isaiah were written by at least three other distinct poet/writers. The second Isaiah wrote in the 6th century B.C.E. The third Isaiah wrote a hundred years later, and the fourth Isaiah wrote yet another hundred years later. While each of the writers added their own touch to the message of Isaiah, the basic Isaiah message did not change. Be faithful to God and the fulfilled life will follow.
The second Isaiah is especially interesting because of the unique addition that he added to the Isaiah message. The second Isaiah was a part of the captive band carried into slavery in Babylon. The second Isaiah speculated about the role of a people of God who had lost power and were mired in slavery. In four different passages he concludes that greatness is not to be found in power and might but in being a servant of God and man.
To understand the mission and message of Jesus from Nazareth, one must recognize that Jesus completely embraced the Isaiah tradition. As reported in the Luke gospel, Jesus initiated his public ministry of teaching and social activism by reading a passage from Isaiah.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest of commandments, he answered “You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and soul.” He added that the second great command was “Love your neighbor.” Later he admonished his listeners “If anyone one of you want to be great, let that person be a servant of all.” In everything Jesus did, he reminded people that the legacy of Isaiah was alive and well.
When nation, group, or person is so foolish as to seek the good life through wealth and/or power, the heritage of Isaiah protests and points us to a better way.
The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.