I’ve been thinking about dreaming a lot since singing in our Christmas concerts this weekend. One of the anthems we sang, The Dream Isaiah Saw, is firmly lodged in my brain as my latest ear worm. And Pastor Tim’s selections of texts from Isaiah keeps challenging my view of the kind of world we try to create around us.
Like many who grew up singing and listening to G.F. Handel’s Messiah, my understanding of the book of Isaiah the prophet was quite limited for years. My beliefs were a perfect example of what I’ve come to call “lyric theology,” with my understanding based on the lyrics to a favorite piece of music rather than on the actual scripture the lyrics were pulled from. In those years I believed that Isaiah’s dream was all about Jesus the Christ being born.
When I began studying scripture as an adult my understanding broadened rapidly, and I began to cherish the core message of prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. They called for a society based on justice, where the poor and meek are treated fairly, where the most vulnerable are cared for, where greed does not pollute politics, where peace reigns. Most experts believe that the book of Isaiah was written by multiple people, and at least one of the authors goes so far as to dream of a world where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11.6)
These days, I can’t help comparing that vision to our nation, and especially our religion. We are a people divided – Democrat vs. Republican, Female vs. Male, White vs. Everybody Else, Gay vs. Straight, Progressive vs. Evangelical - and people across the spectrum find justification for their individual views in their religion, in their scriptures.
I try to avoid reading news-like postings on Facebook, but some survey results from a group called Cards Against Humanity caught my attention this morning. The article was written in a lighthearted tone, but expressed findings that were both shocking and believable. According to the survey of 3,000 adults in the U.S., we all believe that things are much worse than they actually are. Here are a couple examples:
- Regarding White Nationalism, Democrats believe that 50% of Republicans are White Nationalists. Independents put the percentage at 35%. Even Republicans estimate that 15% of their compatriots fall into that category. The survey also asked people if they personally supported White Nationalism, and only 9% of Republicans said “Yes.”
- Using wealth inequity as an example, just how rich is the top 1%? What percentage of the country’s wealth do they control? Democrats estimate it is 75%, Independents 60%, and Republicans 50%. And the answer is: 39%.
I won’t go into all of the survey’s findings, including questions like “Is it OK to pee in the shower?” and “Do your farts smell better or worse than other people’s?” Let’s just say the survey authors share my twisted sense of humor. But I found myself ruminating on some disturbing findings of my own:
- We are a nation deeply divided on multiple issues.
- We all believe we (and others who share our opinions) are sincere, good people and we hold our beliefs deeply.
- We’re not interested in hearing what the other side, what “those people,” think. We don’t care why they believe what they believe.
We are divided, and that division is getting worse. I confess that it has for me. Take sexuality for instance. I grew tired of hearing about the evils of being gay a long time ago, but these days I’m getting less and less tolerant of being around people - especially members of my family - who go to churches that teach marriage is only between a man and a woman. And it’s not just because I’m gay and I believe their views threaten my survival. I really don’t want to listen to them say anything positive about #45 either.
It’s all well and good to long for Isaiah’s dream, but do we really understand what is required to bring it to reality? It seems simple enough – wolves no longer prefer tender mutton to grass and hay. The bad ones (i.e. those other people) have a change of heart. But Isaiah doesn’t buy that. He says that the lambs must change too. Ewes have to stop teaching their little ones that wolves are dangerous, deadly, and intent on eating them. Cows must offer their friendly neighborhood bear part of the bale of hay instead of running for the barn. Human parents have to be OK with their children hanging out with lions, leopards, and poisonous snakes.
Isaiah’s dream really is beautiful. Most days it seems impossible, even impractical, but every now and then I still see a glimmer of hope, and at least for a few minutes I dare believe that we can live at peace with each other. We just all have to change to make it so.