Isaiah 1:17 – a roadmap for a heart seeking justice
In the United States, the murder of George Floyd sparked grief and outrage. In Canada, the murder of Nicholas Gibbs caused the same. In the wake of these deaths and recent others, people rallied together to seek justice and affirm that black lives matter.
As non-Black Christians, we have the privilege to learn about injustice and the choice of humility. We are not forced to live through daily injustice, we are not forced to declare that we matter.
As Christians, we can learn about injustice and humility from the Bible. Over the past few months I have been reflecting on the first chapter of Isaiah, specifically, Isaiah 1:17 where it says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (ESV).
Before Isaiah writes these powerful words, he writes of God’s disdain for the perfunctory acts of worship and sacrifice made by the Christ-followers and spiritual leaders of Juda and Jerusalem. He writes,
10Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Even in the midst of injustice, Judah continues its religious ceremonies and rituals. They continue to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. In response to these acts, the Lord says that he has, “had enough,” that he, “does not delight,” and that these offerings are made in vain. He says that their incense is, “an abomination”.
Without the right heart behind their spiritual acts and religious ceremonies, God found no favour in their deeds and disciplines. God hated their lack of obedience and justice.
This passage forces me to reckon with my complicity in racial injustice. When God says, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood,” I recoil from the vivid picture of blood staining my hands.
Instead of running away from this swift rebuke, we must lean in. We use Isaiah 1:17 as a roadmap for how to continue transforming my heart and trying to create sustainable social change.
Isaiah 1:17 is written with action.
It says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (ESV).
It is full of verbs: learn, seek, correct, bring, and plead.
To learn is to gain or acquire knowledge of something by study, experience or teaching. To seek is to attempt to obtain or achieve. To correct is to put right. To bring is to make someone move in a particular direction or way. To plead is to make an emotional appeal.
This verse affirms that action must be taken by the people of God to find solutions to injustice and to raise our voices alongside those who are oppressed.
This verse also provides a roadmap for those who desire to respond to and correct injustice.
Number 1: Learn to do good
Learn about injustice. Learn how you can do good. It is impossible to do good without knowledge. Read the stories of marginalized communities. Educate yourself about individual and systemic racism. Learn about privilege and how White people are not exempt from having hard lives but understanding that the colour of their skin does not make it harder in many parts of the world. Learn about the history of racism and its modern-day impacts.
Here are some of the books on my bookshelf that have challenged my thinking:
- The Colour of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is not a complete list of works. There are many resources available through blog posts, academic journals, novels, short stories, news articles etc. I encourage you to approach these works with a humble heart – a heart looking to understand, rather than be understood. Allow your heart to be molded by their words.
Number 2: Seek justice
To seek is to attempt to obtain or achieve. Our Black brothers and sisters are seeking justice. In order to walk alongside them as they seek justice, we must be aware of the injustices they face and we must be aware of how or when we are complicit in racist structures or making assumptions or believing stereotypes.
Number 3: Correct oppression
Isaiah 1:17 asks us to act when we see oppression. To make it right. After we have learned to do good and sought justice, we must act on the injustices we see. In his book, The Color of Compromise, Jamar Tisby gives an overview of how the Church in North America has often remained silent or even been an active participant in the oppression of Black people. The Church has often failed to correct individual and structural racism and oppression. This is for many reasons – they are often complex and nuanced – but our silence and complicity has been in direct opposition to the directives given in the Bible.
Number 4: Bring justice to the fatherless
As I said earlier, “to bring” is to make someone move in a particular direction or way. One way the Church can bring justice to the fatherless is by being humble enough to move towards empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Our hearts are in need of a transformation.
Number 5: Plead the widow’s cause
Women, specifically Black women have been the civil rights leaders throughout history and in our present context. They have advocated for the rights and needs of their communities. They have spoken up against injustice and they have led global movements for civil change. Too often we have not assisted them in pleading their cause. We have let their voices fall on deaf ears and have accused them of being angry and therefore, we do not listen to their voices because the truth they speak is not spoken in a tone we enjoy. Black women are losing their husbands, fathers, friends, cousins, and sons to racial injustice. We must not speak for them, but instead, help elevate their voices and humble ourselves to be willing recipients of their truth and experience.
Sometimes it is hard to know where to start when it comes to education and activism. Isaiah 1:17 is a perfect place to start.