Thursday, 8 December 2011

Paying for Utopia

My attention came to Isaiah 61 today. Jesus quotes from here when he announces his mission in the synagogue. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me..." and so on. Typically, the idea is that when someone quotes from a passage, they invoke the whole passage. The exact parameters of a passage of text are hard to define, but that's the point of exegesis and argument.

I looked a little further in the chapter, to read this:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double,
and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
To be clear, "they" refers to the captives and the mourners and "you" refers to "Zion, the City of God" as the place and the people who live there. So, because the Zionites (not Zionists) were beaten down, they'll be raised up again, to the point that Zion will be exalted. What an amazing city it'll be! People won't have to work hard because they're enjoying riches!

But whose riches? Strangers. Foreigners. The people who will do the work are strangers and foreigners. Ironically, that's probably why Israel was invaded by the larger powers around them in the first place (despite the judgements proclaimed in the texts). The other powers needed slaves, a lower class to do the work. In this Isaianic utopia, all the wealth comes from foreigners to make life easy for the Israelites.

We can't use this kind of text to generate a vision of an equitable society. What it shows is an inverted society, where oppressors are oppressed. The sense of social justice in this passage is to treat people as they were treated; an eye for an eye, an exploitation for an exploitation. This vision demands vengeance as part of the restoration of the world. Tomorrow's utopia will be paid for by today's bourgeoisie, but will turn today's workers into tomorrow's oppressors. The dark side of this vision is that it requires someone to be the future oppressor, enjoying the utopia at the expense of others.
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