On A Reading of Isaiah In Front Of The White House

On a reading of Isaiah in front of the White House: Prophesy to the wind concerning the inevitable in hopes that it will come a few days early (3/2/92).

In the early 90s, during my first sojourn in the Washington DC area, I was convicted to stand in front of the White House and read the entire book of Isaiah aloud. The reflection above arose out of that experience. I remember that as I read I was astounded at how pertinent the words of this ancient prophet seemed to be to the current state of the country. While I am quite sure the president at the time was unaware of my presence or the words I spoke to the air, there was a sense that the words had an innate power that was released in their oration. Somehow, I began to believe that the retelling of these prophecies had the ability to shift something in me, and perhaps, in the world around me.

A few years before in that same place, on the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, I had chosen to help build a Central American village on Pennsylvania Avenue to call attention to the covert US war in that region. Along with several others, I chose to be arrested as a further sign of protest and solidarity with the people I had come to know during my travel to Central America and work in the US Capitol.

The Bush years did not seem so very different from the Reagan years and perhaps that is why I stood before the wrought iron gates of the White House on a cool morning in the fading days of winter. I opened my Bible, turned to Isaiah, and quietly began to read.

I doubt the Hebrew prophet had any idea his words would be written down, let alone be read aloud in English in front of a different kind of palace in a kingless nation by a Mennonite man from Mississippi. Isaiah of course was speaking to a very different people, time, and place. Any attempt at getting at the meaning of his words must first be grounded in the historicity of the prophecy and why the prophet spoke the words to the hearers of his day. Yet, Isaiah is no less different than other scripture in that while having one meaning within the original context of its writing, it can continue to resonate with current hearers of the word. While aware of the original meaning of Isaiah, the early church also found new meaning in the prophet’s words as they read Isaiah within the framework of their encounter with Jesus. The Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one example of this. Isaiah is speaking to the nation of Israel concerning its exile, saying that its suffering will have the unlikely outcome of “astonishing the nations.” The church saw this suffering servant in the person of Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection exemplified the continuing liberation of all peoples by YHWH.

Fast forward hundreds of years later and you find me outside the White House reading these same words . “See, my servant shall prosper . . . kings shall shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:13, 15). At that time, new meanings began to be revealed and they continue to be revealed today.

Recently, I have begun to feel an urge to make another pilgrimage to the White House and take along a certain prophet with me. The beauty of scripture is that it is big enough to contain multiple meanings that are not necessarily contradictory. Isaiah and the other voices of the Bible continue to speak to God’s faithfulness and God’s never-ending love and saving work throughout history. It is a word that we need to continue to hear each and every day, regardless of our particular moment in time and space.

So perhaps not too long from now you may find me in front of the White House again, reading aloud from Isaiah, “prophesy(ing) to the wind concerning the inevitable in hopes that it will come a few days early.”

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