A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah was featured this week in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the ancient diagnosis of Israel applies to our times as well.
And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor. The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable. … Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves (Isaiah 3:5-9).
When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow (Isaiah 3:6-12).
Let’s note four fundamental issues that God assigns to that age (and, I would argue, ours as well). Our culture and nation have become:
Dominating and Loud – And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor.
These are indeed contentious times—so contentious that we cannot seem to have honest debates or disagreements; we just yell at one another. On college campuses, students shout down speakers with differing views and accuse them of hate. Demonstrations both on campuses and elsewhere often devolve into a kind of mob violence, which has included vandalism, setting cars afire, breaking windows, looting, and even murder.
Pope Benedict XVI warned of the tyranny of relativism. By this he meant that as relativism and subjectivism have shifted the source of truth from the object to the subject, from reality to opinion, there is no longer any basis for reasonable discussion.
In such a climate, whose views win the day: Those with the most money, power, and political clout or those who shout the loudest or are best able to intimidate others?
Dishonoring and Low-brow – The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.
What is described in this verse has been going on for a considerable time. Those of us who are older remember a time when disrespect for elders was not tolerated. Beginning in the 1950s and picking up speed through the 1960s, our culture devolved into one centered on youth. Youthful vigor and youth itself were esteemed over maturity. Young people were “hip” and relevant; “old people” were out of touch and had nothing to offer. If something was old, it was bad; if something was new it was good. Rock music emphasized rebellion and the rejection of tradition. Television sitcoms featured children who were all-wise and parents (especially fathers) who were stupid and buffoonish.
All of this has led to a breakdown of respect for elders and those in authority. And, frankly, elders and authority figures have not helped matters, as many of them have fearfully declined to insist upon proper respect.
When there is no respect, there can be no teaching. When there is no teaching or handing down of what has proven best and most worthwhile, what is base and low-brow too easily appeals to those who are schooled only in their lower passions.
Rap stars, Hollywood actors, and other pop-culture figures have more influence than Scripture, faith, literature, and tradition. Much of popular culture presents that which is base and most of those who represent it reject the honorable and time-tested traditions that have built our culture. Cultural iconoclasts dominate; those who build on what is honorable are fewer, both in number and influence.
Destructive through Lust – Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves.
Today, promiscuity of every sort is celebrated. Again, those of us who are older can remember a time when living together outside of marriage was scorned; it was referred to as “living in sin” or “shacking up.” Now, not only is it widely tolerated; it is even encouraged.
Movies and popular songs since the 1960s have depicted and spoken of illicit sexual unions of every kind as normal, acceptable, routine, and even beautiful. Homosexual acts are now celebrated, made the matter of pride. Contraception, widely rejected by every Christian denomination prior to 1930, is now called virtuous or responsible by most. Divorce, once considered shocking and discouraged by our very laws, is now common; it is often encouraged as a way to happiness.
God warns through Isaiah in this text: Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves. In other words, if we don’t get marriage and sexuality right as a culture, it will kill our civilization. Sexual distortion leads to distortions about marriage. Distortions about marriage lead to broken families. Broken families lead to broken children. Broken children become broken adults. Broken adults have a hard time leading or making good decisions.
The breakdown of culture and civilization continues. In our sins we deal out evil to ourselves. We sow the wind and we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We sow in the field of the flesh and we reap a harvest of corruption (Gal 6:8).
Declining in Leadership – When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow.
This is an especially controversial part of the text. Yet, honestly, there is a crisis of leadership in our culture at nearly every level. In families, many parents do not lead their children, choosing instead to try to be their friends. Many priests and bishops timorously hide, speaking in abstractions and generalities rather than teaching clearly. Too many do not vigorously summon the faithful to a proper moral vision.
In terms of social and political leadership, many of the best in our country do not want to assume leadership of a people who are increasingly surly and incorrigible, who demand everything but are not willing to sacrifice even smallest of benefits.
When qualified and capable leaders do not step forward, people will latch onto any leader at all, no matter how corrupt, morally questionable, or inexperienced. This decline has been going on for a long time in our country at every level.
Isaiah’s “politically unapproved” lament about having women rulers requires of us a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text. Today, we accept and have women who are capable leaders; no one would compare a female leader to a “babe in arms.”
Today, the problem lies more in the lack of traditionally described “masculine” virtues such as engaging the battle, fighting for what is right, competition, and necessary contention. Our age is more steeped in traditionally described “feminine” virtues such as tolerance, acceptance, getting along, understanding, respecting feelings, and “emotional intelligence.” These traits are not bad in themselves, but today they are not properly balanced; in our culture, the feminine predominates. This imbalance is not healthy. A culture in which femininity predominates is no healthier than one with too much masculinity.
I would argue that this text from Isaiah need not be understood as excoriating any or all feminine leadership. Rather, I see it as reminding us that in leadership, masculine virtues are needed to balance feminine virtues and instincts.
The current imbalance, in which the feminine dominates, affects leadership in families and parishes. Parents and clergy are often hesitant to make challenging demands or to insist on what is true because feelings might be hurt or offense taken.
In the political arena, the current imbalance results in a kind of hypersensitivity to the feelings of aggrieved individuals or groups of self-described victims. Many leaders are more preoccupied with not giving offense to certain popular groups than with making difficult decisions that may demand sacrifice and that will not please all, but are still the best answer. What is best can sometimes be hard; the truth is not always pleasing to everyone.
Disclaimer: Without a doubt, some of what Isaiah said was controversial in his day. And without a doubt my application of the text to this day and age will likewise be controversial. But what if ensuing conversations and debates are the result? What if you get a chance to register your comments and complaints in the comment box here and other people get to respond to you? What if my imperfect post is meant to encourage conversation in a culture that increasingly wants to shut down conversation and forbid “politically unapproved” speech?
Finally, remember that biblical passages have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We’re all a little of both and we need both.
This song, recorded in my parish church, was performed by the St. Luke Ordinariate Choir: