Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?—Isaiah 58:6-7
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.—Matthew 6:16-18.
Well, you started off with nothing
And you’re proud that you’re a self-made man
And your friends they all come crawling
Slap you on the back and say
Please, please--Gerry Rafferty, Stuck in The Middle with You
It’s a funny thing about Religion. You believe what you believe because that’s what you believe.
—Mickey Spillane (in an interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, November 22, 1989
Religion really is a funny thing. Not just “funny,” as in “odd,” but “funny” as in “downright freaking knee-slapping hilarious.” Take Ash Wednesday for example. It’s a day that Christians read the words of Jesus and the prophets then proceed to do just the opposite. Like when Jesus says: “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” Christians, in an act dripping with what Stephen Colbert might call “religioness,” then proceed to rub ashes on their faces so that everyone will know that they are keeping a Holy Lent.
They read the words of the nameless prophet whom scholars call Third Isaiah, who says that fasting has nothing to do with trying to look humble or holy, but with loosing the bonds of injustice, setting the oppressed free, sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into your house, covering the naked and exposing your intimate weaknesses to your closest family and friends. And they leave their churches, go back to their jobs and homes and 54 inch flat-screen televisions and give no further thought to how they are supposed to live.
The Middle Eastern prophetic tradition, whether Hebrew, Christian or Islamic, takes a rather sardonic view of piety divorced from social action. The Koran, for instance, asks: “Have you seen him who denies religion? He is the one who harshly rebuffs the orphan and does not urge the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who do prayer, and are forgetful of their prayer, those who show off and deny help to others.” (Surat al-Ma’un: 1-7) Social action is, in its very essence, political, not religious, and deadly serious.
The American political comedy is now in Act II of the three–penny opera known as “the Presidential race,” wherein the contenders for “the most important job in the world” gravely disfigure their faces and lament the destruction of American values, raging immorality, and nefarious enemies within and without. They cry and writhe and call out to Gods of silver, gold and silicon to save us from the fate of having their opponents running an ever more dysfunctional government for the next four years. If you look closely at their eyes beneath ash-covered brows, you will see the surreptitious wink.
The Republicans will not lower our taxes, end deficit spending and rescue the American middle-class. The Democrats will not lower our taxes, bring us all health care and stop our jobs from going overseas. But that’s what we believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We will, as Jesus said, have our reward in full: starring roles in the great comedy where nobody seems to get the joke. It’s our religion and we believe it because we believe it. For we certainly don’t believe in the prophetic tradition.
The first duty of a just society is to protect the weak, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the orphans, the widows. Without justice, without the mutual submission of neighbor to neighbor for the greater good, without awareness that our actions impact the lives and well-being of others, without, in other words, a civil society, a political order becomes a cancerous tumor on a nation, devouring the body politic that brought it forth to begin with. You can dress it up in pious clothes, pour holy oil over it, and call it what you wish. But it is no shining city on a hill, no last best hope of humankind, no Kingdom of God on earth.
Still it is funny. Unless you’re poor or sick or homeless. Then, you’re just stuck in the middle.