We Start at a Loss

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I am at a loss.

In the aftermath of the U.S. election I see the national terrain differently. I see people differently. The veneer is gone. I can’t unsee what’s been revealed.

I made time to lament for seven days. Black was all I saw, all I felt, and so all I wore. The grief felt appropriate and yet premature. I retreated to the words of Isaiah, as I often do. (The book of Isaiah is called The Fifth Gospel for a reason, friends.)

Before lament, there is loss.

The prophet writes in the midst of Jerusalem’s demise. The Assyrians occupy the land, but the Babylonians are coming. The latter will eventually destroy the city and deport part of the population, leaving only smoldering ash where Zion once stood so proud. But the first chapters of Isaiah tell about a prophet who sees the fissures around him. He feels the tremors underfoot. He knows the times they are a-changing.

He begins to speak into the times, naming what he sees. The city is occupied—but why? Corruption, greed and too many injustices have made it a failed economy, ripe for invasion. What was once a safe city, God’s city, tilted toward self-interest and away from care for the most vulnerable ones. The orphans, widows and immigrants were left to fend for themselves as the elites got fat at their expense. This is the way of empires, it seems.

The occupying force was one problem. But Isaiah named the people’s crumbing character as the deeper dynamic in need of addressing. God would not protect Jerusalem in its current condition. As a matter of fact, God looked at Israel and said, “Who are you? I don’t even recognize you anymore! It’s like I never knew you!”

***

I wish I could remember what prompted my son to say the American Empire would never fall. What I do recall is turning off the television and pulling him so close our knees touched. I told him that all empires come to an end.

“But not America, it’s the good empire,” he insisted with all his 12-year-old innocence.

Empires rise and fall. I reminded him that Pharaoh’s Egypt fell. Rome fell. The Soviet Union fell. No empire, save God’s eternal empire, stands forever.

“Know this, Son, some day America’s influence in the world will wane. And what you need to know is not to be afraid. Your citizenship is in God’s Kingdom.”

I wanted his roots anchored deep in the eternal Kingdom, not any temporal empire.

I had a sense that he would see the global spotlight shift away from American domination in his lifetime. But here I am at a loss—because it feels like it is happening in my own. This political quake is shaking my windows and rattling my walls. And what I know in my bones is the times they are a-changing.

It isn’t an election loss that hurts; that’s the ebb and flow of democracy. But there’s an innocence lost as we realize the dark forces are stirring closer to the surface than we knew. Even as our friends of color told us otherwise, we didn’t fully comprehend the hostile tidal wave crashing on our shores until we were drenched to the bone. We swirl in misogyny, racism and xenophobia. For many this twist feels terminal, fraught with foreboding. Our neighbors are alarmed and anxious. We are too.

Isaiah offers a small word for those wanting to untangle the woes: Don’t go to the temple to make offerings or prayers. Dishonest religion won’t get you out of this mess. These are Isaiah’s sentiments, not mine. But I concur. White American Christianity has been too married to the empire, too divorced from our prophetic tradition to be trusted these days.

Isaiah continues: begin by ceasing your participation in evil. Wash your hands of greed; scrub yourself clean of complicity in corruption. Don’t accept the ubiquitous iniquity as normal. Then turn toward your neighbors and do good—seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the vulnerable ones who live under threat. The prophet says when we unlearn evil and learn to love our neighbor, the current will change. At the end of the day this is what makes Israel great—the ways we practice communal care.

Chills speed down my spine as I read his words spoken centuries ago. It’s like he wrote them today. Our greatness is measured by our neighborliness. The way forward involves crossing the threshold of our neighbor’s home—sharing in the laughter of the Muslim mamas at our kid’s school, eating the Afghan bread offered by our friend who’s fled fascism before, and standing alongside those protesting for water rights and human rights. We repent and we reach out. We’ll only recover together.

We’re given a vision of the great Jerusalem, but it’s not what we expected. Isaiah says the once-faithful city has become a whore. Everything is devalued as people love bribes and run after emoluments rather than funding the care of orphans and widows. So God will allow the city to fall to invading troops, not to be great again but to be humbled again. There will be reversion to the antiquated ways of the old judges. The picture is dim.

But Isaiah, ever the optimist, extends a bough of hope. After all that has happened to this city, it will return to righteousness one day. It will be a faithful city. But it will only happen through rigorous justice and uncompromising repentance—and judgment. It’s a thin hope. It’s a hope that does not stave off the hardship to come. But it’s there in the vision of the fallen city.

“We do not grieve as those who have no hope,” Paul once wrote. He knew Isaiah well. But there are hard times ahead so we best be prepared. We begin in the midst of a crumbling city, knowing the trajectory ahead. We observe and name things. We repent and reach out to our neighbors. We never tire of doing good, which the prophet describes as loving our neighbor.

We’ve got a long way to go, friends. But we start at a loss.

I leave you with the words of a modern prophet:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’”

-Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate in Literature

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Kelley Nikondeha
I am a practical theologian shaped by education and experience, by rhetoric and theology, by the luminous beaches of the California coast and the vibrant rhythms of Burundian drummers. My own theology has been meted out in the context of a bi-cultural marriage and, as a result, a bi-continental family life. Among East African leaders, South African thinkers and Muslim friends I’ve come to learn more about the Good News and dangerous ways of Jesus. I am ecclesiastically promiscuous, a life-long lover of the stories of Scripture and the works of Walter Brueggemann. I must add that I’m a woman continually recalibrated by the liberation stories of Miriam and Moses, the intoxicating poetry of Isaiah and the provocative parables of Jesus. I’m insatiable when it comes to Sabbath and shalom, the rigors and release of jubilee and the radical inclusion of the New City – where there is room for every tongue, tribe and nation to gather at long last. I am a practical theologian hungry for the New City.
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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Kelley Nikondeha
  • I was reading Amos and Obadiah this morning. The prophets certainly have words for our time, and they don’t beat around the bush. They will be our teachers as we hold lament in one hand and hope in the other, because we know that any rebuilding that occurs on this planet, whether it’s Jerusalem or the U.S., is only a shadow of the Kingdom for which we long (whether we realize it or not).

  • “White American Christianity has been too married to the empire, too divorced from our prophetic tradition to be trusted these days.” – This, this, this!!! I’ve never read a more true statement. I am reminded of Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, there is one letter that talks about distracting the people with politics. That when we are fighting and disagreeing we aren’t focused on HIS plan. Satan’s plan is workings. But I hold onto hope that our Father is ultimate and Soveregin. He wins the war. He is King.

  • Ganise C.

    ” I am at a loss. In the aftermath of the U.S. election I see the national terrain differently. I see people differently. ”

    Same here, Kelley. Same.

  • I’ve failed to follow the timeline for my “Bible in a Year Plan,” as I’m almost on to year 2 and still in “October.” All that to say, perhaps it’s Divine Intervention. I was in the midst of Isaiah during the elections. I’ve just started Jeremiah and my copy of Prophetic Lament is next in my to-read stack. I need to learn to lament. Thank you for this guidance, Kelley.

  • Sarah Joslyn

    “But there’s an innocence lost as we realize the dark forces are stirring closer to the surface than we knew. Even as our friends of color told us otherwise, we didn’t fully comprehend the hostile tidal wave crashing on our shores until we were drenched to the bone.”

    This. Gutted. Me.

    I am grateful for you. For being theological and true.

  • Your voice pierces me. Thank you, my friend.

  • “White American Christianity has been too married to the empire, too divorced from our prophetic tradition to be trusted these days.” Yes, yes, yes. All of these words are an aching in my heart. I couldn’t agree more that “we’ll only recover together.” Poignant and true.

  • Leah Kostamo

    Wise, wise words! I’m with you in the Lament (I cried for nearly 24 hours!), and I’m with you in holding the big picture of hope rooted in God’s goodness and care. Blessings to you this Advent! xoxo

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