Pushing and Pulling: Asylum-Seeker Flows, External Drivers, and Government Policy

The following piece began life as a footnote to my previous blog post. However, given that it rapidly metastasized into an essay in its own right, treatment as a separate blog entry was unavoidable. It certainly isn’t for everyone: I spend much of my time trying to conduct some fairly fine-grained analysis, which many people are bound to find rather dull or abstruse. But it does reveal the inevitable complexity of just one element of a much broader issue, and the consequent need for sustained examination.

Introduction

The seemingly interminable debate in Australia over asylum seekers has thrown up a host of subsidiary disputes. One such dispute concerns the comparative weight of external drivers and internal government policies as determinants of asylum seekers’ behaviour. In my previous post on the UN’s condemnation of boat turnbacks, I indicated that the ALP’s decision to dismantle Australia’s tightly-controlled border protection regime in 2008 ultimately led to a massive influx of boat-borne asylum seekers – and with them, the oft-repeated tragedy of drownings on the high seas (some estimates suggest that about 1,200 asylum seekers ended up dying en route to Australia between 2008 and mid-2013). I don’t claim that this was the intention of the government at the time. Not at all. However, I do claim that there exists a causal connection between Australian government policy and the behaviour of asylum seekers – a connection that can produce fatal results.

This remains a controversial opinion. Some have argued that the claim is an unwarranted assumption, not borne out by the evidence. Many advocates, analysts and observers argue that government policy, or “pull factors”, are at best negligible in their influence on asylum-seeking behaviour.

Various attempts have been made to rebut the idea that Australia’s suite of border protection policies affects asylum seekers’ choices in any way. It has been argued, for instance, that asylum seekers are largely ignorant of a country’s domestic legislation concerning border protection and irregular migration. The conclusion is that people seeking asylum are not (directly) influenced by such policy settings, for their conduct cannot be consciously shaped by things of which they are not aware. Others have asserted that the example of New Zealand – which has long had a more relaxed border protection regime than Australia – demonstrates that “pull factors” aren’t all the determinative. Since NZ hasn’t seen a great deal of change in the number of asylum seekers claiming sanctuary within its borders over the past 15-20 years (despite its being just as stable and prosperous as Australia), some have suggested that a country’s policy response to the issues of irregular migration isn’t terribly significant. Opponents of the “pull factors” theory prefer to see “push factors” – external drivers connected with the state of the international environment, or within individual source countries – as far more influential. Whether this means poverty or persecution, war or civil strife, advocates strongly argue in their favour to explain relative changes in asylum-seeker numbers. They cite both statistical and qualitative evidence to substantiate this basic contention.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to dispute the effect that disturbing phenomena such human rights abuses or civil unrest would have on a person’s thinking, or how they might drive someone out of his or her country of origin. That seems to me to be common sense, as does the proposition that the volume of asylum-seeker flows partly reflects the state of human security around the world. But I am far from fully convinced by the positions staked out above, for several reasons.

How Much do Asylum Seekers Really Know?

Regarding the claim that asylum seekers have been greatly unaware of Australia’s policies in this area, the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and legal scholar, has written poignantly of Hazara asylum seekers desperately fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, and being shepherded to Australia by a hazily-understood network of people smugglers – all while being completely ignorant of their ultimate destination, and entrusting themselves to those they believed would be able to guarantee passage to safe territory. There is also formal research which suggests that some asylum seekers know very little about their intended destination, if they know anything at all.

On the other hand, anecdotal data exists indicating that many asylum seekers are very much aware – indeed, quite sensitive to – changes in the government’s border protection policies. I have already referred to the outgoing head of the IOM in Indonesia, Mark Getchell, in my previous blog essay. In the related article, he says that both asylum seekers and people smugglers are currently “testing the water” – i.e., they are watching closely for any sign that Australia might relax its policies concerning boat-borne asylum seekers. This is of a piece with other evidence suggesting that asylum seekers aren’t the naïve, ignorant rubes they’re sometimes portrayed to be; many over the years have been monitoring changes in legislation, and have made decisions about their future on the basis of such changes. As journalist, Michael Bachelard, noted a few years ago, some asylum seekers have travelled to Indonesia from their countries of origin “despite full knowledge” of Australian policy in this domain. Why some asylum seekers would travel to Indonesia, knowing they can’t successfully enter Australian territory, is an interesting question. But that some people seeking refuge in our region are often cognizant of the country’s border protection regime seems reasonably clear.

Moreover, even if asylum seekers don’t always appreciate the implications of Australian domestic policy, people smugglers in South-East Asia and elsewhere do. Tightening up the country’s border protection regime – whether by the judicious use of boat turnbacks, or enhanced cooperation with (e.g.) Indonesian authorities – will almost certainly influence the activities of people smugglers, who are the very people asylum seekers rely on to facilitate their passage to Australian territory in the first place. If smugglers realize they can no longer penetrate the “virtual border” erected and maintained by the Australian Navy, or see their networks dismantled by diligent police work, then they have nothing of value to offer the desperate souls they purport to help. Their so-called “business model” eventually collapses, leaving asylum seekers stranded and unable to reach Australian shores. Smugglers, meanwhile, may respond to Australian policy changes by re-directing their activities elsewhere.

The New Zealand “Connection”: A False Analogy

What about the argument that New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed approach to asylum seekers has apparently had no effect on the numbers of such people attempting to enter that country? Does it prove that domestic policy isn’t all that significant in shaping the choices of people in so desperate a situation?

This claim can be dispensed with fairly swiftly. Advocates, such as the online news outlet, Crikey, seem to conflate the two main modes of asylum-seeking into our region: asylum via plane, and asylum sought via boat.[1] To some extent, this is unavoidable, since many reports on asylum-seeker trends do not distinguish between people who entered a territory by plane, and those who entered via some other means (boat, foot, etc.). But in the case of Australia and NZ, the distinction is fairly easy to make, since the latter is highly unlikely — owing to reasons of geography — to receive any asylum seekers arriving by boat. And of course, the issue pertains to such asylum seeking specifically. Isolating boat-borne asylum seekers for the purposes of public policy is not an arbitrary move on the part of the Australian government (whatever one thinks of its basic response). Only one of the two modes of travel has seen people perishing in large numbers. Only one of the two modes of travel relies almost exclusively on deep involvement with criminal networks – involvement that ultimately entrenches and enriches them. And only one of the two modes of travel is effectively unregulated (e.g., passing through unofficial channels and through unofficial access points, carrying people with scanty, or even no, identification), rendering a policy approach that is both open and measured extraordinarily difficult to achieve.[2]

This means that although boat-borne asylum seekers have at times been outweighed by asylum seekers entering the country via plane, the issue is not negligible (pace Crikey). What’s more, during the latter years of the Rudd-Gillard Government, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australian territory via boat far exceeded those arriving by plane. In any case, the key issue concerns the former type of asylum seeking; one needs to compare apples with apples, not with oranges. The volume of asylum applications within NZ territory – the vast majority of which would be made by individuals entering the country via legitimate means – is largely irrelevant to the debate.

Push and Pull Factors: The Weight of Statistics

The Significance of Global Data

Sceptics of the “pull factors” theory have cited statistical data in an effort to undercut whatever explanatory power it might bear. The Crikey piece to which I have already referred provides some interesting – and, one must admit, quite powerful – evidence in this regard. Using regression analysis, the article showed that the relative volume of asylum seekers arriving in Australia between 1994 and 2008 largely reflected global trends. As the writer of the piece argued at the time, “the relative patterns through time of boat arrivals in Australia is itself a function of broader global asylum seeker trends”.

The United Nations’ own statistical data would seem to confirm this, at least on the surface: in a 2011 UNHCR report concerning asylum-seeker trends, author Vivian Tan said that there had been a “dramatic drop” in the number of people claiming asylum around the world during the previous decade. Certain year-on-year differences tell substantially the same story. In 2006, for example, there were 11% fewer asylum claims globally than there were in 2005 (596,000 as against 674,000). It’s also worth observing that the UK-based Migration Observatory showed that the United Kingdom experienced a sharp decline in asylum applications between 2002 and 2005, in much the same way that Australia did during that time. As far as I am aware, the UK did not introduce a raft of restrictive policies, aimed at deterring asylum-seeking behaviour. That fact could be construed as evidence that the strength of a country’s border protection regime does not, in the final analysis, play a very significant role in determining the volume of irregular migration: if the UK and Australia both experienced sharp falls in asylum-seeker numbers, despite adopting different policies towards those looking for sanctuary, then what does this say about the relative strength of “push” and “pull” factors? As a consequence of such information, Crikey concluded that “pull factors” (i.e., government policies) are “simply swamped…” by changes in the global environment (with the implication that domestic policy can do very little, one way or the other, about general asylum-seeker flows).

But Wait a Minute…

The apparent potency of the above data, however, belies a more complicated, more ambiguous, reality. Whilst it’s true that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally fell throughout the 2000s, it is also the case that the Australian experience reveals some subtle (though nonetheless significant) differences. In its report analysing asylum-seeking trends between 2000 and 2002, the UNHCR noted that there was a reduction of 5.4% in the volume of asylum seekers in the 37 industrialised countries it surveyed. This was at about the same time that Australia began to experience a corresponding decline in such numbers. However, the same report also observed that the reduction in Australia had been far steeper, at approximately 50% – almost ten times the rate of decline experienced by the industrialised world as a whole (pp.2-3). Favourable changes in the global environment are insufficient as an explanation; something beyond such shifts would be needed to make this fall completely intelligible. This, of course, was around the same time that the Howard Government dramatically restricted Australia’s border protection regime, in an effort to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats. It’s hard to believe that the imposition of such policies didn’t have any effect on asylum-seeker numbers coming to Australia. Indeed, as academic evidence cited below suggests, policies instituted by the Howard Government at the time contributed materially to subsequent declines.

Similarly, even though industrialised countries around the world experienced a general fall in applications for asylum during the 2000s, we should note that Australia was, at times, an outlier. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the UNHCR reported that the industrialised countries surveyed showed a general fall of 5%, even though Australia experienced a 33% increase in asylum claims (p.6). This coincides with increases across the life of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and comes only two years after the ALP abolished the Howard-era laws composing Australia’s previous border protection regime. As we shall see (cf. linked graph, below), the number of boat-borne asylum seekers swiftly rose from almost nothing in 2008 to well over 5,000 by 2010. Again, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that domestic policy and asylum flows bore a causal link.

A final point on the significance of international data. It’s worth observing differences between Australia and the rest of the industralised world in the years after 2013. Whilst global asylum applications rose at around that time, boat arrivals to Australia continued to flatline. In its 2014 report on global asylum trends, the UNHCR stated that asylum applications within the industralised world had risen by 45%. Europe, North America, and Japan/South Korea all saw sharp increases of between 40%-65%. Australia, however, saw a fall of 23% in asylum arrivals (p.8). Not coincidentally, this was just 12 months after the introduction of a tougher border protection regime under the then-Abbott Government.

The Regional Experience

To this bevy of international data may be added statistical evidence drawn from both Australia and Indonesia. Together, they appear to lend further weight to the notion that domestic policy exerts some power over patterns of asylum seeking. Leaving one’s country of origin, it must be remembered, is only half the journey; one also has to find a safe harbour (as it were). And it is here that I’d argue Australia’s border protection policies have either expanded or constrained asylum seekers’ choices. Not in all cases, of course; but the anecdotal evidence I cited above does indicate that many asylum seekers – and certainly all people smugglers wanting to ferry their human cargo to Australia – calibrate their decisions with alterations in the country’s domestic policy landscape.

Take the following graph, which plots the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers between the mid-1970s and 2016. As one can see from the chart (tracking calendar-year figures), the numbers slowed markedly after 2001 – around the time the Howard Government introduced a panoply of responses designed to deter such activity. In 2008, the Rudd Labor Government, in a fit of moral hubris, all but dismantled that regime; after a brief lag period, the numbers began to rise again, and by 2013, the country had received approximately 50,000 asylum seekers on scores of vessels (including over 20,000 in that year alone). However, a change of government in September 2013 saw a precipitous drop in asylum seeker flows – one that began in the dying days of the second Rudd administration – as Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition implemented its highly militarised “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

These three inflection points – 2002, 2008, and 2013 – imply an intimate connection between changes to Australia’s policy settings and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. If one only had access to data pertaining to that first of those watershed periods, then it might be possible, as the Crikey piece does, to argue that domestic figures simply reflect international trends.[3] But unless successive Australian governments somehow managed to alter the country’s border protection regime at just those moments when global flows of asylum-seeking either rose or fell, then domestic policy changes likely do exert a degree of influence over the decisions individual asylum seekers make. And whilst correlation does not always equal causation, the parallels in this case are uncanny — leading me to conclude that there is some kind of causal link. Even Robert Manne, who has been harshly critical of Australia’s border protection policies over the years, effectively concedes that government policy has significantly affected the rate of (boat-borne) asylum seeker flows into the country. His view seems to have been partly formed by the weight of this kind of statistical evidence.

Figures concerning asylum-seeker numbers in Indonesia (which has usually functioned as the main staging-post for people hoping to reach Australia by boat) complement this data-driven picture. Back in 2012, for example, IRIN News Agency – a not-for-profit humanitarian media outlet – examined the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia since 2009. The agency reported that there had been a “spike” in those numbers, “from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010”, as reported by the UNHCR. The key watershed moment here lies between 2008 and 2009, when the Rudd Government’s fateful decision to relax Australia’s border laws was made. It was at that time that Indonesia saw a ten-fold increase in the number of (registered) asylum seekers within its borders. I’d argue that those increases can be attributed, at least in part, to the changes wrought by the Rudd Government: as news of those shifts trickled out, would-be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks attempted to take advantage of the new regime. Again, correlation and causation aren’t always well acquainted with each other; however, when this data is combined with statistics cited earlier, the proposition that domestic government policy can shape an asylum seeker’s behaviour – by way of either encouragement or deterrence – takes on a new cogency.

What Can Formal Analyses Tell Us?

Evidence like this is unavoidably probabilistic, of course. But the consistent parallels between alterations in border protection policy, and a shift in the number of (boat-borne) asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia, are striking. This is of a piece with formal research efforts, which have captured both domestic and international experiences in this domain. The aforementioned UNHCR report concerning asylum applications between 2000 and 2002 admitted that government policy “can affect asylum-seeker flows”. It went on to cite the example of Spain, where the imposition of stricter visa controls for Colombian asylum seekers saw applications from that country fall by 56% during the period in question (see p.3. The report also highlighted similar declines in applications within Spanish territory by people from Sierra Leone, largely as a result of similar measures).

Academic studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, Eric Neumayer, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, analysed refugee flows to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of obvious “push factors” at work (war, civil strife, persecution, and so forth), which conspired to drive people out of their native lands in search of refuge. Simultaneously, though, he concluded that the “share going to individual European countries [was] influenced by [the] specific characteristics of those countries” – among which were more lenient policies concerning asylum seekers. Economist, Tim Hatton, suggested much the same thing after analysing the Australian context. The ANU academic estimated that a tougher policy approach on the part of the Howard Government explained about 30% of the decline in arrival numbers in Australia between 1997 and 2006. He did not deny the inevitable power of external drivers, but found that internal policies also worked to shape the behaviour of asylum seekers (incidentally, evidence like this undercuts the assertion that desperate asylum seekers simply aren’t deterred by a country’s border protection regime, even if they are aware of such a regime in the first place. At least in some cases, they plainly are deterred).

Surveying the Global Situation: A Case-Study

So much for the quantitative evidence; what of the qualitative evidence? Some observers appeal to specific phenomena which reflect the state of the global security environment (i.e., “push factors”). In so doing, they purport to substantially explain the ebb and flow of asylum-seeker movements. But these, too, may rest on fragile assumptions, a selective use of data, or inadequate analysis. John Menadue’s article on the issue is a case-in-point. In that piece, the former public servant asserts that the fall in asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from 2002 was not due to the Howard Government’s suite of border protection policies – off-shore processing, boat turnbacks, and increased cooperation with Indonesian authorities – but rather to propitious changes in the global environment. Menadue cites the War in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban (October 2001-) as an example: the US-led intervention did eventually see several million Afghans return to their war-ravaged country. He concludes that events like these, and not domestic border policy, were largely responsible for general declines in people seeking asylum here. Menadue makes other gestures in this direction as he seeks to undercut the notion that Australian government policy can affect asylum-seeker flows, one way or the other.

I have no wish to deny the truth of Menadue’s claims, at least in narrow terms; the Afghan War and the Taliban’s (initial) demise have indeed exerted some influence on international migration patterns by making a return to Afghanistan more attractive for many locals. Nevertheless, several telling observations may be made in relation to Menadue’s argument. First, he, like others, simply conflates boat-borne asylum seekers with all asylum seekers (regardless of their means of entry). But as I have already noted, the question concerns the causal connection – if any – between Australian government policy and the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers specifically. The numerical evidence I cited earlier provides a fairly compelling picture of just such a connection.

Second, there is reason to believe that in the case of some national and ethnic groups, domestic policy settings may have indeed been decisive – or at least highly effective – in shaping the decisions of would-be asylum seekers and their ersatz migration agents. Menadue (perhaps unintentionally) ignores this evidence. Iraq is a particularly revealing case study. Menadue cites the so-called “Surge” in that country – a massive build-up of American troops during and after 2007, aimed at stabilising the fragile security situation there – as a partial driver of refugee and asylum seeker flows at that time. However, he fails to deal properly with other pertinent evidence.

An examination of what occurred, in both Australia and Iraq, after 2008 will make the point clearer. I have already noted the significant increase in boat arrivals to Australia between 2008-09 and 2013, many of which contained Iraqi nationals. Such was the volume that in 2012, the academic, Helen Ware, could write that Iraq was still one of the top three source countries for so-called “boat people” (the others being Afghanistan and Iran). Interestingly, this increase coincided with significant improvements in the security situation in Iraq. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has observed, “US sources estimated in early January 2010 that the overall number of security incidents in Iraq had decreased by 83% over the past two years…IED attacks in Iraq decreased nearly 80%…and car-bomb and suicide-vest attacks had decreased by 92%” (p.4). Iraq was hardly a model of peace and stability by 2010, of course; nevertheless, the country witnessed a significant fall in violent incidents as the sectarian strife of the previous few years began to subside. The relative declines in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers globally seems to reflect this: the UNHCR, for example, revealed that in 2012, the number of asylum seekers from Iraq fell to less than 20,000 — down from a figure of approximately 40,000 four years earlier (p.18). The report suggested that improved security was in part responsible for this shift. And yet, Australia saw a relative increase in the number of Iraqi nationals seeking aslyum via boat during this period (of course, the overall “pool” of Iraqi asylum seekers remained quite large during this time. The point, however, is that whilst global figures fell, Australian figures rose. This is counter-intuitive, at least according to an analysis guided by the “push factors” theory).

Thus, the volume of Iraqi asylum seekers entering the country began to rise steeply from 2009 – as part of a general rise in boat-borne asylum seekers attempting to enter the country – despite material improvements in Iraq’s security situation. Again, if the “push factors” hypothesis is as strong as advocates assert, then it stands to reason that we should have witnessed the reverse of what actually occurred, at least in the case of potential asylum seekers from Iraq. We should have seen, in other words, relatively low numbers in the few years after the American “Surge” campaign, when the country entered a period of comparative stability. The fact that we didn’t leads me to conclude that external factors were not always the only – or even the main – driver of the number of boat-borne asylum seekers entering Australia. Something else, it seems, was at work; the only other viable candidate is Australian government policy.

***

This brings me back to the original point at issue – namely, whether government policy can affect asylum-seeking behaviour. If my analysis has any merit, then it would appear that so-called “pull factors” can affect one’s pattern of decision-making, and do so substantially. In the case of the Howard and Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments, it has led to a reduction in the number of boat-borne asylum seekers. In the case of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, on the other hand, it produced a dramatic increase in such numbers, accompanied by a consequent rise in deaths at sea.

[1] To be fair, the Crikey piece later concedes that there may be some divergence in numbers based on mode of entry (i.e., airborne vs. boat-borne asylum seekers). But if that is so, then what is the point of citing NZ in the first place? In what way is it a relevant comparator if one is only interested in asylum seekers who travel by boat (of whom NZ receives very few, if any)?

[2] A certain level of regulation would require any government to at least approximate some of the policies that have so far been used by Australian authorities; the alternative is simply hoping that overall asylum-seeker flows would be moderated by a relatively benign international environment.

[3] We should bear in mind that the Crikey piece was only written in 2009. As such, it would have been impossible for the author to take into account the longer-term implications associated with the Rudd Government’s abandonment of Howard-era policies in 2008. These were yet to be fully felt a mere 12 months later. And of course, not having the power of time travel, the author would have been unable to respond to the significance – if any – of the Abbott Government’s changes in this domain in 2013.

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Do Boat Turnbacks Work? Well, It Depends on What You Mean by “Work”…

I was intrigued by an article that appeared in The Australian newspaper a few weeks ago. Under the front-page heading, “Boat turnbacks don’t work: UN”, the article quoted the UN refugee agency’s chief, Thomas Vargas, who claimed that turning back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea “just [doesn’t] work”. Later, Vargas conceded that such a policy might indeed “work” for some countries (or rather, he said that some countries might claim as much), although he insisted that they put vulnerable people “in harm’s way”.

Two points about Mr Vargas’ comments are worth noting. First, whether or not the policy of turning back vessels laden with asylum seekers “works” rather depends on your definition and your starting-point. If by “work” one means “the successful calibration of means with ends”, then I’d say that boat turnbacks have “worked” tremendously well. To my knowledge, not a single life has been lost at sea during a turnback operation, as the government has successfully used the tactic to deter asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage from the southern fringes of Indonesia (and, on occasion, other nations) to Australian territory. It has been so successful that at least one former immigration official has said that it makes offshore processing redundant (“Boat turn-backs ‘make offshore detention meaningless'”, The Australian, October 25, 2018; article paywalled).

As of October last year, about 36 boats had attempted to reach Australia since the re-introduction of the turnback policy in 2013. In that time, only one boat has made landfall – a vessel travelling directly from Vietnam. Every boatload of asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia has been successfully halted. Where the vessel has been deemed seaworthy, it is forcibly turned around. In other instances, orange lifeboats – complete with internal motor, life jackets and on-board supplies – have been used to ship asylum seekers back to (e.g.) the Indonesian mainland. Such vessels, it needs to be remembered, are practically unsinkable, so any safety issues are all but non-existent.

In any case, if the goal of turnbacks was to maintain the country’s maritime borders and dissuade asylum seekers from such an irregular – not to mention dangerous – means of travel, then the policy has “worked” perfectly. Even the outgoing director of the International Office of Migration’s Indonesia station, Mark Getchell, has stated that boat turnbacks have been the “single biggest” deterrent in the Australian government’s effort to reduce sea-borne asylum seeker flows (“Turnbacks best deterrent, says IOM chief”, The Australian, February 1, 2019; article paywalled). Now, Mr Vargas may dislike the policy; he may condemn it morally. At this point, however, he has chosen to critique Australia’s approach on practical grounds. The ethics of turnbacks is a distinct — though related — argument (I for one am not exercised morally by the enforced repulsion of asylum seeker vessels, provided such practices are conducted in a safe and humane way. Turnbacks have also been crucial in preventing deaths at sea, which means they can, in part, be defended on ethical grounds as well). As far as I can tell, its utility cannot be gainsaid.

Second, it’s somewhat ironic that Mr Vargas should castigate Australia for a policy that apparently places people in mortal jeopardy. His favoured approach – “…rescuing them [i.e., asylum seekers], bringing them to safety and then figuring out how best they can be helped” – is sure to lead to the very loss of life he so desperately wishes to avoid. I don’t doubt Mr Vargas’ sincerity or good-will. I assume he is genuinely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons around the world. But what he is advocating has been shown to lure asylum seekers to their deaths.

How has this been demonstrated? Well, soon after winning office in 2007, the ALP began dismantling the border protection regime implemented by the Howard government. Whether or not they intended to, the Labor Party offered a fairly clear signal to both asylum seekers desperate enough to make the dangerous voyage across the Indian Ocean and to the (often unscrupulous) people smugglers who were only too willing to facilitate their passage. The result was an explosion in the number of vessels bound for Australian territory, far beyond anything the Royal Australian Navy could handle. In the five years that followed, at least 1,200 people either drowned in open water or were dashed against the treacherous shorelines of outlying islands. Navy personnel have recounted the trauma of having to retrieve the decomposing bodies of infants and children from the ocean, after yet another unseaworthy vessel sank. Labor policies between 2008 and 2013 – policies to which Mr Vargas would like to see Australia re-commit itself – set in motion this tragic state of affairs.[1] Again, one may wish to question the ethics of boat turnbacks. But I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn something as potentially fatal, especially if my preferred solution was likely to lead to precisely that outcome.

***

Mr Vargas’ views on this issue are a product of the rigid application of globalist logic to what, in many respects, is a national or inter-national problem. As an employee of the UN, he is of course wedded to the idea that these problems must admit of a global, multi-national solution; any effort on the part of individual states to carve out an independent response to irregular migration is condemned as intrinsically immoral. Perhaps. But states do have a right to maintain the integrity of their borders, something that needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to seek asylum. Notwithstanding efforts to trivlialize the concept of national sovereignty, it remains one of the basic building-blocks of the international order.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as wholesale support for Australia’s current border protection regime. As I have indicated elsewhere, the country’s system of offshore processing facilities has clearly failed on multiple levels, exacerbating the trauma and mental ill-health that asylum seekers have already experienced. The government’s response to that troubling body of evidence looks increasingly stern and cold-hearted; many people on Manus and Nauru, meanwhile, continue to languish under the weight of acute psychological distress. I also think Mr Vargas is right to criticise the government for dramatically reducing the numbers of refugees it selects from Indonesian detention centres. It simply seems churlish to exclude asylum seekers based in Indonesia from the opportunity of re-settling in Australia — and, in light of the overall success of the country’s border protection regime, completely unnecessary (accepting people from mainstream, legitimate sources probably won’t encourage a re-activation of the people smuggling trade. If anything, the present policy would likely be an incentive towards irregular migration to Australia, at least in the absence of a broader deterrence approach).

But put all that aside for now. Mr Vargas’ views on the issue at hand aren’t simply in diametric opposition to reality; they unwittingly – and indeed, ironically – contain the seeds of a policy that would see the kinds of tragedy he earnestly seeks to avoid.

[1] I realize this is a contentious point, and that not all commentators agree that there is a causal link between Australia’s policy settings in this space and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. I shall attempt to substantiate my position in a forthcoming post.

 

 

A Listing Ship: the Modern-day Liberal Party

Some rambling thoughts on the Australian Liberal Party’s current malaise…

The Liberal Party’s Identity Crisis

With each passing day, it seems harder and harder to discern any kind of coherent philosophical base uniting the Liberal Party. Even its alleged commitment to small government and the virtues of free markets is more theoretical than real these days. That particular axiom has been hollowed out recently, as the Coalition has sought to retain the favour of the electorate by embracing traditional Laborite, “big government” programmes. Promising to fund bloated schemes of questionable financial wisdom – the NDIS, the NBN and the Gonski school reforms are just three that come to mind – the Liberals have even abandoned any substantive devotion to economic liberalism. This is of a piece with their rather anaemic (non-)defence of key centre-right/conservative values. The party is now languishing in an agonising period of ideological confusion.

The question concerning the Liberals’ governing principles has taken on a new urgency in recent times, as the various ideological factions composing the party – the so-called “moderates” and “conservatives” – have descended into rancorous, internecine debate. This isn’t to say the issues besetting the Liberals weren’t present beforehand; something like this doesn’t just spring up overnight. Clearly, they have been percolating for some years now, with the party’s past two leaders, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, acting as standard-bearers for the warring blocs. But the unexplained (not to mention incompetent) removal of the former member for Wentworth has exposed the fact that the present-day Liberal Party is, philosophically-speaking, rudderless.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the party of Menzies faces a crisis, one of existential import. But what has caused this ideological drift? Such a situation, slow to take shape, is unlikely to be mono-causal. Rather, it is the product of a complex confluence of factors, both proximate and distal.

Mapping the Crisis

At one level, the Liberals’ current woes can indeed be seen as a by-product of the party’s apparent inability to reconcile its two main philosophical streams. The increasingly schismatic quality of its internal ructions has obviously had an enervating effect – when any group is this consumed with collective navel-gazing, a period of drift is inevitable. The same-sex marriage debate showcased some of these divisions, with that particular question unveiling deeper fissures concerning the basic direction of the party. Tensions have been intensified immeasurably by the simmering personal feud between Abbott and Turnbull, who came to embody contrasting visions of what it meant to be a Liberal. Partly as a consequence, the party now seems beset by a kind of philosophical inertia, increasingly torn between two ways of articulating conservative/right-leaning politics in Australia. Such conflicts continue to smoulder, not only within the parliamentary party, but also at the local branch level.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the sole reason for the Liberals’ problems, important though it is; nor is it the only lens through which the party’s listlessness may be viewed. For several years now, the Coalition has been afraid to advance a principled, coherent, conservative approach to the many issues with which the country must grapple. Instead, it has either evaded those issues outright, or engaged in abortive and half-hearted attempts to give voice to a right-of-centre perspective. Worse, it has wholeheartedly embraced positions that were first propounded by its ideological opponents, and which in many cases undermine the strength of the conservative position. This sad state of affairs is doubtlessly connected to the party’s internal divisions, such that it persistently struggles to present a unified view on a clutch of controversial questions. But one doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of even Liberal warriors capitulating on principle for the (increasingly elusive) prize of electoral popularity.

It might be recalled that it was none other than Tony Abbott – a conservative pugilist, if ever there was one – who on the eve of the 2013 election promised that there would be “no cuts” to education, health, and the like. At best, the pronouncement jarred horribly with what many regarded as basic right-leaning approaches to the role of the state, fiscal rectitude, etc. (even if one ultimately concludes that no cuts were required, how wise is it to blithely promise that much before one has been able to conduct a proper audit of federal spending?). Moreover, it was Abbott who in 2014 abandoned efforts to dilute S18C of the RDA in the interests of some Quixotic goal of uniting all Australians – including Muslim Australians – behind a raft of new anti-terror laws. Once again, conservatives watched in dismay as a putative champion abruptly abandoned another article of (political) faith.

The point of this exercise in recent political history is to suggest that the evacuation of the Liberal Party’s binding philosophy began before many of the internal divisions we have been witnessing came to the fore. Abbott’s uncharacteristic timidity and awkwardness during the debate around S18C is a clear example.

This goes well beyond the events of the previous six months, or even the past five years. As John Roskam, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs, has pointed out, the Liberal Party has been in a state of ideological flux since the retirement of John Howard after the 2007 election defeat. Writing just after Peter Dutton’s ill-fated attempt to wrest the leadership from Turnbull last August, Roskam observed:

“[It does not] settle the fundamental question the Liberal Party has been grappling with since the retirement of John Howard and Peter Costello. For a decade the Liberal Party has struggled with the question of what should be its philosophy and its principles…”

Roskam went on to correctly note that the Liberal Party has, over the past ten years, embraced a number of economic positions that would make any Keynesian proud (to take just one policy domain). It has increased taxes, expanded the welfare state, and presided over the entrenchment of new and burdensome regulations. Meanwhile, members of the party shy away from several controversial – though nonetheless important – civic debates. The result of this timorousness is two-fold: a now-chronic inability to outline an agenda that can appeal to both intellect and lived experience; and the public’s (understandable) failure to grasp the party’s vision for the country.

In Search of Adequate Leadership

Roskam made an interesting, albeit fleeting, point about the identity crisis with which the Liberal Party has wrestled. It is obvious that the party of the Howard-era was a far more united, far more coherent political body. It was a “broad church”, of course, composed of both social conservatives and small “l” liberals. But with uncanny political nous, as well as an ability to articulate his party’s position in a clear and consistent manner, Howard was able to maintain a degree of institutional and philosophical cohesion – based largely around a shared commitment to economic liberalism – not seen since. Elsewhere, Roskam suggests:

“In simple terms, at the federal level the parliamentary leader of the Liberals sets the party’s philosophical direction and Liberal MPs then follow it.”

Is it a case, then, of faulty leadership? Can the Liberals resolve their painful wrestling by finding an effective “pontiff” who can successfully hold together this broad church, whilst outlining a compelling vision for the country that grounds itself in centre-right principles? Howard achieved this goal with consummate skill as he led the Liberal Party to four consecutive election victories. Whatever one thought of his basic political stance, such leadership is sorely lacking these days. Its absence, and the sense of drift that has ensued, is indelibly linked to the party’s present malaise. The fact that it has now had three leaders since winning office in 2013 – with the third coming to power despite never having explained why his predecessor’s demise was necessary – is perverse evidence of this reality. Although some sporadic efforts towards the construction of a positive agenda have been made, the current leadership of the Liberal Party seems just as diffident as previous iterations. Conversely, a talented leader can draw together the disparate elements of a party in an act of remarkable political alchemy. Roskam’s observation is therefore true in many respects: philosophical cohesion and fidelity to a party’s traditions depend in large part on the quality of the person leading it.

On the other hand, I think Roskam’s dictum may overstate things somewhat, if simplistically applied to today’s context. The political, social, and economic landscape has shifted markedly since John Howard was in office, which I think makes it far more difficult for a centre-right leader to articulate and prosecute his or her party’s agenda. At this point, the Liberal Party is in such a perilous state that it seems incapable of producing anyone who can rise about the intellectual torpor in which it is mired. This isn’t to say that the environment in which the Howard Government found itself was entirely benign; nor am I suggesting that the re-vitalisation of the Liberal Party under a competent leader is impossible. However, it appears that on a number of fundamental questions – questions that go to the heart of what the party stands for – the electorate has either drifted leftward, or fragmented politically in a way that eludes any one party’s control. In such a climate, even the most gifted of leaders is constrained in what he or she can accomplish.

The Economy: A Window into the Liberals’ Woes

Economics, which is so consequential to the Liberal Party’s identity, is a case-in-point. The Global Financial Crisis proved to be something of a watershed in regards to the way a government’s relationship with the economy was conceived. Rightly or wrongly, that catastrophe was attributed by many commentators to the evils of unbridled capitalism – a consequence of the free market’s alleged moral failings. Since then, consecutive governments of both ideological persuasions have adopted an increasingly interventionist approach to economic management. The GFC provided the rationale for the Labor Party to dramatically increase public spending – a trajectory from which its parliamentary opponents have only marginally dissented.

Voters have become habituated to such increases. The notion that government ought to play a relentlessly interventionist role in the economy, or should provide a panoply of income supplements as part of an ever-expanding welfare state (regardless of need), are now axioms of modern Australian life. Note, for instance, the victory of Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government in last November’s election, which was attributed in part to promises of massive infrastructure spending projects. The electorate was impressed by what it saw as an activist government “getting things done”. Unfortunately, such promises carry with them the likelihood of fiscal profligacy – a risk that did not prevent Victorian Labor from notching up a huge win. That win is one sign that the expectation of governmental largesse is now an accepted norm; when such a climate prevails, even the mere suggestion of reform in this domain is a risky prospect. Just look at the discussion around company tax cuts. As current polling data around the reduction of company tax suggests, the public is at best bemused by – and in many instances, quite hostile to – the idea that large businesses should be afforded some relief in this area.

Such scepticism is no longer confined to the progressive side of politics: many on the populist right, for example, hold economic views that are antithetical to a free market philosophy (think One Nation). Though a minority force within Australian politics, right-wing economic nationalism is not negligible. Thus, on the issue of the economy – to say nothing of other urgent questions – the Liberal Party is confronted with a much more malign political landscape. Finally, splits within the party itself reflect what one observes within Australian society-at-large. They manifest themselves in debates around economic philosophy, with some Liberal members calling for a move away from a “dry” approach, in favour of one that is claimed to be more “centrist”. Whether they are genuinely convinced by such notions, or have merely proposed them for the sake of electoral gain isn’t the point; however, a prospective Liberal leader wanting to stake out a distinctive position on (in this case) economics will not only face external hostility, but internal intransigence as well. Fiscal restraint and economic liberalism, meanwhile, continue to dissolve as core tenets of the Liberal Party’s platform. (As an aside, it’s ironic that the Liberals are still castigated for their apparent devotion to a harsh, unsparing economic philosophy, when in so many instances their policy position either mirrors, or merely shifts by degrees, the agenda of the ALP).

What I’m trying to say is that the issues confronting the Liberal Party are institutional and structural. The tectonic changes that Australian society has experienced have made it much harder for a leader of the Liberal Party to offer up an agenda that maintains some fidelity to centre-right principles, whilst also appealing to large swathes of the electorate. The party itself it adrift, having long ago slipped its ideological moorings on the question of the economy; some putative Liberals are being formed by a political culture inimical to liberal economic values, whilst others are advocating an entirely post-ideas approach to political engagement (a meek capitulation if ever there was one). As a consequence, the party faces the reality of at least the partial collapse of a common agenda. This is made all the more acute by a complementary breakdown in a shared conception of authentic centre-right social values, which has now become contested territory.

An Uncertain Outlook

Thus, even if the Liberal Party were to engage in another round of blood-letting – a real possibility if they lose this year’s federal election – there is no guarantee that a leader capable of supplying intellectual ballast could be found, given its parlous state. What’s more, taking the helm of the party now means having to contend with the fact that much of the electorate is either ambivalent towards, or deeply sceptical about, many of the tenets that have traditionally formed the party’s base.

If correct, this means we are left with a sobering conclusion: the absence of clear direction within the Liberal Party (in economics, as in so many things) is not merely symptomatic of political incompetence or a lack of unity, but is a product of the unfavourable historical juncture at which it finds itself. The Liberals must wrestle with the tension of trying to remain a party of (in this case) economic liberalism whilst appealing to an electorate whose mood on that issue has substantially shifted. That tension can be seen in the increasing internal confusion that besets the party, and its faltering efforts to respond to a changing economic landscape. Grappling with deep disagreements over their basic philosophical orientation, the Liberals are now at the mercy of centrifugal forces, both internal and external, that threaten to sunder them entirely.

Herein lies a devilish conundrum. On the one hand, the party of Menzies can choose to bravely unite around a coherent set of values, and hew to those policies that have traditionally formed a core part of its identity. That of course risks an indeterminate period of electoral failure, since the party can no longer rely on a neat dovetailing of economic liberalism and the voting public’s majority sentiments. But on the other hand, if the Liberal Party elects to move (further) away from its natural home on a raft of issues, it only succeeds in raising vital questions concerning its commitment to a distinct, coherent, stable philosophy. Abandoning its governing principles merely for the sake of electoral gain means that it alienates itself from the very thing that supplies its reason for being in the first place. Similarly, if the party seeks advantage by aping the ALP – all the while maintaining a superficial commitment to superior economic management – it merely exposes its own desiccation. Producing a leadership team capable of outlining a credible agenda would form only a partial solution to this dilemma. Given the welter of structural changes over the past decade or so, wholesale reform is beyond the capacity of any one individual. It confronts an uncertain future, regardless of the direction it chooses.

Having said that, the Liberal Party as a whole will probably need to bite the proverbial bullet and re-embrace a principled, centre-right agenda, despite the possible electoral consequences of such a decision. At least on the question of economics, the party will need to be resolute as it tries to persuade a doubting public that relatively free markets, small government, fiscal restraint, strong property rights, and the like, offer the best avenue towards national and personal wealth. This alone is how its identity crisis might be definitively resolved. I’m not saying this will be easy, or that it offers a straightforward path to success. For the time being, at least, I’m fairly certain it won’t. But what other alternative is there, save for a cynical (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to mimic the party’s political opponents? Whether Liberal members are willing to place fealty to principle above such cravenness, however, remains to be seen.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

“They Will Come and See My Glory”: An Exegesis of Isaiah 66:18-24

Note: I originally penned this piece for my theological studies at Ridley College. It is a short, exegetical essay on Isaiah’s ultimate passage, Isa 66:18-24. I also don’t mind saying that I did pretty well on it! The essay certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for the exegetically-minded, it may well provide some food for thought. 

Introduction

The book of Isaiah contains some of the loftiest language in all Scripture, its pages replete with remarkable visions of divine majesty. Isaiah 66:18-24 is no different: there, the prophet’s audience is treated to an eschatological vista, as the nations stream into a restored Jerusalem to worship the one, true God. The revelation of Yahweh’s glory, the universal reach of his salvation, the triumph over idolatry and false worship, and the final distribution of rewards and punishments – these and other Isaianic themes are dramatically drawn together in 66:18-24, which sets them within an ultimate frame of reference.[1]

Such will form the backdrop for my examination of 66:18-24, as I argue that it provides a fitting coda to Isaiah. Indeed, its structurally significant position at the close of the Isaianic corpus is manifested in the multifarious connections it bears with the rest of the book. Depicting God’s universal revelation within a renewed creation, the passage reflects an eschatological longing[2] that also resolves the book’s basic tension between judgment and salvation. Finally, I’ll briefly sketch some of the text’s important hermeneutical points, showing that whilst salvation is offered to all, persistent rebellion exacts a sure and terrible price.

Contextualizing Isaiah 66:18-24

Questions concerning the context of Isaiah 66:18-24 – both historical and literary – have yielded multiple positions. Scholars have made numerous, sometimes speculative, suggestions regarding the passage’s historical background,[3] with many thinking it dimly reflects a post-exilic setting.[4] Gardener, for example, argues the international convocation and dispersal of emissaries (vv.18-19) suggests just such a period, when Jerusalem was still populated by foreigners. Though not unreasonable, one should be cautious about reducing the elements of the passage to “mundane” occurrences.[5] Trying to “establish an absolute dating” for the text is fraught with difficulties, given it lacks the expected historical anchors tying it to a particular period.[6] Ultimately, 66:18-24 is “eschatologically oriented” – inviting the audience to cast its collective vision forward to an as-yet unrealized era of creational and corporate renewal.[7] Not that the passage is completely severed from the general historical process (e.g., 66:20; cf. 64:10-11; 65:18-19); however, it does suggest a period that exceeds the limits of purely historical or temporized events.[8]

The literary context of Isaiah 66:18-24 can be discerned with greater confidence, for it bears multiple, overlapping links with the surrounding textual neighbourhood. Although the text constitutes a distinct unit, a clear connection exists between it and the preceding passage: a universal missionary effort succeeds universal judgment (vv.15-17), even as the consequences for the rebellious are severely felt (vv.16,24).[9] Concluding ongoing tensions between Yahweh’s servants and the apostates (cf. 65:13-15), 66:18-24 envisions the finality of deliverance and reprobation – part of a broader relationship between Isaiah 65-66.[10] Moving further afield, 66:18-24 picks up several prophetic threads in Trito-Isaiah,[11] (e.g., the interchange between judgment and salvation,[12] the inclusion of Gentiles into the redeemed community [56:1-8; cf. 66:18-21]). Indeed, commentators have noted numerous verbal links between the prophet’s final vision and the rest of Trito-Isaiah – particularly 56:1-8, with which 66:18-24 constitutes an inclusio around the book’s last major division.[13] Finally, the text constitutes a counterpoint to the opening indictment of Isaiah 1 in another inclusio, framing the book with contrasting pictures of false and true worship.[14] I shall explore these points further as I proceed.

Exegeting Isaiah 66:18-24

Isaiah 66:18-24 can be divided further into two sub-sections: vv.18-21, in which Yahweh draws together people from all nations, Jew and Gentile; and the resulting convocation of vv.22ff, where the pilgrims engage in ceaseless worship of the one, true God.

Much of the passage is rather elliptical, making interpretation difficult. Those challenges begin with v.18, which apparently details God’s response to the iniquity of the irreligious.[15] We may draw some tentative conclusions, however. The most likely antecedent of “they” (v.18a) are the rebellious of vv.16b-17, who exposed their obstinacy through corrupt and idolatrous worship[16] (cf. 57:12; 59:6-7; 65:2).[17] Their iniquitous actions somehow “trigger” Yahweh’s decision to call people from the nations – i.e, a foil for his determination to unveil his glory (v.19).[18] Verse 18b is the first of several references that give 66:18-24 a decidedly universalistic hue, thus taking up themes broached earlier in Trito-Isaiah (e.g., 56:1-8) and Isaiah 40-55 (45:22-25).[19] The consequent international assembly will “see” God’s “glory” (thrice-underscored in vv.18-19; cf. 42:8), which in context could refer to the revelation of his unique splendour, associated with his status as the world’s only Lord.[20]

In concert with this great ingathering, Yahweh will establish a “sign” among “them” (v.19a). Some argue that where v.18 summarises God’s plan in this passage, vv.19-21 detail its unfurling.[21] However, the construction of v.19 suggests a sequential relationship with the previous verse (otherwise, “them” in v.19a lacks context). Identifying the sign has also generated debate, given its ambiguity (cf. 11:10-11). A number of suggestions have been made: e.g., the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. 62:1-2,11-12), or the sending of the emissaries themselves (v.19b).[22] The first option ties 66:18-24 to earlier portions of Trito-Isaiah, but lacks positive warrant from within the passage; the second alternative also seems unlikely, for the act of disseminating heralds appears to be distinct from the sign itself. It’s entirely possible the author has been deliberately non-specific, in keeping with the eschatological, visionary complexion of the passage.[23]

“Survivors” will be sent to declare Yahweh’s glorious fame (v.19b). The term evokes images of people enduring a great catastrophe; some commentators reason that this reference ultimately finds inspiration in the experiences of post-exilic Jews.[24] This cannot be ruled out, although like the rest of 66:18-24, v.19 lacks historical markers. Again, it’s perhaps best to interpret this clause in association with vv.15-17, where Yahweh poured out his fury upon “all flesh”. If vv.18-24 follows in sequence, then the “survivors” are probably those who underwent the universal execution of Yahweh’s judgment. A related issue is whether the survivors-cum-heralds are Jews or Gentiles. Some argue for the former position, given earlier references to survivors from the Judahite community (4:2).[25] But the natural antecedent of “those who survive” are the members of the international gathering (v.18b) – i.e., non-Jews who endured the conflagration of vv.15-17 (cf. 45:20)[26] – obviating the need to look beyond the passage’s literary environs to determine their identity. Of course, this raises the question: if the envoys are Gentiles, how should they be distinguished from those foreigners who have not heard of Yahweh’s “fame” (v.19b)? The most reasonable interpretive course is to argue that the distinction is based on proximity to Jerusalem.[27] Those from Israel’s near-neighbours – who would themselves be adherents of Yahwism – will travel to the farthest reaches of the earth (cf. the impressionistic list of countries in v.19b) to announce Yahweh’s splendour.[28]

Verse 20 sees those from the far-flung nations convey “[your] brothers” to the holy mountain in a restored Jerusalem (see 64:10-11; 65:18-19; cf. 1:26-27; 36:1-37:37).[29] This image shouldn’t be taken too literally – as if so many millions could fit into such a small parcel of land – and is more intelligible on a visionary interpretation.[30] Jerusalem’s presence here coheres with the Isaianic commitment to the city as the centre from which Yahweh’s glory will be revealed.[31] Similarly, “holy mountain” features in other texts envisioning eschatological renewal (2:2-4; 65:25c; cf. 56:7).[32] Its present inclusion offers an implicit contrast with 65:11, which has the disobedient abandoning God’s sacred mountain. Here, however, his servants venture towards it. Some argue that “your brothers” are ingrafted Yahweh-fearers from among the Gentiles.[33] But v.20 seems to distinguish between this group, and those who ferry them. If indeed both cohorts are composed of non-Jews, we may ask what differentiates them – i.e., why only one group is explicitly said to enjoy fraternal standing with God’s covenant people (“your”). Conversely, understanding the term as referring to Jews comports with passages alluding to the hope that Abraham’s scattered descendants will be re-gathered (11:11-12; 49:8-12).[34]

Gentiles will therefore transport members of the diaspora on a variety of vehicles and domesticated animals – an image evoking urgency and alacrity, as this great multitude descends on Jerusalem. Their actions are compared with the “pure” offerings of Jews before Yahweh (v.20b), which suggests acceptable worship and thanksgiving.[35] This represents a “striking reversal of” attitudes concerning “unclean” foreigners.[36] Remarkably, these same Gentiles will even be elected to cultic office as priests and Levites (“some of them” – v.21). Although some exegetes contend that the verse refers to diaspora Jews,[37] such a claim is unlikely: to say that would hardly be remarkable, and indeed, rather anti-climactic.[38] Verse 21 not only corresponds to, but also “escalates”, the vision of 56:1-8, where foreigners were permitted to enter the sanctuary.[39] Further emphasising the text’s universalism, 66:21 affirms the role of Gentiles as ministers and facilitators of pure worship in the New Jerusalem, further dismantling distinctions between Jew and non-Jew in the redeemed community (cf. 56:8).[40]

Verses 22-23 unveil the final goal of this multi-national congress: worship of Yahweh as the world’s true sovereign, set within a renewed creation. Together with vv.18-21, these verses counterpose the perversity of religious formalism in the physical Jerusalem (Isa 1:1ff) – part of that wider inclusio at work in Isaiah[41] – by envisioning true worship in a New Jerusalem. They also constitute a capstone to the book’s polemic against idolatry, supplanting false worship with global recognition of Yahweh (“all flesh”; cf. Isa 40-48 and Yahweh’s cosmic “lawsuit” against idols).[42] The term, “New heavens and new earth” corresponds closely to 65:17-25;[43] although some contend that it’s merely a poetic description of the new order or restored city (65:17ff),[44] the language evokes the totality of creation (Gen 1:1). In addition, the verb “make” may well correspond to the thought behind a text like Genesis 2:4, whilst 65:17-25 contains its own references (long life, the fruitfulness of toil and child-bearing) which represent an undoing of the primordial curse (cf. Gen 3:15-19).[45] The new creation’s endurance – free from death and despoliation – is analogous to the persistence of Yahweh’s servants, who will enjoy permanence of posterity (cf. 56:5).[46] This may ultimately reflect the incipient universalism in Abraham’s originating call (“seed”; cf. Gen 12:1-3).[47]

Jewish and Gentile pilgrims will engage in purified worship of the one, true God (v.23b: “…bow down before me…”).[48] The clause, “From one New Moon…” implies that it will also be perpetual (v.23a).[49] We may discern another contrastive link – anchored in the dual references to Sabbaths and New Moon festivals – between this uncorrupted activity and the religious formalism within the Judahite community (1:13ff).[50] The faithful worshipers are, of course, sharply distinguished from the corpses of the rebellious, which lie outside the city walls (v.24).[51] The Isaianic interchange of salvation and judgment thus reaches a climax in the final consignment of the obedient and the obstinate. Yahweh’s servants will exit Jerusalem to “observe the grim fate” of those who stubbornly persisted in their rebellion. Verse 24 implies that the corpses are exposed (hence, the worshipers being able to view them). Their lack of proper burial is a fitting testimony to their own shamefulness: indeed, such a state represented the ultimate indignity for a Jew.[52] The makeshift graveyard may have been inspired by the Hinnom Valley, located just south of Jerusalem; as a place of child sacrifice in OT times, it would have supplied a suitably gruesome image for the appalling destiny of the wicked.[53] That the author speaks of “their worm” and “their fire” only serves to underscore the responsibility the unrighteous have for their own judgment, which here continues into the eschaton.[54] Less clear is whether this can be taken as a picture of conscious, post-mortem anguish (as per later depictions of Hell). The punishment seems permanent, but the clear reference to “dead bodies” indicates literal death. Meanwhile, “worm” and “fire” signal the permanent state of dissolution and judgment, respectively (cf. 1:31)[55] – a terrible fate, and a sobering reminder of rebellion’s consequences.[56]

Conclusion

Isaiah 66:18-24 concludes the overarching trajectory of the book, weaving many of its themes together in a most astounding eschatological vision.[57] It remains now to uncover some of the passage’s primary hermeneutical implications. The passage’s deep-rooted universalism immediately springs to mind, which is of a piece with the NT’s insistence that the message of salvation through Christ is, in principle, for all (John 12:32). God’s children are so, not because of ethnic lineage, but because they are born of him (John 1:13; Acts 8:26-38). A narrow, ethno-centric cast of mind may have been scandalized by such texts. But the church is also guilty of trying to restrict the gospel’s reach, often on the basis of cultural and social mores masquerading as the fundamentals of orthodoxy. Isaiah 66:18-24 reminds us that the gospel stands as God’s promise to welcome “[every]one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34). The passage confirms what much of Isaiah has already indicated – namely, that the primary metric of membership within the covenant community is not ethnicity (or any external trait), but humility before his word (Isa 66:2). Of course, this is not the whole word, for the offer of salvation does not remain open in perpetuity; judgment is still a reality. Isaiah 66:18-24 strongly implies that actions have moral consequences, even beyond this present life. Apart from humble adoration before Yahweh, one can only expect wrath and loss.[58] Difficult though it may be, this, too, cannot be ignored.

[1] See the summative statement concerning Isa 66:18-24 in Joel S. Kaminsky and Anne Stewart, “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40-66”, HTR 99 (2006): 160. Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 542: “A succinct summary of the eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book…”

[2] Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT 40; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 193.

[3] See R. Reed Lessing, Concordia Commentary: Isaiah 56-66 (CC; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 29-30, for a brief survey of the various hypotheses that have been put forward. Lessing’s conclusion – that in many cases, such reconstructions illegitimately attempt to historicise what appears to be an eschatological text – is a wise one.

[4] See Michael J. Chan, “Isaiah 56-66 and the Genesis of Re-orienting Speech”, CBQ 72 (2010): 449-450, who says that some scholars date the pericope to the Persian period, subsequent to the building of the Second Temple. Chan acknowledges that the material in this entire section “eludes precision of dating or exactitude of allusion” (451).

[5] Anne E. Gardner, “The Nature of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Isaiah 66:22”, ABR 50 (2002): 15, n.18. This isn’t to disparage the view that certain elements in Isa 66:18-24 may have been inspired by historical events – merely to suggest that such occurrences do not exhaust the significance of the pericope.

[6] E.g., Childs, Isaiah, 444.

[7] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66 (NAC; Nasville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 65, 69, 519.

[8] William J. Dumbrell, “The Purpose of the Book of Isaiah”, TynB 36 (1985): 128.

[9] Pace Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 312, who argues there is no relationship between these passages whatsoever. Cf. Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 492.

[10] Smith (Isaiah 40-66, 521) argues that Isa 66:18-24 is part of a larger literary unit stretching back to 63:7. This is true, although it should also be noted that whilst 63:7-64:13 are a lament in the face of corruption and devastation, chapters 65-66 seem to constitute Yahweh’s response.

[11] I am using the term “Trito-Isaiah” in a purely heuristic sense.

[12] John N. Oswalt, “Judgment and Hope: The Full-orbed Gospel”, TrinJ 17 (1996): 197.

[13] See Edwin C. Webster, “A Rhetorical Study of Isaiah 66”, JSOT 11 (1986): 103.

[14] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 38.

[15] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 541; John Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 512.

[16] See Motyer, The Prophecy, 541. Conrad argues that the identity of those referred to in v.18 is especially hard to uncover if, as some maintain, the verse is unrelated to what precedes it. See Edgard W. Conrad, Reading Isaiah (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 92.

[17] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512. References to deeds and actions in those passages are all cast in a negative light.

[18] Oswalt, Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 687. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512.

[19] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513.

[20] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513. Whybray reasons that the reference to glory has a “restrictive and intensive sense” associated with the temple (cf. Ezek 11:22-23). See R.N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 289. Abernethy plausibly suggests that Yahweh’s glory should be seen in conjunction with the restoration of Zion (Isa 60). See Abernethy, The Book, 193-194.

[21] Jan L. Koole, Isaiah III: 56-66 (HCOT; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 522.

[22] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (OTL; London: SCM Press, 1976), 425.

[23] Oswalt, Isaiah, 687. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[24] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[25] E.g., Oswalt, Isaiah, 688-689, who argues there is nothing explicit in this passage about Gentiles experiencing judgment (but see 66:16 and “all flesh”). Moreover, the textual links between vv.15-17 and vv.18-19 favour the position I take. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 514.

[26] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 – Revised (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 940. Cf. Emmanuel Uchenna Dim, The Eschatological Implications of Isaiah 65 and 66 as the Conclusion to the Book of Isaiah (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), 176, 182. Cf. Willem A.M. Beuken, “Yhwh’s Sovereign Rule and His Adoration on Mount Zion: A Comparison of Poetic Visions in Isaiah 24-27, 52, and 66”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 105.

[27] Whybray Isaiah 40-66, 290; cf. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[28] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314; cf. Koole, Isaiah III, 520; Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[29] Dim, The Eschatological, 187. See also Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 626, 628.

[30] Oswalt, Isaiah, 692.

[31] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[32] Dim, The Eschatological, 186-187.

[33] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 542, who partly bases his argument on the assumption that “your brothers” and those being made priests and Levites (v.21) should be identified.

[34] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 516.

[35] See Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 628-629 for comparable practices of tribute levied before potentates in Mesopotamia.

[36] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 291.

[37] E.g., Jose Severino Croatto, “The ‘Nations’ in the Salvific Oracles of Isaiah”, VT 55 (2005): 157. Croatto also claims that the nations in 66:18-24 play a purely servile role (hence, his interpretation of v.21). This seems clearly to run against the grain of the text.

[38] Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism”, JSOT 13 (1998): 103, n.51; Oswalt, The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (London: James Clarke & Co., 2014), 104.

[39] See Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 520, who refers to a “suggestive sequence” of expansion in Isa 56-66, climaxing with the “globalization” of the priesthood in 66:21.

[40] Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 426. See, too, Mark T. Long, “The Inclusion of the Nations in Isaiah 40-66”, TE 44 (1991): 91; Gary Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey to Zion: Pilgrimage and Tribute as Metaphor in the Book of Isaiah”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 246.

[41] Dumbrell, “The Purpose”, 128; Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; cf. Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[42] On the universal implications of “all flesh”, see Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521. Cf. Childs, Isaiah, 542; Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 632; Koole, Isaiah III, 528; Kaminsky and Stewart, “God of All the World”, 160-161; Gardner, “The Nature”, 15, 26.

[43] Koole, Isaiah III, 526; Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 691.

[44] E.g., Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 527. Calvin argues that the reference to a renewed heavens and earth refers to the “inward renewal of man”. This represents an unwarranted spiritualisation of the text. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah – 33-66 (trans. William Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 437.

[45] Koole, Isaiah III, 526.

[46] Childs, Isaiah, 542; Dim, The Eschatological, 193.

[47] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543. See Gardner, “The Nature”, 26, and Isaianic references there to “seed” as a reference to the descendants of the patriarchs.

[48] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521.

[49] Calvin, Commentary, 437.

[50] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; Dim, The Eschatological, 195; Koole, Isaiah III, 528.

[51] Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 29.

[52] Dim, The Eschatological, 197.

[53] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 692.

[54] Childs, Isaiah, 542.

[55] Calvin, Commentary, 439, correctly judges “fire” to be a metaphor for judgment. Whether “worm” symbolizes a troubled conscience, as he contends, is less certain. For the connections between v.24 and Isa 1:29-31, see Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 744; cf. Oswalt, The Holy One, 70, n.41.

[56] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 524; Calvin, Commentary, 440; See also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 252. I regard Goldingay’s contention that the passage has nothing to do with individual eschatology (or cosmic eschatology) as somewhat reductive.

[57] Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey”, 244.

[58] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 525.

Asia Bibi and the British State: A Story of Courage and Cowardice

Certain events have the power to pierce the veil of banalities comprising modern culture. For some, it will be the revelation of gross corporate malfeasance. For others, it might be the death of yet another woman at the hands of an abusive partner. For me, the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman recently acquitted of blasphemy in that country, has deflected every other news item vying for my attention. Perhaps it’s because of the manifest, even searing, injustice of Asia’s plight. Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that the story presents itself as one of those rare instances where moral virtue and the purest savagery are so starkly apportioned – an archetypal struggle, in other words, between the forces of good and evil. What’s more, having been irrevocably shaped by the deeper principles at work in Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church – i.e., that we who are in Christ are not disparate individuals, but members of one, united body (1 Cor 12:1, 27) – I am drawn to accounts detailing the persecution of fellow Christians. Whatever the reasons, the case of Asia Bibi (not to mention her husband and five children) has clung to my mind, refusing to let go.

***

Although the facts of this case have become increasingly well-known, a brief recapitulation is not altogether inappropriate. In 2009, Asia – then living in a small village called Katanwala – became embroiled in a dispute with some neighbours over a drink of water. They refused to accept the communal cup Asia had used, citing concerns that she, a non-Muslim, had “defiled” it. In what appears to be a vestigial practice under the pre-partition caste system, Asia’s neighbours argued that they should have been given priority. The dispute escalated as others joined the fray; Asia’s daughter went to fetch her father, but by the time they returned, Asia had been hauled away. Within days, a charge of blasphemy had been issued against her. Asia was convicted by a Pakistani court the following year, and spent the next eight years on death row. During her protracted ordeal, former minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, were assassinated in separate incidents after they spoke out against the country’s blasphemy laws. One Muslim cleric even offered R500,000 – a sizeable sum of money in Pakistan – to anyone who would kill Asia.

Despite the unremitting attempts by fanatics to enact their murderous ideology, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently overturned the earlier ruling, citing a paucity of evidence that could substantiate a charge of blasphemy. In a moment of judicial sanity, then, both the original conviction and its accompanying penalty were effectively quashed (albeit on procedural, not principled, grounds). Whatever relief Asia may have felt, however, was fleeting; the verdict sparked waves of unrest, as angry protesters rejected the court’s decision and called vehemently for Asia’s death. This was enough for her lawyer to flee the country. Meanwhile, it appears that Asia and her family have gone into hiding, although it remains to be seen how long they can live without being exposed. The government of Pakistan, headed by former cricketer and lothario, Imran Khan, has struck a deal with one of the country’s main extremist pressure groups, consenting to a review of the court’s decision. Asia and her family are not permitted to leave the country, which has hampered efforts to find them sanctuary. It is no exaggeration to say that their lives are in grave and mortal danger. The desperation is almost palpable: even if the verdict of October 31st is upheld, there is every chance that these beleaguered Christians will fall victim to the barbarous throng now agitating for Asia’s murder. One need only catch a glimpse of such protestors, whether on television or in a newspaper, to realize that they are animated by a near-satanic enthusiasm for wanton violence.

Christian and other non-government advocacy groups have been doing what they can to provide aid and succour to the Bibi family. Needless to say, this has included attempts to arrange safe passage to a Western country that will provide them with permanent refuge. At the time of writing, however, their efforts have yielded very little; reports suggest that the family continues to dwell in a kind of legal twilight, where one’s existence takes on a vaporous, spectral quality. They have now slipped into a rather dangerous liminal zone, with the recent judicial verdict under renewed scrutiny, and an uncertain future confronting them. All the while, Asia, her husband, and their five children have bravely cleaved to the faith they have long confessed, suffering reproach because of their Lord. Their apparent refusal to renounce the name of Christ, even in the face of such undimmed hatred, should shame Western believers who all-too-easily settle for the spurious comforts with which modern culture beguiles and habituates. They are true disciples, having been hardened – purified – by a trial from which most of us would instinctively recoil. Asia and her family continue to persevere in the midst of such opposition, having imbibed the New Testament’s exhortation that believers fix their eyes on Jesus, who himself endured the shame of persecution in obedience to God (Heb 12:2-3).

The case of Asia Bibi hasn’t simply captured the attention of Christians, though. It has also resonated deeply with the non-religious, possessing as it does many of the features that naturally energise activists on all points of the political spectrum. Asia’s plight will excite those on the Left, who tend to sympathize with the asylum seeker and the often-tortuous ordeal he or she is forced to undergo. As for members of the Right, the case reinforces their general propensity towards reverence of Christianity (even if they do not subscribe to its tenets), and scepticism of Islam. It also neatly encapsulates the fundamental significance with which right-leaning observers tend to invest notions of individual liberty in thought and belief. At any rate, Asia’s ongoing trial – via the rancour of the mob, if not the courts – has had a unifying effect: all are agreed that she presents as a clear a case as one would want in a worthy, deserving claim for refuge. As conservative commentator, Douglas Murray, correctly notes, if ever there was a person who warranted asylum, then Asia Bibi certainly does. Only sheer, obstinate perversity could obscure this plain fact.

***

Unfortunately, sheer, obstinate perversity is exactly what at least one government has been practising in relation to Asia Bibi. Assessing the merits of her case, the UK government rather quickly decided that it would not grant her sanctuary. The reason? Asia apparently constituted a security risk. Such a conclusion seems unlikely, to say the least: how could a lone woman from a despised religious minority – one, moreover, whose founder preached and lived out an ethic of non-violence – constitute a threat to the security and integrity of the United Kingdom? Now that’s not entirely fair, and I hope one can detect the sardonic edge in what I have written. The UK government knows full-well that Asia Bibi isn’t a security risk per se. What worries officials, however, is the threat of civil disturbance from parts of the country’s Pakistani Muslim population if it were to offer Asia and her family asylum. It’s not that Asia herself is threatening to harm British citizens, or damage British government property; nor is she the bearer of an ideology designed to incite or promote violence. She merely happens to hold beliefs that some within the UK Muslim community deemed so abhorrent, they were apparently willing to engage in violent* demonstrations against her entry. In response, the government of the UK has thoroughly perverted the term “security concerns”, denuding it of all conventional meaning. It has then essentially applied that phrase – deployed now as a “weasel” term to avoid the demands of basic humanitarianism – to the innocent victim of the vilest kind of mass persecution. Meanwhile, the British co-religionists of those who are still braying for Asia’s death are all but ignored, so fearful are officials of offending their sensibilities. The shameful consequence is that a member of a persecuted minority group is being penalised for the unyielding intolerance of others.

This can only be described as an instance of supreme moral cowardice. One also can’t avoid the feeling that it marks yet another stage in the slow, sad dissolution of Western self-confidence. Acting in a thoroughly supine manner, the UK has effectively succumbed to Islamic extremists living within its own borders, allowing them to exercise an extortionary power over their decision-making processes. The government’s original error was in failing to administer a discriminating, finely-tuned immigration programme in the first place. Even a cursory glance at subsequent events clearly suggests that officials admitted many people whose commitment to the generative values of the West – values like religious tolerance, pluralism, the rights of women or minorities, and so on – was tenuous at best. But having committed the sin of imprudence, UK officials have now compounded it with the sin of moral weakness. Of course, they might well claim that in refusing asylum to Asia Bibi and her family, they have adopted a cautious, prudential approach to a delicate situation. They might also argue that denying sanctuary to an individual – even one who remains perched on the precipice of death – is justified, if that means avoiding the kind of rancorous civil discord that might occur as a consequence. One could be forgiven for thinking that the citation of security/prudential concerns now is somewhat too late; quite obviously, such concerns weren’t operative when UK government officials welcomed into the country thousands of adherents to a particularly virulent strain of Islamic supremacism. Moreover, there comes a point when caution or reserve becomes capitulation – one that the government of the United Kingdom has not only reached, but well and truly crossed.

A second, deeper question presents itself. One might ask precisely what, beyond basic civil order, the government thinks it’s preserving. After all, if a Western state allows any part of its governance to be determined by forces inimical to its own values and norms, then it has already ceded the moral high-ground. For the government of the United Kingdom to refuse entry to Asia Bibi and her family on the basis of what some members of the Pakistani Muslim community might do in response represents a hollowing out of Western norms. The UK government has singularly failed to defend those virtues that have made Britain (along with just about every Western country that exists) such a vibrant, open, and intellectually liberating place – one, moreover, that remains eminently attractive to migrants from all parts of the globe. In surrendering to the moral blackmail of Islamic extremists and their fellow-travellers, government officials have abandoned their fundamental mandate to maintain, not merely the physical boundaries that constitute the United Kingdom, but the unseen lineaments marking out a civilized society. True, they do not bear this burden alone; all British citizens are theoretically charged with the responsibility of enacting and transmitting that heritage. And it should be remembered that the fruits of Western culture aren’t ultimately rooted in the state. But as they control the levers of power – and with it, the entire panoply of laws and regulations that help safeguard that which has already been achieved – government officials can play a special role in either the maintenance or the dismantling of that culture. With this latest move, the UK government has signalled its unwillingness to defend the principles that birthed and nurtured it. Indeed, it has allowed fanaticism to supplant openness, and the dictates of religious bigotry to suppress a spirit of hospitality. If the government of the United Kingdom is so demoralized that it refuses to grant asylum to a single Christian woman – yielding instead to those whose antipathy towards Western values appears boundless – what, then, does it have left? What is it trying to defend, if not those principles and the particular way of life that stems from them? All told, its actions are as self-defeating as they are craven.

***

In the title of this essay, I referred to courage and cowardice. By now, it’s probably obvious that I was referring to Asia Bibi and the UK government, respectively. It almost seems platitudinous to say that Asia has demonstrated immense courage: first, by retaining her faith whilst on death row for eight years; and second, by continuing to confess that same faith, even when confronted with massed rallies calling for her execution. She embarrasses every Christian (including this one) who struggles to eke out a few, gospel-tinged words in conversation, when the only consequences they have to worry about are quizzical looks or polite rejection. But Asia also embarrasses governments like that of the United Kingdom. Those who denied her appeals for asylum have exposed the hollowness of their stated convictions. Yes, it’s true that this grim state of affairs has many fathers: an unfiltered migration system, say, or the growing “Islamification” of certain sections of British society.** None of that can, or should, be ignored. However, primary responsibility still lies with the country’s political elites, one which they have swiftly abdicated. With their protective services, expensive suits and anodyne words, such officials have proven incapable of emulating the kind of fortitude a poor, illiterate Christian woman has repeatedly summoned for the past eight years. The political class has, once again, abjectly failed to embody the values on which it purports to stand. Is it any wonder, then, that across the Western world its members are rapidly losing the trust of those they represent?

I do not want to end things on such a condemnatory note, however. Let us remember that at the heart of this drama lies a Christian and her family, all of whom are suffering for their faith. They urgently need our prayers, our advocacy, and our support. If this essay does nothing else but encourage even one person to act on behalf of Asia Bibi, then my ultimate goal will have been achieved.

*If anyone believes I am making an unwarranted assumption by labelling the predicted demonstrations as “violent”, just remember that the UK government has been so concerned about their occurrence they’ve refused to provide refuge to Asia Bibi and her family. I doubt that anyone seriously expected them to resemble the marches from Selma to Montgomery.

**This is not — I repeat, not — to say that all Muslims present a problem to a stable and peaceful society. Most are law-abiding citizens, interested primarily in forging a more prosperous life for themselves and their families. Furthermore, a number of prominent British Muslim leaders have called on their government to grant asylum to Asia Bibi. This is laudable and needs to be noted. Nevertheless, there appears to exist within the Islamic tradition intellectual and theological resources that foster, legitimise or otherwise sanction violent or intolerant practices. This, combined with the UK’s rather lax immigration system, seems to have led to a raft of issues — of which the present refusal to provide Asia and her family with refuge is just one.

UPDATE: Spiked editor, Brendan O’Neill, has an interesting column on the whole saga. As he and others have pointed out, it appears that it was Theresa May, acting on the advice of officials, who blocked Asia Bibi’s asylum application. O’Neill makes the obvious (though necessary) point that it truly is a scandal: not only did May abandon a persecuted woman to an uncertain fate, she also abandoned core principles underlying Western culture. O’Neill also observes — correctly, in my view — that even if admitting Asia into the country was likely to incite rioting (a sad eventuality that raises urgent questions regarding the composition of the UK’s immigration programme), this was no reason to block her application. After all, acting on principle sometimes entails risk (something I should have emphasised more clearly). If the government of the UK hasn’t actually forsaken its principles, then it’s giving a very good impression of having done just that.

True Religion According to Isaiah 58

Note to non-Ridley College readers: I have produced this piece as part of an exercise for my study of the book of Isaiah. The intention is to try and contextualize a portion of that book for a particular audience, drawing out the passage’s significance for people today. After posting their work, students taking the subject have to examine and comment on their classmates’ efforts.

This is a blog post-cum-article, such as you might find in an online publication like The Gospel Coalition, or a print publication like The Melbourne Anglican.

***

I didn’t agree on all that much with the late biblical scholar, Marcus Borg. His Jesus seemed more like a 1960s radical than a first-century Palestinian Jew; his doctrine of Scripture was a little too low for my taste (Borg probably would have said that the Bible is the product of various communities that were confronted by the ineffable power of the numinous); and his understanding of biblical politics – such as they are – bore an uncanny resemblance to modern-day progressivism.

But one area in which I found Borg to be quite insightful was his insistence on the deep, abiding connection between one’s relationship with God (or “the holy”, as Borg might have termed it) and a commitment to justice in the world. For him, the two went hand-in-hand; anything less was a betrayal of true religion. Reading Marcus Borg at this point was to be reminded afresh of a fundamental truth that had become lost amidst hurly-burly of everyday life.

***

Isaiah 58:1-14 perfectly distils this theme, one that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the space of a few verses, the prophet denounces a narrow, restrictive kind of religion, concerned mainly with empty ritual and ceremony. In its stead, he places a full-bodied spirituality front-and-centre, one that is focused on both God and neighbour – a religion that is both “vertical” (in relation to the Creator) and “horizontal” (in relation to one’s fellow image-bearers).

For Isaiah, labouring for justice is not an adjunct or an add-on; rather, it is a manifestation of true religion. In response to the complaints of God’s people – who petulantly ask why they have bothered fasting and humbling themselves, for no apparent gain (v.3) – the prophet exposes their hypocrisy. They might have prided themselves on their holiness, but as the succeeding verses demonstrate, their vaunted religiosity was hollow, a sham. Their fasts ended in conflict (v.4), whilst the fleeting moments they gave to God (v.5a) paled into insignificance next to the large swathes of time spent living for themselves and ignoring the plight of the poor (vv.6-7). I like the way Paul Hanson, an OT scholar, summed up the predicament of Israel at this time:

“[They were a] community where those who regarded themselves as the most religious had converted religion into private acts of study and ritual, thereby leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the dominion of ruthless, self-serving exploitation”.

Quite so. The Israelites of Isaiah 58 had allowed a corrupt form of their religion to colonize the far loftier requirements of devotion to Yahweh, confining their obligations to discrete acts of piety. Meanwhile, those weightier matters of justice and liberation were forgotten about, left to wither away like the poor wanderers among them.

What God commands for his people in Isaiah 58 is a “fast” that conforms to, and reveals, his deeper intentions for those who call themselves his disciples. It is a “fast” from injustice, oppression and exploitation, and studied neglect of the downtrodden. It is, indeed, a “fast” that aims to satisfy the painful longings of the empty and broken. If the people do these things, Isaiah says, their light will break forth like the noonday sun (vv.8-10), and God shall truly be their delight. They will, in other words, reveal the light (=truth) of God (cf. 2:5), all the while being genuinely reconciled to their Creator and King.

***

This isn’t simply an OT concern – part of that dreaded law that Christians can now do away with. Jesus and the writers of the NT (most of whom were Jews) were deeply committed to the ongoing relevance of the OT Scriptures for the spiritual and moral formation of disciples in the early church. Indeed, the NT is suffused with this ethos, for both it and its predecessor are grounded in the fundamental belief that every single person is a precious image-bearing being, deserving of justice and respite from exploitation.

Examples are too numerous to list, but a few will make things clear. Just think about the way Jesus excoriates the “selective righteousness” of the religious leaders, who assiduously tithe their spices, but neglect the foundational matters of justice and compassion (Luke 11:42). Or what about his announcement in Luke 4:16-21, where he quotes from Isaiah 61, proclaiming himself to be the fulfilment of the anointed one, who would liberate the captives and loose the chains of injustice? In what could be seen as a programmatic statement, Jesus stands in the synagogue, and describes his mission as one marked by the coming of deliverance in a great act of Jubilee. And let’s not forget a NT writer like James, who says in 1:27 that one of the characteristics of “pure religion” is to look after orphans and widows (read: the vulnerable and weak). If one is to be a genuine worshiper of God, devotion to those who have fallen prey to the harsh vagaries of this world is non-negotiable.

For Christians, then, the values and principles enshrined in a passage like Isaiah 58 aren’t irrelevant, or a part of some by-gone era superseded by the coming of grace; they are part of the warp and woof of holy living, now fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. The “light” of Isaiah 58, which he said would dawn with renewed commitment to justice, is seen in Jesus’ light, which pushes back the darkness (John 8:12). But it’s also not dissimilar to the light that Jesus’ disciples are meant to shine, by which they reveal in their good works the greatness and holiness of God (Matt 5:16).

***

The words of Isaiah 58 are bracing indeed. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone reading this is guilty of exploiting the poor, or of actively perpetuating oppression. But we need to take these words, echoed in the voices of Jesus and the first disciples, with a great deal of gravity. Moreover, we need to allow the God who inspired this passage then to use it now – searching our hearts for signs that we, too, may have slipped into conventional, narrow, or formal religion. I know that as I read these verses, I stand exposed as someone who all too easily falls into the trap of empty ceremony – thinking that my church attendance, for example, or my Bible reading is enough. And I cannot help but recognize that like the Israelites of this text, I am also guilty of “turning away” from other human beings (Isa 58:7c), of shutting my eyes to the misery and the brokenness around me. We may not be responsible for another’s exploitation; but how often do we ignore the plight of that person, or determine to remain uninformed about the travails of the oppressed?

How does one respond? It’s true that we live in a culture of self-interest, marked by materialism and a spirit of acquisitiveness. Such is the culture’s strength that it can be difficult to fully embrace the vision of Isaiah 58. But there is hope. Although each of us may have fallen short of these ideals, let us also remember that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine. He is more than capable of re-making us; indeed, that is the whole point of being welcomed into his redeemed community. Moreover, he knows we are dust and ashes, and prone to following that which is merely convenient or comfortable. His grace is all-abounding, and is more than sufficient to forgive us our failings, and equip us for a life spent in service of others.

This is God’s promise. But what else should we do to live as people who manifest the spirit of Isaiah 58? Well, it is important to remain consistent in prayer. It’s unlikely God will change us without some openness on our behalf. Prayer avails much, and if we think we are lacking when it comes to a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, then it’s incumbent upon us to petition God for transformation. He will do much for us – and within us – but that comes with a receptive heart, made all the more so through prayer. Next, we might think about our posture: how do we position ourselves in this world? Do we open ourselves up to opportunities to assist and support those who broken or downtrodden? Or do we confine ourselves to acts of devotion and piety that allow us to remain walled-off from the discord around us? Along with prayer, then, a re-orientation of our goals, attitudes and way of life may well be necessary. It requires a conscious, intentional change – at least at some level – of one’s habits and daily rhythm. Such a posture means being alive to the possibility that God might use us in even the mundane moments of life. It entails deliberation about how we can reach out beyond the merely conventional or socially acceptable to those who are suffering. I think we’d be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves, right before our eyes.

Finally, there are practices, which are closely allied to our basic stance towards the broken. I’m not suggesting that we all need to abandon our current lives, move to a developing nation, and minister to people living in a slum. Practicing justice and loving-kindness could be as simple as reaching out to a neighbour you know facing financial hardship; or befriending someone at church who (as it were) comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or writing letters to your local MP on a raft of justice issues (asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island, abortion, or what have you). These are but a few examples.

We all face the cacophony of modern-day life, and we may often be distracted by all it has to offer. However, even in the midst such a dazzling array of amusements and consumer delights, there exist opportunities – even in the most “ordinary” of circumstances – to put the ethos of Isaiah 58 into action. In that way, we shall show ourselves to be God’s true people, following in the footsteps of his Son.

***

One final point before rounding off. I have focused mainly on what Isaiah 58 says about one’s commitment to justice. But remember what I said in reference to Marcus Borg: he talked of the indivisible bond between that commitment and devotion to God. If it’s easy to restrict one’s piety so that it has absolutely no effect on the world around us, then it’s also easy to think that social concern and a thirst for justice are enough. However, Isaiah 58 doesn’t promote a secular political programme. Rather (and as Marcus Borg recognised), it offers a distillation of the two halves of true religion, both of which are necessary for it to remain genuine. Here, I cannot help but end with another quote from Paul Hanson:

“Acts of loving kindness toward the neighbour do not exhaust the life of faith. They culminate in worship. The life of compassionate justice comes to its most sublime expression in the delight one finds in the Lord (v.14)…Isaiah 58 states God’s will with a clarity that wins the assent of all that is true within us…[evoking] our deepest sense of joy with the invitation to delight in the Lord through worship purified by loving-kindness”.

Amen.