I've always found the insights of the prophet Isaiah alarmingly contemporary. One of the most striking is the outburst that we read in Isaiah 58. People don't always see it that way, of course. Frequently, the chapter is raided for reassurance. Doesn't verse 11 promise us, for example, that the Lord will guide us continually and satisfy our needs in parched places, and make us strong? Doesn't it assure us that we shall be like springs whose waters never fail? Well, yes, but only after some very straight talk about utter neglect of responsibilities and the dire need to mend our ways.
The context of Isaiah 58 is clear enough. The people of God are very sure that they are doing all the right things before God. They are caught up in prayer and worship, they call on God to give judgments (probably on the "unrighteous"), and they profess their delight in knowing God's ways. They even go through rituals of self-denial so that their religious zeal cannot be in any doubt. But then it dawns on them with some surprise that God doesn't seem to be giving the right response. They ask, "Why do we fast, but you don't see? Why humble ourselves but you don't notice?" (58:3). God's response through Isaiah must have come as a bit of a shock, as it would to many of us Christians today: "Is that what you call a fast—serving your own interests, quarrelling, and oppressing all your workers?" (58:3-4, paraphrase).
The passage points to two fundamentally different ways of seeing our calling before God. One is that often reflected in our religious subcultures: fights about purity of doctrine, nitpicking about worship, internal disputes, and moral crusades against the ungodly. This is precisely the attitude of Isaiah's hearers, who thought they were models of obedience. The other way is reflected in God's response: that God's people need to be fervent about justice, compassionate to the needy, and committed to nonexploitative relationships. And real obedience is serving those who are broken. For Isaiah, therefore, a key ingredient of our calling is to "loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free" (58:6). This is God's idea of a "fast."
It is the juxtaposition of religious correctness and collusion with exploitation that Isaiah rails against. The fact that the believers are oblivious to the problem is no excuse. It simply illustrates how easy it is to live with self-delusion, to believe that we are custodians of God's truth—expositors of God's revelation—even though we are missing the very heart of it. Even worse, we can allow our ignorance to cloak the fact that we are ourselves oppressors of the vulnerable and complicit in acts of gross injustice.
In Isaiah's time it was easy to identify those who were being oppressed. They were the hungry, the ragged, and the homeless who existed in the same communities where the people of God lived with abundance. They were the workers that the pious worshippers treated badly without even thinking about it. They were the same people that James shouted about when he warns the rich oppressor that the unpaid wages of the laborers who mowed their fields cry out, and "the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts!" (James 5:1-6).
Today, the oppressed are not necessarily visible within our local affluent communities. They are more likely to be hidden away, on the edge of our cities, in slums or shanty towns, with many more living in poor remote villages all over the global South. Yet we are as much involved in their lives today as Isaiah's hearers were in the lives of the poor in their communities. And we are as much responsible for their oppression and exploitation. We may disregard the poor today with the same indifference shown by Isaiah's hearers, but our lives are still deeply interwoven with their own. We eat their products, we buy their goods, we enjoy their resources, we profit from their labor. We, in our wealthy societies, reap the benefits of trading with the global poor. The tragedy is that it often does not trouble us that we also contribute to their poverty. For the trading patterns that ensure that we can enjoy our goods cheap and live with luxury are the same patterns that ensure that those who produce these goods may be barely making a living.
Our world today. We know the figures for global poverty well enough. Of the 6.2 billion people living on the planet today, 1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day. And 2.3 billion live on less than $2 a day. These stark facts alert us to the level of poverty that exists in our world. But they don't reveal its complexity. For poverty is not measurable purely in financial terms. It has multiple features: hunger, malnutrition, high infant and maternal mortality rates, and low access to fresh water, health, education, information, transport, and financial services. It also includes illiteracy, indebtedness, exposure to disease and epidemics, vulnerability to climate change, and a whole range of exclusions and experiences of powerlessness.
The paradox is that since the 1990s, in the decade of the greatest increase of wealth for the richest nations, the poorest nations have received less and paid more. How did this come about? The Make Poverty History campaign (a coalition of charities, development organizations, religious groups, trade unions, and individuals formed in the U.K. in 2005) highlighted three issues that contributed to the deteriorating situation. It asked the G8 to address the questions of more and better aid, the release of debt, and trade justice. On the first two, considerable progress has been made. On the issue of fair trading, we seem to be no further forward.
Trade injustice is the clearest parallel in our 21st century to the concerns that Isaiah identified. For it is in our unfair trading practices between rich and poor nations today that we exploit and oppress others. So many factors built into the very process of trade contribute to this situation.
Along with unfair trade agreements, technology costs and wages play a crucial part in maintaining the burden of poverty. Technological dependence has often been built into exports, which has required poor countries to pay high prices for components and (later) purchases. Workers in poor countries can find their wages pushed to a minimum by Western importers who make their profit in the West and cut costs everywhere else. Western imports even can be controlled through rules and quality requirements that are so complicated that they can only be understood and operated by those who impose them. In every instance, societies that are already struggling to make a living find themselves on the wrong end of a bargaining process.
Much of the trading with the global South is done by multinationals, which also contributes to the problem. For example, monopolies can be established so that profits from manufacturing or harvesting raw products in poor countries is maximized without competition. Multinationals often bargain for exemption from taxes when they manufacture in poor countries; they can also manipulate internal transfer prices so their profits count at home rather than be taxed in the countries that need that tax revenue most. If this were not enough expression of power, they can also keep countries poor by dominating the market and damping other development or initiatives.
The biblical call to justice. In Isaiah's prophecy God was holding the people responsible for the consequence of their actions, even though they seemed oblivious of its effects on the poor. Whether they acknowledged it or not, they were guilty of injustice. In our complex world, injustice to the poor has become structured into the way we trade, consume, and live. And whether we acknowledge it or not, whenever we buy something that has not been traded fairly, we also are guilty of injustice. The call to us is no less urgent than the call to the people in Isaiah's day.
What we need to recover, as Christians, is a biblical concept of justice that does not deteriorate into remote abstraction, and that is bigger than mere impartiality. In his book Jesus and Politics, Alan Storkey (my husband) suggests that we need "Jesus' emphasis on 'loving justice,' marked by compassion, mercy, and powerful commitment for others. This is not justice addressing wrongs abstractly, blind to the people involved, but outgoing justice for them." Loving justice is what Jesus teaches in his parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20 and in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Loving justice is what the prophet Zechariah calls for when he tells us "do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor" (Zechariah 7:10). Loving justice is what reveals to us how deeply our own culture is indicted by its complacency and self-interested indifference toward the struggles of those whose work we use.
We don't know whether Isaiah's words had sufficient impact on the people of his day. But unless similar words have impact on the people of our day, gross injustices will continue to dominate the trading patterns of the world. We urgently need the loving justice of Jesus to reveal to us our own responsibilities and give us the commitment necessary to challenge and change the global oppression and exploitation of the poor.
Elaine Storkey was president of Tearfund, a U.K.-based Christian international relief and development organization when this article appeared. She was also a senior research fellow at Oxford University, broadcaster, columnist for The Independent newspaper, and author of several books.