Is Our Worship Meaningless?

By Rev Elizabeth Raine
Isaiah 1:11-18 

Why do you make sacrifices to me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to me. They weary me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide my eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will s hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before my eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

“I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.” These are threatening words from Isaiah. Whenever I read them, they make me uncomfortable, because I find the ritual of worship and the Christian calendar of seasons and feasts very meaningful. I understand and appreciate the Christian tradition, how it marks the year into times of pilgrimage, penitence, remembering and rejoicing. It encourages us to pursue spiritual transformation on our faith journeys. Our Sunday worship is hallowed by centuries of practice by faithful people.

While we no longer offer animal sacrifices, preferring to offer prayers instead, Isaiah still has a point. Because our hands are still bloody with structural wrongdoing – and I say structural because Isaiah’s problem is communal worship and lack of action, not individual in this passage. God would not pleased by worship that begins and ends with Sunday, because if we aren’t also pursuing justice as a community of faith, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that attending church means we have fulfilled all righteousness as Christians even if our world is unjust, and war and famine and discrimination and the consequences of climate change rage around us.

I have always loved liturgy. As a minister, it is part of my work to structure it and create content in such a way that it hopefully connects spiritually with people. Through the Christian sacraments and rites of passage, and the ancient texts of the bible, the hope is we will develop a meaningful relationship with God. But when I read Isaiah’s words, I have a sneaking suspicion that he is right. Too often faith begins and ends with Sunday worship

Isaiah was a prophet, and it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power.  In many ways, the prophets were the conscience of the kings and the rulers. Here, Isaiah is saying don’t think you can rely on the idea that performing the right sacrifice makes you good with God. Observing the festivals doesn’t make you a faithful person.  God is demanding more than that. God is demanding justice and right behaviour as a flow on from religious practice. If you aren’t acting justly, says God, then it doesn’t matter at all whether you’re doing the right sacrifices at the right time, or saying the right prayers at the right feasts or singing the right psalms. It isn’t going to cut the mustard.

No doubt this statement from Isaiah brought him into conflict with the priests, whose job it was to oversee the sacrifices and rituals. I can’t imagine they would be pleased with these words at all. Ancient Jewish priests formed part of the ruling class that oversaw not only the Temple, but the law and how it functioned in society. Isaiah’s statement is making it pretty clear he saw the priests as part of the structural problem of injustice.

We have neither priests doing sacrifices or official prophets in our world today. But the words of Isaiah still resonate. What exactly do our rituals mean today? How do we hear and practice God’s call for justice?

For me, Isaiah’s furious words have a lot to say to us. There are many examples of structural injustice in our world today. One that seems to becoming more obvious and more frightening is that of structural racism.

How many of you watched the recent documentary about Adam Goodes, The Final Quarter? Ian Darling’s documentary follows AFL legend and 2014 Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, who spent the last three years of his career being booed by the public and demonised by the right wing media. I am suggesting that it was because Adam was a proud Aboriginal man.

Adam Goodes was born in South Australia, to Lisa May and Graham Goodes, His father is of British ancestry; his mother is an Indigenous Australian (Adnyamathanha and Narungga) and is one of the Stolen Generation.

Goodes’ parents were separated when he was four; his father moved to Queensland while Goodes moved between South Australia and Victoria with his mother. It is probably safe to say that Adam Goodes, though his mother, knew the trauma and racism of the aboriginal people through policies that led to children being taken, and the barring of Aboriginal people from participating in social and civic life.

It is estimated that between 1883 and 1969 more than 6,200 Aboriginal children were stolen in NSW alone. Australia-wide numbers are in the tens of thousands. This had profound effects on individuals and families, causing intergenerational trauma and a myriad of social and health problems.

The Last Quarter is a powerful film that holds a mirror to Australia and suggests we reconsider what happened on and off the football field.

In one review, it was said that The Final Quarter is “a painful reminder of the racism beating at the heart of Australia”. Goodes became a lightning rod for an intense public debate and widespread media commentary that divided the country. In the last three years of his career, during which Goodes was named Australian of the Year, he was accused of staging for free kicks, picking on a teenage girl who called him an ape, incessantly booed, and heavily criticised for performing an on-field war dance celebration after a goal. When the football crowds continued to turn on him, the Brownlow medallist left his beloved game.

John and I watched The Final Quarter on Peter Fitzsimmons’ recommendation. I had never understood until now just how bad things were for Adam Goodes. It was clear that Goodes’ words and actions simply did not match up with the way many conservative pundits and sports commentators displayed them. He was calm, gracious and sensible under fire.

The most telling comment came from a panel member of The Drum. He pointed out that we are fine with Aboriginal players as long as they play by the unspoken white rules and don’t rock the boat. Adam Goodes simply refused to do that, calling out racism and acting like a man proud of his culture.

We live in a nation marred by systemic racism and injustice. Mainstream racism is on the rise in Australia right now. And the statistics bear this out.

A new report suggests Aboriginal people are facing enormous pressure to lose their traditional culture in order to be successful in Australia. Many Aboriginal people feel they are not wanted by white Australia.

Over 90 per cent said Aboriginal people were talked to like they did not matter and were judged by stereotypes.

Many respondents said they did not feel comfortable going out in public, to restaurants, or to shopping centres because they were scared of being stared at and treated differently.

Only 16 per cent thought non-Indigenous Australians tried to understand Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal people also found the criminal justice system and Australia’s political system to be deeply racist because neither acknowledged Aboriginal traditions or lore.

In 2016, the unemployment rate for Indigenous people of working age was 18.4 per cent, 2.7 times the non-Indigenous unemployment rate (6.8 per cent).

Aboriginal suicide rate is six time higher than the rest of Australia.

As of 30 June 2018:

There were 11,849 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (27%) of the total Australian prisoner population, yet they are only  constitute 2% of the Australian population aged 18 years and over.

Aboriginal people are much more likely to be questioned by police… When questioned they are more likely to be arrested rather than proceeded against by summons. If they are arrested, Aboriginal people are much more likely to be remanded in custody than given bail. Aboriginal people are much more likely to plead guilty than go to trial,
 and if they go to trial, they are much more likely to be convicted… they are much more likely to be imprisoned… and at the end of their term of imprisonment they are much less likely to get parole.

Unpaid fines, swearing or shouting in public are offenses a white person is very unlikely to be charged with, let alone jailed for. Dr Brian Steels, restorative justice researcher at Murdoch University said that “In all my years of research in criminal justice, I can tell you it would be very difficult to find a white person charged with shouting or swearing”.

The system is patently unfair and cannot be understood in any other way except racist.

Australia is never going to achieve reconciliation or justice for Aboriginal people until it comes to terms with its history. Not only was the land of the first peoples taken from them and colonised, they were killed in enormous numbers. The Killing Times, a Guardian special report using stories told by descendants on all sides, attempted to count the human cost of more than a century of frontier bloodshed.

Two historians, Raymond Evans and Robert Ørsted-Jensen, have concluded that in Queensland alone – the epicentre of frontier war in the mid-19th century Australia – at least 65,180 Aboriginal Australians were killed from the 1820s until the early 1900s. Considering that their research focuses on Queensland alone, their findings come with the disturbing implication about the number of Indigenous Australians killed continent-wide is very high.

The written records where we have them, are chilling, as described in this letter from a Gippsland squatter, Henry Meyrick, to his family in England in 1846:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging.

The truth of Australia’s history has long been hiding in plain sight. White Australia has the blood on our hands that Isaiah accuses us of.

While it is true that there is no place on this earth where perfect justice prevails, or where racism and prejudice are unknown, this is no excuse for Australians to stick their heads in the sand. The situation isn’t going to get better unless we do something about it.

White people are not as likely to be searched, or mistreated by the police. Through no merit of their own, white people are likely to be treated better than their non-white friends. No one will glare at them or follow them around in department stores, assuming automatically that they are there to shoplift.

Isaiah talked about systemic, endemic, structural communal wrongs, when he ordered people to “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow, the implication being that these things were not happening despite the religious practice of the people.

There is still a systemic racism endemic to our own time. where dark-skinned people are persistently suspected, mistreated, disenfranchised, incarcerated, and even killed.

Isaiah calls us to turn from evil and do good, and as part of our faith, to seek justice, not only for people who look like us or sound like us, but for all people; for everyone created in the image of God. This includes refugees, whose appalling treatment by the Australian government flies in the face of all religious teaching,

Isaiah demands that we create justice for those in need. If we don’t, then what does it matter how meaningful our worship is? If we fail to live by Christianity’s powerful ethical and moral teachings, then we deserve Isaiah’s condemnation.

If we don’t work to change the systemic racism endemic to Australia, then we are no better than those who were making their sacrifices but didn’t worry about the poor being cheated, or about people in power using that power to disenfranchise and oppress others.

It’s our mission to work toward a future in which racism and prejudice are eradicated: not just at an individual level, but on a societal and systemic level.

It’s our responsibility as Christians to make a better world, one that is more just for us and for our children, because we are all God’s children.

It’s our calling as disciples to recognise our worship is meaningless unless it compels us out into the world to take action.

I want to end with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who once described racism as humanity’s gravest threat to humanity and as the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason. In a statement that reflects Isaiah, he says:

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendors of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.

May we find the strength and the compassion to challenge what is unjust and to change what is not right. Amen.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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