A Message Inspired by Isaiah 49: 1-7
Two weeks ago, my daughter’s sixth grade class began playing the World Peace Game. I had never heard of nor experienced this game myself, but the number of emails sent to parents prior to the Game’s beginning led me to believe this Game was either going to be the best thing that ever happened to me as a parent or the worst thing that has ever happened to me as a parent.
The emails leading up to the Game’s beginning encouraged parents to give their child space to work through their emotions, to refrain from intervening when their child expressed anxiety, to expect frustration and possible tears, and to nevertheless trust in the process of the Game. Suggestions to parents by the teachers regarding what parents could do to support their children while participating in the Game included asking questions, listening intently and, I suppose in the case that the two former suggestions failed, baking the distressed child chocolate chip cookies.
Not knowing anything about this World Peace Game I imagined that it must be a spinoff edition of Hunger Games, perhaps a special Middle School version. Kids running around high on their first taste of political power starting wars in the art room, making deals with big business in the gymnasium and ruthlessly conquering surrounding countries when the time to actually play the Game arrived. Based on this self-created information, when I was able to offer my daughter some practical advice for her participation in the Game.
An example of my generous and unsolicited advice included a clever recommendation to avoid a scenario where her country’s economy found itself dependent on oil. I suggested, perhaps, she achieve oil independence by thinking through the future probability of creating and exporting alternative energy sources in light of their homegrown natural and human resources. In addition, I suggested she think through what she envisioned her countries values being and suggested that she may very well have to choose between winning the game or making decisions true to these values. Maybe, I said, winning the Game won’t align with actually winning when winning is defined by leading your country to make value-based decisions with integrity.
I believe there is still an argument to be made that the above advice was indeed genius, in spite of the fact that I had no understanding of how the game was actually played, and that coincidentally all of the advice I offered was completely irrelevant. The main misunderstanding was, and again I think this is why parents are probably encouraged to read all the way through to the end when a teacher sends an email, that the Game was not won by only one participating country. The Game was won if every country won during the two weeks the Game was played in the classroom.
To win the Game, I learned, none of the countries could lose. If any of the countries lost, nobody won the Game. This did not seem like helpful training for a future in American diplomacy. The world, our Western world anyway, identifies winners precisely by the presence of losers. Winning is not possible for everyone because it requires the loss of another’s status, achievement, purpose, life …an involuntary sacrifice of some sort made by an opposing party in order to award the winner with their title. Winning is about dominating, controlling, accumulating, colonializing. Winning is about power. Winning is not about process.
For the past three weeks, each Saturday at The Land a scripture passage has been laid out before us, functioning as a red carpet to the entry point of a new way of being in the world. These Servant Songs patched together in Isaiah that we have been walking on inch us ever closer to participation in a new process that redefines the concept of winning. Reframed in Isaiah, winning requires not the creation of losers, but the extinction of losers altogether. Juliana Claassens, a Professor of Old Testament at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, writes, “Whether directed at an individual human agent who is called to a life of service, or at the fragmented exilic community who is given a newfound goal in life to care for others near and far, this call to service is not to be taken for granted.”
This call is not, however, a Game replayed in a manner through which more can experience the elitism of acceptance, or privilege, or material extravagance. The Suffering Servant imagery in Isaiah is a redirection to participate in a totally new Game with completely new rules for an utterly alternative purpose. Claassaens continues, explaining further that, “These words of Deutero-Isaiah were directed at a people who have been scattered to the ends of the earth themselves. They have been greatly traumatized by the unbridled display of imperial power when the mighty Babylonian army destroyed their homes and holy place, and forcefully removed thousands of people from their city, taking them into chains to Babylon…This text assumes the reality of the exiles being displaced and scattered in the diaspora, and provides them with a new purpose in life, looking beyond their own self-interest and seeing their role as being of service to the many foreigners who crossed their paths on a daily basis.”
It is this new purpose extended to us today in the package and possibility of community; a form of sobriety in a contemporary culture fluent in extreme individualism. Separated by walls of technological distractions, indoctrinated into the false narrative of infinite progress, the contemporary commitment to community, in any form, is a commitment to a spiritual recovery from the illusion that this world is divided into winners and losers. To reject the falsity that the point of the Game is individual categorization and to embrace the reality that the purpose of the Game, of our lives, is the contribution to a fluid communal sustainability inclusive of the whole of Creation.
This reclaiming of the concept of winning is not an ethereal utopian fairy tale offered as a means to challenge our intellectual capacity to critique hope into hopelessness. This reclaiming of the concept of winning is a Truth to be publicly practiced each day in the presence of others; a tangible ritual of serving others because we understand in doing so, we likewise serve ourselves. We surrender to the burden and beauty that we are bound to one another in community, whether we choose to participate or not. No one can lose if everyone is to win.
“There have been a lot of peace treaties,” Fiona reported as I drove her to school on the last day in the two-week long World Peace Game.
“Yeah, how were the Press Releases?” I asked, “I know you were worried about those.”
“Oh, they weren’t a big deal. None of my soldiers died. We didn’t have to go to war. None of the countries tried to solve a crisis by going to war.”
“It sounds like you’re going to win,” I said.
“Maybe…we have a lot to still get solved.”
Whatever our placement in the process of winning might be, the model of Isaiah’s Servant is a reminder that there will always be more problems to solve, more people to be included, more peace treaties to be written. The challenge is rewriting the rule book in favor of the whole while remaining attentive to, and welcoming of, the presence of the individual.
May this week bless each of us with opportunities to live into a new purpose; moments to raise another up or to lower ourselves down. May this week be an invitation to reimagine a new wisdom of winning; glimpses of a world where there are no losers and still, everyone is winning.