Most religions deal with the universal themes of sin. confession, atonement and forgiveness. In our very individual and psychology oriented society the importance of these themes are easy to communicate and understand. Most people also appreciate that some kind of personal growth can arise out of personal suffering, and even out of victimization. However, very few people can understand that spiritual growth can occur, vicariously and institutionally, for people who were not directly involved in the original transgressions.
The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is the archetype for a Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus, as well as a Jewish understanding of centuries of Antisemitism. Some recent events throughout the western world offer us an indication that an acceptance of indirect responsibility, and some kind of vicarious public confession and attempt at restitution, to the innocent victims of powerful political and religious authorities in the past, has improved the spiritual life of the descendants of the persecutors. This is an indication of the messianic redemptive insight of Isaiah’s vision of the Suffering Servant of God.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials that followed WW2 set a pattern for later trials of Cambodian, Serb, and Hutu mass murderers by international courts. When the German government decided in the early 1950’s to pay reparations for property losses to German Jews who were still alive, and to the State of Israel for the property losses of German Jews who died in the Holocaust, it was the first time an oppressor had voluntarily accepted responsibility for acts of oppression upon another people.
When the Pope and several Protestant denominations began to atone for previous centuries of Antisemitism in the 1970’s and 1980’s a rising awareness of the Holocaust and the need to atone for Antisemitism and other examples of cultural and physical genocide began to influence a wider spiritual consciousness in the West. The American government finally made a token payment to the Japanese interned in American concentration camps during WW2.
In 1993 President Clinton signed into law a resolution stating, “Congress apologizes to the native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of their independent government”. In 2005 the great majority of U.S senators officially expressed sorrow over the many times the Senate refused to pass federal anti-lynching laws (over 4,000 men-70% black- were lynched in the U.S.).
On the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution expressing “profound regret for the commonwealth’s role in sanctioning the immoral institution of human slavery.”
In May of 2007 the Legislature of the State of Alabama passed a resolution expressing “profound regret” for the state’s enslavement of black people. Alabama was the fourth southern state to formally apologize for slavery.
In Europe the movement to atone for past persecutions also spread after the Pope expressed sorrow over the evils done when Europeans conquered North and South America. In February of 2006. two centuries after profiting from the venture, the Church of England apologized for its role in the global slave trade, which included running a Caribbean island sugar plantation and branding the blacks who worked it.
The Prime Minister of France finally apologized 56 years after the end of WW2 for the collaboration of the Vichy French government in deporting French Jews to Nazi death camps.
Another example is the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt who in May of 2007 apologized for his country’s deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II saying, “Only by recognizing the responsibility of the authorities at the time can we build a future where this will never happen again,” The government had just released “Submissive Belgium,” a report that shows how high-ranking Belgian officials and municipalities collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews.
Other examples of a government publicly atoning for crimes of previous generations are the Australian Prime Minister’s apology to the country’s aborigines for laws and polices that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss” on them. The apology, beamed live around the country on TV, was met with cheers.
A similar apology was offered by the Prime Minister of Canada in June of 2008 to the 150,000 aborigines who were forcibly taken from their parents and sent away to 130 residential schools whose mission was to “Christianized and civilize” them. A Canadian government commission concluded in 1996 that the school program had indelibly damaged generations of aboriginal people and subverted their culture.
On August 30, 2008 the Prime Minister of Italy signed an agreement to pay five billion dollars in reparations to Libya ($200m annually over the next 25 years) through investments in infrastructure projects. As a goodwill gesture, Italy also returned an ancient statue of Venus, the headless “Venus of Cyrene”, which had been taken to Rome in colonial times. The settlement was a “moral acknowledgment of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era”, the Italian prime minister said.
In July of 2008 Pope Benedict XVI told Australians he is deeply sorry for the sexual abuse of children by some Catholic priests. Speaking at a gathering of bishops in Sydney, the Pope spoke of the “shame we have all felt” and called for abusers to face justice.
Even witch trials of pre modern times are being atoned for. The government of the Swiss canton (state) of Glarus said on June 10, 2008 that the last witch executed in Europe should be rehabilitated because she was a victim of “judicial murder” more than 200 years ago. The 1782 execution of Anna Goeldi for an alleged case of poisoning was a miscarriage of justice, the cantonal government said. Everyone who knows history will realize that such acts of atonement by the ruling political and religious authorities would have been totally unbelievable in every generation of oppressed minorities prior to the Holocaust.
Recent Jewish and Christian history enables us to understand in a new way Isaiah’s famous passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) about God’s servant whose tragic suffering can be redemptive to those who once reviled and belittled him. In Jewish thought the prophet Isaiah himself provides the strongest evidence for the claim that the servant is Israel, the Jewish People.
Several verses in prior chapters of Isaiah specifically state that Israel/Jacob is God’s servant. “You Israel are my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen” (41:8), “Hear me now, Jacob my servant; hear me, Israel my chosen” (44:1), “Have no fear, Jacob my servant: Jeshurun whom I have chosen” (44:2), “Remember all this, Jacob, remember Israel, for you are my servant” (44:21). These verses make it clear that Israel/Jacob is God’s chosen servant. The national community is spoken of in terms of an individual, as is often the case in the Bible (see Jeremiah 30:10).
However, many rabbis did identify Isaiah’s messianic figure as a person, usually as a Messiah, a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah. Other Rabbis had other interpretations. Sa’adyah Ga’on glosses the figure as referring to the Prophet Jeremiah. Isaac Abarbanel rejects that and thinks the suffering servant is Josiah, King of Israel.
I think this individual is a messianic figure called by the rabbis: Messiah, son of Joseph, i.e. from one of the northern tribes, who precedes David’s son, and is killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. If we keep in mind both the Josephson messiah as well as the role of Israel/Jacob as God’s chosen servant, we will better understand Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy.
The belief that there would be two different messiahs, one a moral political leader from the house of David (Davidson) and the other, a religious reformer from the house of Aaron (Aronson), as well as a special “end of days” prophet such as Elijah or Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14) is found in inter- testament literature. A Dead Sea scroll states that the Qumran community must continue to live according to the original discipline “until there shall come a prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Manuel of Discipline 9:11).
There is also a rabbinic belief in a messianic figure from the northern tribes called a Josephson messiah who is killed by Israel’s enemies. This idea may be modeled on the example of Saul who reigned before David and was killed in battle by the enemies of Israel. Thus there could be as many as four individual messianic figures as well as the people of Israel who act as God’s agents in bringing about the Messianic Age.
Gentile rulers also play a role, first as destructive oppressors of the Jewish people, and second when their successors later acknowledge their error and are ultimately included in helping bring about the Messianic Age’s worldwide blessings. Cyrus was such a messiah (Isaiah 45:1)
All of this makes for a complicated future scenario that might take generations, or even centuries to develop. When people are persecuted, afflicted and oppressed as a community, and despised and rejected as individuals they need hope for a much quicker and simpler process of redemption. This is why there is an overwhelming focus on the final stage Davidson messiah by most teachers, preachers, commentators and expositors. This is also the reason that those who believe in the imminent coming of the Davidson messiah always think it will occur soon within their lifetime (John 14:19, 21:22).
Also, since humans have free will, the exact time and manner of redemption cannot be determined in advance. Much depends on what we do. Repentance produces changes in the future of both individuals and nations. Repentance enables some individuals and communities to escape the consequences of prior evil. On the other hand, God’s promise is that evil powers will never succeed in destroying Israel or in overcoming justice in the long run.
Thus even without full repentance, God will act if the Divine promise of a Messianic Age is threatened. As Isaiah states a few verses prior to the suffering servant passage, “The Lord says: you were sold but no price was paid, and without payment you shall be redeemed.” (52:3) i.e. all your suffering in exile was not merited and thus your redemption from exile will not be fully earned. Both are part of God’s outline for human destiny and will occur sooner (through repentance) or later (in God’s own time).
Finally, if one believes that God inspired prophets are able to describe scenarios of various developments in the distant future then one has to accept that the understanding of these passages should change and improve as we come closer and closer to the times they describe.
For example, Jeremiah describes a radical future in which woman surround men, “The Lord will create a new thing on earth-a woman will surround a man” (31:22). The great commentator Rashi understands ‘surround’ to mean encircle. The most radical thing Rashi can think of (and in 11th century France it was radical) is that woman will propose marriage (thus encircling the groom at the wedding ceremony) to men.
In today’s feminist generation we can see women surrounding men in fields once almost exclusively male such as law, medical and rabbinical schools. Of course, this means that a few generations from now we might have even better understandings of some predictive passages in the prophets, so humility should always be with us.
Since the Shoah, one phrase from Isaiah’s suffering servant passage has become very well known, and that is “lead like a sheep to the slaughter” Isaiah 53:7). Truly, again and again, Jews were passively taken away to exile, or like sheep to the slaughter cut off from the land of the living, though they had done no violence (54:7-9). Yet faithful Jews accepted all this as God’s will and refused to abandon their religion or their people.
Survivors of the concentration camps, who had lost their entire family, had the courage and faith to marry, and lived to see their offspring (Jewish children and grandchildren) grow up (54:10). Many, whose days were prolonged (54:10) and are now in their 70’s and 80’s, have lived long enough to see the most amazing outcomes of the Holocaust.
The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of its cities and countryside are the subject of many passages in Isaiah both preceding chapter 53 and following it. The realization of these prophecies did not require a Holocaust.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the mass departure of more than one million Soviet Jews to the land of Israel also are not directly linked to the Holocaust. But the redemptive aspect of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust for Gentile rulers and nations is only now starting to be seen in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Of course, the Turkish government still denies responsibility for the death of over one million Armenians; the Japanese deny slaughtering 300,000 residents of Nanking, and only a few French leaders admit to the complicity of the Vichy government in rounding up Jews for the Nazi death camps.
Even the UN has not officially admitted its dereliction of duty in the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Yet the few steps of public confession and atonement that have been taken by some political and religious leaders are truly remarkable when you consider that nothing like this has ever happened in previous human history.
If the Holocaust stimulated a willingness of religious and political leaders to accept responsibility for past examples of persecution and iniquity done by their institutions and governments continues to expand, society will improve greatly. If other governments and institutions admit responsibility for the sins of their predecessors it reduces the likelihood of repetition.
Then the numbering of God’s innocent servant- Israel/Jacob with transgressors will, when the lessons are finally learned, justify not just those directly involved in the atonement process but also many others. Israel’s pouring out of life (six million deaths) will not have been in vain, and the revivified Jewish people will see the light of life and be satisfied (54:11-12).
Thus, when current political and religious leaders feel the need to publicly acknowledge the sins of their predecessors, it helps to reduce the level of self righteousness that usually precedes and accompanies the corruption of political and religious power, and it warns religious people and their leaders that in the words of Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Confession of organizational and governmental sins from previous generations can help our own generation avoid the sins that our grandchildren may have to suffer from or atone for.