The Dream and the Work

Haggai and Isaiah, incremental changes and radical movements

Monthly theme image featuring a young girl holding a growing plant and the December theme Faith and Hope

The prophet Haggai, in the first chapter of the prophetic book which bears his name, delivers to the people of Judah this message from their God:

Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. 

And the Lord stirred up the spirit of… all the remnant of the people, and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month. (Haggai 1:8, 14)

In Isaiah 66, which is believed to have been written around the same time and for roughly the same audience (that is, folks returning from Babylonian exile to their ancestral home of Jerusalem) as Haggai’s words above, the prophetic message seems contradictory:

Thus says the Lord:

Heaven is my throne,

    and the earth is my footstool;

so what kind of house could you build for me,

    what sort of place for me to rest?

All these things my hand has made,

    so all these things are mine, says the Lord.

But this is the one to whom I will look,

    to the humble and contrite in spirit

    who trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:1-2)

How can it be that the same God is saying these two seemingly contradictory things—rebuild the temple, also don’t build any temple—at roughly the same time?

The dream and the work

This year I’ve been reading a lot of radical Black literature. Becoming Abolitionists by Derecka Purnell, This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley, All About Love by bell hooks, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, the memoir of Patrise Cullers (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), and the autobiography of Angela Davis, to name a few.

Each of these authors has situated themselves within a Black radical tradition which has had to do two things simultaneously:

  • First, it has had to insist on its ultimate goal of complete love and equity for all people. It has to demand this with uncompromising urgency. 
  • Second, it has, at the same time, had to take incremental steps towards creating the world that it demands, steps which do not in and of themselves realize the movement’s ultimate goals.

I went to W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction hoping to find the blueprint of liberated Black life, having heard the common refrain “we were eight years in power,” and yet what I found was a presentation of small steps taken in Black education, Black politics, and Black economics. The redistribution of property (i.e., reparations) accomplished by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the creation of public education systems for the first time in U.S. history, and the election of working-class people to all areas of government were the main stand-outs of what Du Bois calls the “temporary dictatorship of the proletariat” in the South.

These steps, while radical, were nevertheless incremental. And even though they were betrayed by the corrupt compromise that ushered in the repression that ended them, they were nevertheless deeply faithful to the vision of the great antebellum radicals, as well as formative and instructive for that of the great postbellum radicals.

In all of this reading I’ve learned that any sustained, radical movement to create a new and equitable society must operate on two levels simultaneously: a constant push and demand for the ultimate vision itself, and smaller steps towards specific goals. The dream and the work.

The Haggai tradition can be seen as the latter (the work) and the Isaiah school of thought can be seen as the former (the dream).

The Haggai school wants the people to rebuild the temple. They recognize that people need to start their recovery from trauma and exile with a work that embodies the conviction that God is in their midst. They recognize that the work of rebuilding our lives must begin with rebuilding our central myths and the artifacts and arenas which give flesh and ritual and discipline to them. The rebuild is the work of the hands that in turn shapes what is possible for the mind and the heart.

And the possibilities of the mind and heart are, in turn, the focus of the Isaiah tradition. Personal and social transformation. The change of personal habits and societal patterns which ensures that the work of the rebuild is not just a way to simply create new occasion for the injustice and idolatry that previously existed, but rather to create a new society of people who by their transformed lives have extended sacred space throughout the entire city, such that the need for a temple is greatly reduced and instead all of life is made worshipful.

The approaches of Haggai and Isaiah are both necessary. Both are the expression of hope, albeit in different ways. This is why they are both canonized and celebrated within the broader tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and within the Jewish project of liberation.

All things new or all new things?

Revelation 21 begins with these words from John the Revelator:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 22:1-2)

Then verse 5 says “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

So which is it? Is God making new things, like Revelation 21:1 seems to imply, or is God making all things new, as Revelation 21:5 implies? Is God renovating, reforming, refurbishing already existing things, or is God abolishing the old things and creating new things out of nothing?

It seems like some of the prophets of the Scriptures see it the first way, and others see it the second way. John himself seems to see it both ways.

Personally, I’m an abolitionist for things that come from bad seed and are therefore bad at their root, and I’m a reformist for things that come from good seed but, to borrow a phrase from Jesus’ parable of the sower, “fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plant.” In my baptized imagination I hope that God will make some things new, but also make a whole lot of new things.

I hope God makes my grandma new. I hope God makes Maurice White and the group he founded—Earth, Wind & Fire—new. I hope God makes science new. I hope God makes cultures new.

But I hope God makes new government. I hope God makes new society. I hope God makes new economy. I hope God makes new ways of working and knowing and creating and relating and loving and being.

I hope that our vision for the end of time, our “eschatological vision”—that is, our hope—both emerges from and returns to inform our work of rebuilding, in a holy feedback cycle. 

What’s your eschatological vision? What temples are you being called to rebuild? Dream of the world to come and let it inform your incremental work in this world. In God we live and move and breathe and dream and hope and build. Thanks be to God.

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