Carrot Cake and Silver Stick Christianity
‘Carrot and stick’ is a favourite idiom describing encouragement and discipline. Here are some carrot examples from the world of business.
Taking the employee out for dinner
Allowing working from home
Gifting a personalised mug
Adding a bonus
Upgrading a desk and chair
Going out for a group activity
Giving paid time off
Publicly thanking the employee(s),
Here are some stick examples.
Reducing the salary
Loss of commission
Having to work an unfavourable shift
Missing out on a company-wide reward
Having to complete a disliked task, such as assisting with inventory or cleaning the staff room
Isaiah 1 highlights the strategy of most of the prophets of the Old Testament. It is not so much a carrot and stick approach but rather a stick and carrot approach. The stick is the condemnation of the people and God’s judgement on them. The carrot is the promise of forgiveness upon repentance and better times to come. Unlike our preaching in churches today, the preaching of the prophets was existential in character dealing with real life issues and national crises in the People of God. But even more important than these the prophets articulated the nature of the people’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with them. Witnessing for God was their only cause and purpose. To say that this relationship was problematic is to understate the issues involved.
Isaiah 1 : 1 begins ‘The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.’ Isaiah was a visionary. He was eloquent, literary and rational. He ministered from about 740 to 680 B.C. For about 20 years, he spoke to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. After Israel’s fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., Isaiah continued to prophesy to Judah. This period of Israel’s history is told in 2 Kings 15 to 21 and 2 Chronicles 26 to 33. Isaiah was a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Micah. By the time of Isaiah, the prophets Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, and Amos had already completed their ministries. The superpower of Assyria was about to overwhelm the kingdom of Israel. During the span of Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet, the southern kingdom of Judah was faced with repeated threats from the larger surrounding nations.
By this time, Israel had been in the Promised Land for almost 700 years. For their first 400 years in Canaan, judges ruled Israel. These were spiritual, military, and political leaders whom God raised up as required. Then, for about 120 years, three kings reigned over all Israel: Saul, David, and Solomon. But in 917 B.C. Israel had a civil war and remained divided into two nations, Israel (to the north) and Judah (to the south) up until the time of Isaiah. Until the time of Isaiah, the kingdom of Israel – the northern ten tribes – had some 18 kings, all of them bad and rebellious against the Lord. The kingdom of Judah – the two southern tribes – had some 11 kings before Isaiah’s ministry, some good and some bad. In the time of Isaiah, Israel was a little nation often caught in the middle of the wars between three superpowers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. As Isaiah’s ministry began, there was a national crisis in the northern kingdom of Israel. The superpower of Assyria was about to overwhelm it.
The complaint of the People of God was this ‘If we are God’s chosen people why are we suffering? Why is all this happening to us?’ There was a significant difference between the powerful interventions of God in the Israelites’ history and what was occurring in Isaiah’s time. The prophets sought to answer these questions. They blamed the apostasy, sin, injustice and corruption of the social life of the nation and the people. It was a very big stick.
‘Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.’ (Isaiah 1 : 2 – 4)
We could say the same about Scotland. Once infused with a pervasive Christianity, once held by reputation as a ‘God fearing’ nation, once a people looking up to the gold standard of conduct in the Bible, once acknowledging publicly Jesus Christ as Son of God. Now? A distant memory among older people - of times of respect and innocence and quiet faith. Long gone. Eff this an eff that, effing this and effing that, eff everything – children too – among themselves and to adults. Record figures for alcohol and drugs deaths. Fewer and fewer husband and wife families. Greater than ever poverty. Almost no Christianity in schools. Empty churches. Godless self-obsessed politicians. Strife and struggle for survival. Multiplying diseases of body and mind. The big stick approach says ‘It’s your own fault’. ‘Why should you be beaten any more? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil.’ (Isaiah 1 : 5 – 6 )
Isaiah rubbishes the sacrificial cult of the Temple. (1 : 11 – 15) It is worthless and ineffective because it does not make the people moral agents. So he offers them a carrot. ‘Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ (1 : 16 - 20)
Sins like scarlet. Why are sins coloured red? Perhaps because red was associated with wealth and aristocracy. It is of course the colour of blood, and of blood sacrifice. Sins that are red require much atonement. Red stands out. Like the ‘Lady in Red’ in the pop song. It is for some the colour of challenge. Like the matador’s robe in the bull ring. Like Tiger Woods' Sunday bright red golfing wear - to intimidate his opponents. The people’s sins stand out and define them and that is why they are scarlet. Charles Spurgeon wrote “The Lord does not deny the truth of what the sinner has confessed, but he says to him, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, I meet you on that ground. You need not try to diminish the extent of your sin, or seek to make it appear to be less than it really is. No; whatever you say it is, it is all that, and probably far more. Your deepest sense of your sinfulness does not come up to the truth concerning your real condition; certainly, you do not exaggerate in the least. Your sins are scarlet, and crimson; it seems as though you have put on the imperial robe of sin, and made yourself a monarch of the realm of evil.’ That is how a person’s guilt appears before the searching eye of God.” (Spurgeon)
But the carrot offer is that these can be made white as snow. David’s penitential Psalm 51 reads 'Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.’ (7 - 9) In John 13 we read ‘Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.' (10 – 11) Revelation 3 : 4 - 5 reads ‘Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.’ Spiritual cleansing is the process of sanctification that takes place over the long term in a serious Christian life.
Reason and ethics are what being one of the called People of God is about. Isaiah connects us with God through thought and action. Thus the mystery as to why the Creator of all that is requires an animal blood sacrificial system is answered. He does not. ‘Many centuries later, the apostle John repeated the sense of Isaiah’s message: ‘If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?’ (1 John 4:20) 'The leaders and people of Judah wanted to say they loved God by their religious ceremonies, but the Lord cared more about how they treated other people, especially the weak, the fatherless, the widow.' (Enduring Word Commentary)
Today’s new atheists hold that Christianity is irrational and superstitious without intellectual foundation. One of them called Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) posited that organised religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children" and “sectarian, and that accordingly it "ought to have a great deal on its conscience". Surely he cannot have ever read the New Testament? Inhumanity is all that Hitchens attributes to religion.
You could hardly call Isaiah ‘woke’ but he and other prophets spoke about social justice. They used a stick. Isaiah offers his criticisms of Jerusalem. ‘See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.’ (21 - 23)
The very first Christian community was egalitarian. Acts 2 : 42 – 47 reads ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ I remember a cynical university lecturer describing this as a kind of pre-Marxist Community. It didn’t last long. In Acts 5 : 1 – 11 we learn of hypocrisy within the first Church. The incident of Ananias and Sapphira’s financial dishonesty led to their deaths caused by spiritual shock on being exposed.
The prophets also offered carrots. Martin Luther King quoted Amos 5 : 24 ‘But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ There are also the well known words of Micah 6 : 8. ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ And Isaiah offered one. ‘I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness.’ (26 – 27)
Scottish Protestant Christianity has been characterised by the stick rather than the carrot. Calvinism was strict, behaviour orientated, judgemental and unforgiving. Over the centuries the Church of Jesus in Scotland was rent by disagreements, schisms and disruptions. We are living through the consequences of the last of these caused by the decision of the 2009 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to allow a publicly self-declared actively homosexual minister whose previous heterosexual marriage had ended in divorce to transfer to another parish. Roman Catholicism in Scotland was no less stick rather than carrot. For many decades fear of the priest and the hierarchy overshadowed the lives of those who had come from Ireland. The preponderance of trauma among Catholics may have found expression in later pathology. In stark contrast Episcopalians in Scotland were lightweight and far from serious who nevertheless exerted disproportionate influence in the media through the advocacy of an extreme liberalism in belief and morality which even extended to denial of the basic beliefs of universal Christianity. This was all carrot and no stick. It chimed with the times.
The politically correct ‘woke’ Church of Scotland today is characterised not just by carrot and no stick. It is carrot cake and silver stick Christianity. It is a soft and sweet carrot cake – liberal Christianity with its inclusive message that God loves everyone no matter who or what. And the stick is not crudely made of wood. It is a silver stick – like the ones the Queen’s attendants carry – pleasant words of gentle reflection to congregations and to the nation so as not to upset anyone. ‘There, there, - everything will be OK.’ Yet decline is quickening. Churches are closing. Congregations are being herded together like cattle in the wild west. And the geopolitics of the day are suddenly frightening.
Throughout the 3,000+ years of Judaism and Christianity there has always been a minority of faithful souls who carried the torch of faith forward and kept the Covenant moving through ages and generations. Isaiah himself described them as ‘the remnant.’ Jesus called them his ‘little flock’. That is where we are today. Elsewhere in the world Christianity is flourishing, growing and advancing as many come to living faith in Jesus Christ. 2.5 billion of all humanity so identify. It is we in this land and in the west who have lost our way. The prophets of the Old Testament suffered for telling the people the truth. There are none such in the land today.