Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cake? Or Death?

Because this is a little too bitter to leave standing alone for long:

I'm driving in this morning, and get this information on the radio as a "teaser" for a show I don't normally listen to, and I don't have the information at my fingertips for a link, which means you'll have to take my word for it; but it makes sense to me. It seems the greatest worry of the people of Afghanistan (remember them?) is not violence or the Taliban: it's poverty. Good ol' grinding, wearing, "Third World" poverty. In Afghanistan the strength of the central government, if this teaser can be trusted, doesn't matter nearly as much as the inability to feed themselves, or provide for their families.

Gee, maybe they're like us after all, huh?

Somewhere alone the line we decided, as a people, that poverty matters far less than security. We came to the conclusion that prosperity literally flows from the end of a gun, because without security nobody can own anything or rely on the future to provide more than today's daily bread. Security is what society must provide first, and then prosperity will flow from all the freedom all those guns and guards and walls provide freedom for.

Or something like that.

And yet, just off the top of my head, I think of the USSR, and how secure it was, across Russia and into Eastern Europe. Stalin especially made everyone secure, except, of course, his enemies. And that security continued up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. That Stasi of East Germany was notorious for making sure everyone was secure; and yet who was more prosperous: East Germany, or West Germany? Who was more prosperous? Europe, or Russia? Anarchy and chaos are hardly conducive to prosperity, except for the criminals, but do law and order command prosperity, bring it along in their wake? Even a quick glance at recent history belies the notion.

But we worship "the market" as if it were a great, green god, and an inscrutable one: a god completely oblivious to our prayers for intercession, to our pleas for benison. "God helps those who help themselves," we say; but we don't mean the God of Abraham, we mean the market when we say that, and we mean the market is a god, but one of the old gods: one of the gods who rains blessing and curses apparently indiscriminately, apparently without regard, building up and tearing down on a whim or a plan we can never discern. Law and order is a plan we can discern. Law and order is something we can use to impose control. Law and order makes things, well...orderly. Or at least we think it will, if we just have enough of it. And if there is no order yet well, then, just a little more, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.

Or shall it?

Prosperity flows, not from our control, but from mystery. Prosperity is recognized in faith. We have a long history of humanity that teaches us this, a history that stretches back to the very roots of our Western civilization, a history that teaches social justice leads to prosperity, not force of arms or military power:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

And as I've noted before, citing Walter Brueggemann, Solomon's reputation for wisdom was purchased, not earned, and his interests were in being a military power, not in being just:

Jump ahead about 400 years, to the impending Babylonian Exile. Now comes Jeremiah, descended from a long line of priests, from that very village where Solomon exiled the priest who had supported his brother. And now Jeremiah tells the reigning king:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

There is a direct rebuke of the descendants of Solomon there. Solomon who purchased his wisdom and his palace and his power and even the Temple, with his central concern for Solomon, and what Solomon could obtain, and own, and control. Solomon who used his control of horses and chariots to exact tribute (read: taxes) from others; who used the location of Israel along the trade routes to exact a toll for what passed through the land, and made sure the money went to Solomon, not to the community. Solomon cared about Solomon, not about:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

The LORD bestows the blessing freely. Solomon makes sure the blessing is recovered and rewarded to Solomon. Solomon, like the Pharoah, says there isn't enough to go around: not enough money, not enough power, not enough wisdom, and I, Solomon, must control it all, must deal in it, must buy and sell in all the marketplaces, of arms, of ideas, of palaces, even of religion. Because of this, says Jeremiah, comes the Exile.
And, just because I've said it before, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel:

It can't be said too often: the Exile that shattered Israeli history like a brick through a window, that set Western civilization on the course to expect an apocalypse and an eschaton and a Messiah (from Christianity to Star Wars to the Matrix), did not come about because of the apostasy of Israel, but because of the injustice of Israel. Solomon wanted to preserve Israel by military force, too. That way, however, is always the path to injustice and failure. Ezekiel gives us the picture of God's spirit leaving the Temple because of the abominations performed there, because it is no longer holy.
We needn't consider ourselves a holy country, the chosen of the God of Abraham, to take the lesson to heart. Security is never achieved first, and prosperity second, and social justice a dismal third or fourth. And we should note that, not only did the Exile become the defining feature of Israelite history; it became one of the defining events of Western civilization. The prophets promised the people of Israel that one day all nations would stream to Zion, drawn by their justice and righteousness as the true children of Abraham, as a people blessed by God the Creator. The yin to that yang, if you will, is that the nations are just as affected by the unrighteousness of Israel, which caused God to leave them to their own plans and schemes and their own dreams of prosperity achieved through military power, not faith and trust in justice.

When will we ever learn?

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