Tag Archives: Idolatry

Living With Less in the Land of More

Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.

The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.

Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.

Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.

Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.

Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.

Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.

Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.

There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.

Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.

Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

thanksgiving-cartoon.gif

The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

What Shall We Eat? (Lev 25:6-7, 20-22)

In reading the Jubilee once again and Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on it from Finally Comes The Poet , I was struck by two particular aspects of this passage that I had missed previously. The first relates to a question that I think many people think of, if not ask explicitly, when thinking about the practice of letting fields lie fallow for an entire year. The text itself asks, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” (Lev 25:20). With global population now at 7 billion, we don’t really have the luxury of following this kind of practice right? Well, first let’s listen to the text and see if it has anything to say to a world with 7 billion people.

This question is the central theme of this blog, “What shall we eat?”. Perhaps in the imagination of the agrarian readers of Leviticus it was almost as impossible as it seems to us to feed yourself without practicing constant and intensive agriculture. The answer to the question of how they will eat if the land is not in production is found at the beginning and middle of the chapter:

The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely…I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. (Lev 25:6-7, 19, 21-22)

So, here’s the radical thought to sit with for a second: The earth produces food without the help of human beings. Some of the plants that we consider a nuisance and call weeds are actually edible. Before you start foraging for dinner among your local neighborhood make sure you get educated. Back in the day it was common knowledge what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost that common knowledge and now must rely on field guides and experts to learn what we can forage in our local bioregion. This fact, that the earth supports all of the life on it without the help of human beings, is the central idea of the Sabbath practices which culminate in this year-long practice of cultivating the mindfulness of our place within the creation that sustains us.

Now, the global population when Leviticus was written between 538-332 BCE was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. That’s only 3% of the current world population of 7 billion. So while the advent of agriculture had already begun to significantly increase global populations, the pressures of population on the land to produce was minimal compared to today. I’ve heard lots of different figures about what the carrying capacity of the earth is in terms of human population from 10 million all the way up to 9 billion. Regardless, it is clear that this practice of an entire year without production would not support current and future levels of population.

Now, you careful readers will point out that in the text God promises a bumper crop just prior to the Jubilee that will carry them through the fallow year and then some. While it may seem like this is the product of human ingenuity and hard work, any good farmer will tell you that there’s really not much you can do to get yields of the magnitude suggested by this passage. Sure there are bumper crops, but not because of anything any farmer did to make it happen. Studies have shown that even our best technological attempts to improve yield can’t out perform nature. So, the provision of food to carry people through three years on one year of production is a miracle intended to tell them, “Quit worrying about it and trust me”.

So, we have created a world which is completely dependent on the efforts of human beings to maintain and sustain itself. This clearly contradicts the heart of the Sabbath practices which reorient our lives around the fact that we are not owners in an absolute sense and the maintenance and sustenance of life on this planet does not depend on us. What are the repercussions for a world in which we have transgressed this Sabbath boundary and made a world dependent on us, in essence making ourselves God? I suggest that this question, “What shall we eat?” reveals once again our addiction to control and domination and our complete disconnection from the land. The Jubilee is a radical act of faith in the ability of the creation to sustain itself and ourselves, if we are willing to understand the boundaries of the system as it was created.

Up next… Jubilee is Salvation.

All My Relations (Leviticus 19 The Original Cut)

This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.

We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.

Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.

The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)

It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.

It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.

Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.

More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.

Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.

I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.

Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.

All My Relations by Ulali

To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come

We are the land

This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago

And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492

To those who have kept their homelands

And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them

And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today

To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way

To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people

To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are

To those who search and never find

To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted

To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many

To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people

To those that give up and those who do not care

To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again

To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth

To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own

To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other

To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better

To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty

To the young, the old, the living and the dead

To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth

Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual

The truth that lies in our hearts

All my relations

Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.