justice

wild, free and not very safe

‘The future is given to those who are experienced in groaning. The future is denied to those who have been cynical and calloused and self-deceiving enough to rejoice in the present ordering and are unable to grieve about the ruin toward which the royal community is headed.’

Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination

 

I should have known from Kelley Nikondeha’s challenging and profoundly thoughtful blog that joining her reading group would be something that shook me up.

But I just wasn’t prepared to be affected as deeply as I have been by this month’s read: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

I have been a Christian for more than twenty years but by the end of chapter two I felt like the disciples who, when they caught a glimpse of the radical reversal that Jesus had brought into the world, cried out: ‘But who then can be saved?’

With ruthless clarity, Brueggemann lays bare the hypocrisy, the smugness and the numbness of our dominant culture. And here’s the thing: for me he also laid bare my own complicity in that culture.

Brueggemann gives us a portrait of a God who is wild and free, who stands opposed to the dominant powers, which need us to be numb consumers if they are to continue to control us.

As much as I hate the consumer culture, a wild and free God scares me if I’m honest. I like order; I like to know where the limits are; I like to keep things well contained.

What’s more, as a white middle class woman in the rich west I have a pretty strong interest in things continuing as they are. As crazy as it seems, I hadn’t understood that before, not like I do now.

In reading Brueggemann I saw there is a choice to be made. People like me who are comfortable and powerful can cling stubbornly to the status quo, even as we claim to want it to change. We can keep ourselves at one remove from the real suffering there is in the world. We are so affluent and so satiated that we can, literally, eat our way around pain.

But this choice comes at a terrible price. It’s the price of being only half alive. It’s the price of dulling our emotions, narrowing our vision and drastically limiting our entire conception of what it means to be a human being.

It means settling for optimism instead of finding real hope; being content with superficial relationships instead of finding true community; worshipping a tame and benign deity instead of daring to engage with a wild God of furious love.

As I wrote this post I realised I had heard a version of this message about the need to choose hundreds of times. It usually goes something like this: you are a sinner and you need a saviour.

But I have only ever heard it communicated in such a privatised, individualistic way that it never sank deep inside me as it did this month while reading Brueggemann.

And very often I have heard it communicated from inside an institution that – like me – appears to have a lot more in common with the static, controlling, dominant culture than it does with what Brueggemann describes as an ‘alternative community’ – one that makes room for the freedom of God ‘to surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion’.

Brueggemann is clear that for people like me the alternative to the status quo is not easy. For him there is no real hope until we have faced the desperation of the world.  There is no new life until we have understood that the culture that brings us so many goodies and eases our path though life is nothing less than a culture of death. It is not possible to face these things without entering into grief.

And yet, and yet – beyond the grief there is true hope, the promise of a completely different future, a future characterised by amazement and joy, expressed in dancing and new songs, free from the weary hopelessness that characterises so much of human life.

I found Brueggemann’s writing about hope to be the most difficult part of this book and I need to return to it. But what I did understand is this: that it is rooted in the reality of a God who is making all things radically new and who wants to include everyone in that newness, no matter how complicit they have been in the cynicism and injustice of the dominant culture.

It’s the hope that rings out through the songs of the Bible, defiant songs that tell of God lifting up the humble, bringing down rulers from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.

It’s wild and it’s scary and it doesn’t always look like good news to those of us who are rich and powerful.

But I want it.

 

 

a letter to my daughter as she returns from Madagascar

I am so excited to think that you will be here in just a few hours. It was lovely to hear your voice on the phone from Heathrow – every word distinct, unlike those couple of Skype calls we tried when you were deep in the bush. I can’t wait to hold you and hug you, to see your face-splitting smile that I have missed so much, to admire your tan and perhaps your exotic insect bites too and to listen to the words that I know will come tumbling out of your mouth all afternoon.

For now, though, the house is quiet, your sister still asleep upstairs, your brother getting ready for school and your dad, you will be pleased to hear, out training for that marathon you hope to run together. I want to savour this moment of anticipation, this sense of everything suspended in stillness before we burst into a weekend of chatter and laughter, before we do the bittersweet work of rearranging ourselves as family when your sister leaves for university tomorrow and you settle back in your own bedroom. A real bed! After all those weeks of a tent floor!

Here in the quiet, I am thinking about another young woman, the same age as you, who moved fleetingly and unseen across my path yesterday. I was in a community centre not far from here, doing some of that work I get sometimes to assess students in their spoken English. As usual the simplest questions elicited the most heart rending answers. ‘How are you today?’ I asked a woman a little older than me, smiling brightly in the hope of putting her at her ease for the test. ‘Not too good,’ she replied. ‘Yesterday my brother died in Syria.’

I asked another woman where she came from, thinking I might see whether she could spell the name of her country. ‘The refugee camp in Ethiopia,’ she replied. I forgot about the spelling question. Later I asked her about her family and she told me of her four children. She lives with them in a small flat near here; one of them is a young woman aged twenty-one, like you.

I keep wondering about the differences between our experiences as mothers. I have worried about how many sweets you might eat but never about whether you would have enough food. I have been anxious about your safety when you have been out late at night and breathed in deep relief when I heard you come in; to my shame I have never even imagined what it would be like to decide that our own home was too dangerous a place to be.

I do not know what that refugee woman’s hopes for her daughter are and I wouldn’t presume to guess them. I would love to know, though, what makes her heart swell with pride as a mother – because we do all have those moments, you know!

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments as your mum. It was when I read the email you sent me from Antananarivo and poured out the many ways that your heart had been changed through meeting development workers and joining them in the work of repairing schools and planting trees. It was when you told me that the vision of justice that is set out in Isaiah 61had taken root deep within you; that the words about binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free and restoring devastated places had become the words that would shape the rest of your life.

I salute you, Miriam, for your courage and your fierce sense of justice. I pray that as you settle back into this privileged life we have here, you will discover the next steps on your journey. I know you will remember all the young women round the world who are your contemporaries and lead such different lives, whether they are refugees down the road from us or maybe young mothers in Madagascar whose babies stand a forty percent chance of dying before they are five.

I pray that you won’t be overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that you see around you but that you will be able to take up your place in the fight for justice with joy and humility. I delight in the knowledge that you will not be alone: from what I can gather reading the blogs that I do, it seems that all across the world young people are joining together to say ‘enough’ and to give their lives to building a more equal world.

There’s a photo one of your friends put on Facebook that made us laugh because it looks as though you are flying.

Fly into your future, Miriam – be bold and be you!

But first sit down long enough to eat the raspberry pavlova I made you.

eight

A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.