The Land and the Peoples of the Land

Genesis 3:14-19, 4:8-16
To read the stories in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 as narrative descriptions of the beginning of creation is to make an understandable but fundamental mistake. They are not a description of the processes of creation. They are ponderings about why the world is the way it is. The stories hold some of the answers of the tellers and writers. The "creation" stories are aetiology.

Like many stories in Genesis 1--11, the Eden tale is an [a]etiology. That is, the story helps to explain important questions about certain realities in life— why is there pain in childbirth, why is the ground hard to work, why do snakes crawl upon the earth, etc. Genesis 2--3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of human maturity. When humans understand what it means to be fully human— that is, when they have complete knowledge— the realities of life come into full relief in all of their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful. (Frank M. Yamada)

What we see in the Genesis stories is the conviction that the Creation is fundamentally good.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)
Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9)

We see the knowledge of good and evil somehow connected to all our pain; it is what separates us from the animals. Yet we see a deep conviction that our humanity is related to the ground, to the land. We are adam from adamah, humankind made from the dust. It is the land which cries out and is cursed by the act of murder, but even more fundamentally, it is the land which is cursed by the fact that we have knowledge of good and evil. We cannot be separated from the land, and our humanity cannot be separated from our knowledge of good and evil.

On Forest Sunday the front of our church was a riot of greenery; pots, branches, and cuttings filled the space. As I stepped around the Communion rail I found a large apple, minus one bite, lying on the ground. This is life: knowledge and pain in the land.

Psalm 139
The Psalm for Land Sunday is again taken from Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is often read as a psalm of the faithfulness of God's presence. There is nowhere we can be that we are not still in the presence of God. But despite

even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

— God's right hand stands for mercy in Jewish tradition—  I have always felt a certain ambivalence about this Psalm.

It seems to suggest that we can't get away from God even if we want to. "Where can I flee from your presence" is not mere flowery poetry. There is something about God which means we do not want always to be in God's presence. The man and the woman hid in the garden. Cain was not glad to see God. God forces us to face what we know but want to avoid. Our "fallen" humanity— I would say our limited humanity— would rather deny many realities of our existence.

God pursues us when we flee from life and what we have done.

Matthew 12:38-40
In Matthew we see people wanting the easy way out in life. They want a clear sign from Jesus. They want to be sure about him, to have easy answers to life's ambiguity and pain.

There is very little in life which is sure and certain and easy. So he gives them only the Sign of Jonah. Jonah was three days in the belly of a great beast, or sea monster, which is a (Leviathan) symbol of the chaotic waters of Genesis 1.

The Sign of Jonah is symbol of Jesus being three days in the belly of the great beast Death, of course. This going into the belly of the beast also has a connotation of us facing and entering into our fears. The great fear is our fear of death. It is the fear of letting go of control of ourselves, of dethroning our ego from the centre of the world, and risking the unknown. If we do, we might die.

In many ways, following Jesus is to enter into the belly of the great beast. It is to walk directly into the thing we fear most. It is like looking up at the man hanging on the cross, the image that we saw last week in John chapter 3.

There Jesus was likened to the serpent which poisoned and killed the people of Israel, who could only be healed by looking upon the serpent on the pole, the very thing which threatened their lives. (John 3:14 Numbers 21) And so we are back in Genesis 3 facing our old nemesis the serpent, that fearsome creature which is our strange and terrifying ability to be conscious of ourselves, and which finally demands that we let our self go. It is the last thing that any of us want to do. It is our great torment, even a curse.

•••

From this brief introduction I offer an essay. The essay takes the curse of Genesis 3 seriously; the curse of not being an innocent animal, but of being human and knowing all the pain and evil of the world. In the essay I write these words

What does it say about us if we fail to see the injustice and the violence being done around us?  How can we fail to be horrified and distraught? How do we live with energy, and with integrity, rather than simply withdrawing and hoping to be left alone? How do we not become exhausted and despairing?

This is my problem, and the problem for many of us. We see the problem of knowing good and evil very clearly. We understand that, as a society, we have underestimated the cost of our knowledge or avoided it. But to face it is horrifying and exhausting. How do we survive?

•••

For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Psalm 137:3)

In the misery and doubt of Babylon some of the Exiles from Jerusalem began to reshape the Babylonian creation myths. In their newly edited stories, God took control of chaos creating a "dome in the midst of the waters...  separating waters from the waters." God was in control. And it is clearly stated that God saw that what God had created was good. (Genesis 1)

This same instinct that the world is good is my starting position for life. I understand that this is a statement of faith. I cannot prove it.  And I am in no doubt that this good creation contains endemic evil. It cannot be denied.

This is very clear to the Exiles writing in Babylon. No sooner has the Garden of Eden been created, than the man and the woman eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and see the ambiguity and the pain of the world. They begin the long path toward being human; they are no longer mere animals, because they can see good and evil, pain, suffering. (Genesis 3)

The first murder happens almost at the beginning; Cain kills Abel, Then Lamech kills a young man and escalates the violence with threats of disproportionate retaliation if revenge is taken.  The violent nature of nascent humanity is clearly understood, and stands as a symbol of the evil with which we live and to which we contribute.  (Genesis 4)

Until we have overcome evil in some way we will never be allowed 'back into the garden' and be able to "take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)

The Tanakh recites a long history of violence and oppression. We are constantly shown  the misuse of power. Those in power go against what God requires. What does the Lord require?  asks one of the prophets (Micah 6) The consistent answer is for "justice to flow down like waters." (Amos 5) People are to do justice and to walk humbly with God. (Micah) To walk humbly with God is to live the way God desires us to live. The history emphasises how little this was taken to heart.

The hope which develops over the centuries of this saga, and which is re-envisioned during the suffering and exile in Babylon, is for a new kind of Promised Land. They see that the Promised Land to which they have been delivered in their escape from Egypt is not the whole answer. Not only are they still subject to the predatory nature of the great powers around them, but even within their own land they have trouble living justly and walking humbly with God.

It seems a very modern dilemma. Even in Australia, insulated by its isolation from so much of the trouble of the world, we are still unable to live justly.

The hope was that there would be a time when all things were brought to fruition. We see a poetic rendition of this hope in Isaiah 11; the hope that there would shoot "from the stump of Jesse," someone in the lineage and tradition of the great King David who would lead justly, and in the ways of God. This fruition would be so fundamental, and so far reaching, that even the basic enmities of the world would be overcome; children would play unharmed among snakes. The serpent and humanity are sworn enemies ever since the beginning of creation and the ejection of the new humanity from the Garden of Eden! (Genesis 3:14ff)

I don't know how the Tradition managed to survive! There was a return from exile but the nation soon fell under the domination of the Greeks which resulted in more bloody war during the time of the Maccabees. That brief freedom was overthrown by the Romans, and the new Israel lived as a vassal state with its aristocracy in bed with the Romans while the poor suffered and lived in poverty.

There were numerous movements which tried to restore the essence of Israel. Sects like the Essenes withdrew into the desert awaiting salvation from God. The Pharisees settled on isolating themselves as much as possible from the Romans and saw their meaning and salvation coming from a way of living which kept the law in as much detail as possible. Various messiahs and resistance groups rose up against the Romans and were inevitably crushed.

In that context Jesus appeared in Galilee around 30CE. People understood he was also proclaiming the final goodness of creation which we see envisioned in The Promised Land, and in Isaiah 11, etc. He called it the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God.

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:15)

His basic message seems to have been "Repent," which means to change the direction in which we are living, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," or has come near. From his life has been handed down a teaching of radical justice, compassion, and nonviolence as the way to live towards the fulfilment of the kingdom of God.

Like the revolutionaries before him, he was murdered by the powers that be. He was crucified, which was the death reserved mostly for those who committed treason against the Roman state. It was a death which in the Jewish tradition was a sign that you were "accursed." (Deuteronomy 21)

His teaching survived. It began to be understood as a way of living that was radically compassionate, radically just, and radically nonviolent. Christians would not serve in the military. They began to understand that when one gave to the point of being destroyed because of one's stand for justice— that might not happen, of course, and you hoped that it would not— but if you lived like that you began to get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. You began to be free of fear of death. Even in this life there was a kind of resurrection, a raising to a new life. It gave people hope in the later resurrection of those who had been righteous before God and their entry into a new world where there would be no evil.

In the meantime, the emphasis seems to be not so much on the cause of evil, which is an accepted reality. Rather the challenge is what we will do about it; how will we live.

•••

How does this tradition speak to us today?

We still live within a "domination system" very similar to the time of Jesus, where the elite rule the world for their own benefit, and seek to rub out those who will not acquiesce to their demands.

We see our battles to maintain a civil and just society are less about "flesh and blood" as Paul might have said, and more about "principalities and powers"; the systems we have created to make the world work take on their own inertia and often act to enforce immense injustice; injustice never envisioned by their architects.

We are not far removed from the time of Jesus. We have made immense strides in science and technology. We also have stunning psychological insights into the forces that drive us,  and torment us, and sometimes destroy us, but still remain very much under their control. At a non-technical level, we are driven by fears and desires which we understand poorly and before which we often feel quite powerless. These fears also drive the use of technology to perpetrate immense evil.

How will we live?

We can "drink the Kool-Aid" as they say. We can go along with the ruling cultural myth of wherever we happen to live. In Australia this is basically about getting as much stuff as you can, because that will make you a success, and it will make you happy. We talk about family, and we long for happy families and love, but "when the chips are down" it's all about money, and looking after Number One.

We have a political system which, more than ever before, seems to be about holding onto power for its own sake, and with immense human cost— look at what we do to refugees, to aboriginal people, and to the poor. It is a system which pays lip service to justice, and compassion, and basic human decency, but increasingly these things are reserved for the voters who are likely to return the politicians to power. All other people are potential targets for scapegoating to blame for the ills of our society to engender a kind of solidarity which will mean we re-elect the current government.

And, of course, all governments are on the treadmill of trying to prevent themselves from becoming the scapegoat and being turfed out of office. God help us if we get in their way.

It is difficult to look at current affairs in the world, and in Australia, and to be positive. We have the riots on the streets of Fergusson in the United States. We have Israel destroying Gaza, and Hamas constantly needling Israel. ISIS makes our worst excesses current and actual.

Australia holds children in detention on  offshore islands in our unconscionable Guantánamo Bay concentration camps, yet claims to be saving people's lives by "stopping the boats." All the while psychologically torturing and destroying people. This is overseen by people who claim to be Christians—witness the Minister for immigration Mr Morrison, who loudly proclaimed his faith in his first speech in Parliament.

We have people put on boats and sent them back to Indonesia after they had arrived Australian territory and held in camps, without due process. We have people held on naval ships imprisoned outside the law. We have taken refuges off boats and handed them back to the navy of the country from which they were fleeing, God forgive us.

We have a budget aimed at shoring up the position of the rich and the well off at the expense of the poor and the struggling. As Australians we say these people are arseholes when they do this; the biblical language is that they are unjust, unrighteous, and under the judgement of God. (Ezekiel 34)

We all fail and we all fall short; none of us lives as we should. Few of us protest as much as we could, or should, about the behaviour of our government. But the government does not fall short. It seems to take pleasure in its vindictive behaviour. It targets the weak and the poor as a matter of policy. It uses them as a political tool to pacify and appease those of us who are more fortunate.

 To stand against this is to make one's self a target. I feel hugely vulnerable, and very tired. How can I stand against this? How can I live justly and decently and compassionately in a land that votes for the oppressor? Someone said, "Democracy is two wolves and the sheep deciding what to have for tea." It's the democracy we have in Australia, and I have chosen to be a sheep.

What does it say about us if we fail to see the injustice and the violence being done around us?  How can we fail to be horrified and distraught? How do we live with energy, and with integrity, rather than simply withdrawing and hoping to be left alone? How do we not become exhausted and despairing?

How do we live with energy, and with integrity, rather than simply withdrawing and hoping to be left alone? How do we not become exhausted and despairing?

I believe we must follow the deep instincts of Genesis that the Creation is good, and that The Land and The People of the Land are intimately connected.

The Land
I begin by going outside into the land.

The land is our ultimate reality check. Outside of the unsustainable and artificial environment of office and house, we are shown the world as it is. Do you see that our office, our kitchen, and the computer at which we write, are all designed and shaped according to a mythology which thinks we possess the land and control the earth? They are the propaganda of a mythology and of an empire which thinks it will go on forever, and which has no understanding of the old words of Leviticus: "the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." (Levitcus 25:23)

When we are outside we see we do not own the land; the land owns us. We are the people of the land, and we are a little more than nothing.

The land supports us. Without it we die. We are finite, extinctable creatures which the land holds to account. The health of the land tells us how far we have walked from God, from the reality of what can be, and from the goodness that sustains us.

Are we at peace with the land, living in it, nurturing it, buried into it? Or do we exploit it and destroy it? We are no greater an animal than a plague of mice or rabbits. Too many of us living too harshly will destroy the balances of the biological systems which support us. We will die.

"What does the Lord require?" (Micah 6) has a parallel question: "What does the land require?" And another: "What must the sea be given?"  

Will we honour and cherish and nurture the beauty around us, or will be buy our way to a new beach in Bali—  until it is spoiled— and the next year go somewhere else? The land is not a remote paradise for escaping to for holidays; the land is for being confronted with ourselves and our way of being. The land is where we are. It is the only place we can be.

Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25:24)

I have deliberately not spoken of "The Creation," or "The Earth," but spoken of The Land, for the land is not the beauty of Kadadu, or some other calendar favourite. The land is the reality of Keevil Street, Adam Creek, and Willison Road—  my country. If we do not know the native plants from the weeds; if we do not see the degradation of the waterways; if we cannot see the impoverishment of the soil, then we do not know the land. In which case going to Kakadu becomes only an escape; a sentimentally coated denial of the reality in which we must live.

If we cannot get a Keevil Street correct; if "our street" must ruin the land elsewhere to sustain itself, then our whole system of existence must fail.

The land on which we live, and its ecology and climate, is not our possession. It is our partner. And it is the senior partner. It will outlive us. We think we destroy the land; we are learning this at last, but is this so? Do we even make the land merely unliveable for ourselves, or does The land reject us? When we are gone other life continues, and even thrives.

In the time the Genesis stories were written the land was mostly wilderness. Humanity's place upon the earth was by no means secure. (This essay is being written in the context of celebrating the Season Of Creation. This week is Land Sunday, next week is Wilderness or Outback Sunday.) The default setting for the land is wilderness!

 People are given to have a good land, a Land of Milk and Honey in the midst of the wilderness. But what we have tried to do, is to tame wilderness, and create more land for our purposes rather than use what we have been given. We have "developers" who take over the steep hillsides, the swamps, and the floodplains and turn them into houses. This is a denial of the Land and the Wilderness. It is a denial of who we are, and our limitations.

And we leave behind ruined factories, denuded mine sites, bare soil as hard as concrete. We create a wasteland rather than accept our small place in the wilderness, and our calling to live in and with the land.

This is so hugely challenging that we can barely hear it. But if it seems an anthropomorphic Lovelockian metaphor that has departed into fantasy... we should remember that the metaphor that the world is a machine we can exploit is failing badly.

Revering the land redefines what is good; for holidays; for farming; for earning a living; for housing; for all of society. If we cannot live with the land and its seasons we will be living on a land that will reject us. There is no point in looking for peace and justice that does not live well in the land. It will be a "peace" built on unsustainable foundations.

I prefer the metaphoric language of "the land rejecting us," because the utilitarian language of "us destroying the environment" still need not— usually does not—  understood the need for reverence. It still places us above the land as the controllers, and forgets we are only adam; dust.

So considering the land puts us at odds with the spirit of the times in Australia, which is largely asleep to the gravity of our ecological crisis, or in the case of the government and much of industry, in militant denial. Yet there is a sense of living— seeking to live— in harmony with a greater reality to be found if we remember the land and our dependence upon it. Simply being outside is an act of prayer and communion with what is, rather than being deceived and anaesthetised by what is fabricated.

There is another gift we receive from the land. It makes us tiny and shows us our insignificance. It is not like the stars which are far distant; the land is immediate and huge. Outside, and removed from our paraphernalia, away from our cars, we are put in our place and reminded of our vulnerability. Spiritually, our ego is removed from the centre of our universe. The profound regeneration we sometimes gain from a day walking in the Hills is because the balance of our being has been restored.

We are reminded we are not the God. We are not the centre of everything, and only a small part. Life is larger than the turmoil in our brain. This being cut down to size, put in our place, is a profound gift, especially for an introvert like me. It relieves me of the burden of making the world work and setting it to rights. It deflates my pride on those days when I think I can set it all to rights. The experience of the land forces, persuades, and allows me, to trust God for my life.

Is it too late?

Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilization were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of “wilderness” on land, sea or air was untouched by civilization anymore. (Christy Rodgers)

Go outside to a local creek or empty paddock without food and car. Simply walk. Stay when you are hungry and thirsty. The land is very real, and we are very small. The world takes a different shape.

The Peoples of the Land
If I am to be at peace with the land, then I must seek to make peace with The people of the land.

All societies designate who is "in" and who is "out". The Tanakh sought to place serious limits upon this with its insistence on care of the orphan, the widow, and even the alien in the land. The Year of Jubilee was a vision to maintain social justice and social cohesion. (Leviticus 25)

All this can be summed up in the phrase "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Jesus drew people back to this spirit of the Tanakh at its best with the story of the Samaritan. In that story we see that our neighbour is not the person like us. Our neighbour is simply the one we are with; the one next to us; the one who needs help; even if that neighbour is like the Jewish man was to the Samaritan, reviled, despised, and outside our tradition.

Jesus tells another story in the gospel of Matthew, known as the parable of the sheep and goats. Here he imagines the day of judgement. The King determines entry to the kingdom not on doctrine, not on religion, not on racial purity, but on another metric altogether. Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit those who were sick or in prison; that is, did you love your neighbour as yourself? (Matthew 25:31-46) It is by doing this that you love the King.

It is clear that many of the erudite, the pious, and doctrinally pure did not. It is also clear that many of the empire's outsiders did. They were the sheep who enter the kingdom of heaven.

People who are hungry and naked are typically those who are "not like us." They are the outsiders who have not "made it" like we have. Or they are indeed stranger; newcomers to the land. We are to love all the people of the land.

And as much as I have insisted on making this local, my street, our age is an age where the land is in fact the globe. All earth. Globalisation is not an idea, or a threat; it is a reality.

 None of this is a surprise. Indeed, it is knowing all this, and knowing that the rejection of the peoples of the land is at the root of much evil, which opens our eyes to the great depth of our social dilemmas.

Treating the peoples of the land as our neighbour would seem to increase our stress; it magnifies the scope of our disagreement with the powers that be. It hardly seems an antidote to the questions with which we began: How do we live with energy, and with integrity, rather than simply withdrawing and hoping to be left alone? How do we not become exhausted and despairing?

But treating all the peoples of the land as people, revering and honouring their humanity as much as our own, does the same thing as revering and honouring the land. It removes our ego from the centre. It makes us but one of the people in our life instead of the god at the centre of our life.

The vulnerability and costs which flow from not being Number One free us from the burdens of being Number One. When we are not "at the top of the heap" and not aiming to get there— not even aiming to be the King of Keevil Street, we are free to be ourselves, and to follow the passions God gives us. We are no longer enslaved to maintaining status, and position, and advantage.

There is something else which flows from going outside into The land and honouring the peoples of the land as our neighbours. It has to do with enchantment.

I think my lack of energy and my despair, is at its roots, disenchantment. If the political battle is failing, if the calls for justice and honour and respect for all the people of the land are unheard, or simply ignored, what is left? Only the conviction that God is still with us anyway; the knowledge that we are answering our calling, and the knowledge that we are on the side of what is good.

Disenchantment is where the God who is the basis of our call and conviction is no longer believable, or is such a transcendent and distant idea, that it no longer reaches us, and inspires and energises us.

Beck, working from Taylor, suggests that the essence of enchantment is that the boundaries of our selves are porous. God is real to us because we allow God to break into our selves.

"By contrast, in the modern era the self has become introverted, isolated, and closed off from the world." Buffered against the world. "The ego is now alone with itself, disengaged, withdrawn, and no longer in relationship with the world."

On this reading, the loss of the reality of God is not to do with science disproving God; if anything scientific insights will cleanse and radicalise our understanding of the nature of God. Rather, our modern way of being walls us off from the God experience.

I find this persuasive. The Sciences and the Arts which so many Christians fear are among the things which convince me of the likelihood of God. They do not remove God. God is "difficult to believe in" for two reasons. The first is that "God" is no longer a popular idea. To "believe in God," let alone actively trust God, is to go against the popular mythology of our culture. But the "unpopularity of God" only has credibility because of the "pervasive absence of God."

The pervasive absence of God is where I am at the centre and in control— or pretend to be. In my writing a computer program, or commuting to work, or buying food, I have no need. I am in control. I relate to people and the land in not only a technical and utilitarian way. I am walled off, a discrete unit, a law to myself.

When I step outside into the real world of the land this is all broken down. I am given a master class in vulnerability and need. I find there is little I can do on my own. I need the land and I need the peoples of the land.

I discover that I too am one of the peoples of the land. I am poor. I cannot feed or clothe myself without them.

If I undertake to treat them as neighbour that realisation of our commonality is further increased. I find we share similar hopes and fears and joys. They are just like me.

I could do this with my friends, with the people like me, the "in" members of my group. For an introvert, this alone is good medicine! But it is my neighbours who are not my natural friends who really break me open.

I find in those whom I would once have avoided or even despised, hopes and dreams, nobility, and kindness. Sometimes I find myself surprisingly honoured, and even loved. Even when there is little I can do but be there with  my own need and poverty completely exposed. And in the moments of being neighbour, I find the old words of the church ring true again and God is real and "believable." I am re-enchanted by the poor and needy peoples of the land.

I have too little of this experience, as do many of us. We are hung up on process and programs—essentially maintaining the ego—rather than letting go and simply serving. It is not energy, or despair, or exhaustion that is my real problem. My problem is that I do not want to let go of me. I want to stay safe. I wall myself off from the energy of God.

Andrew Prior 2014
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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