About a month ago, as Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, I woke up early on Saturday. I did some gardening and stashed things around the yard that were lightweight and likely to blow around. The home front secured, I went down to my favorite spot in Rock Creek Park. I usually pray there. Sometimes get what feels like a response.
This Saturday was one of those times: I got an incredibly clear sense of “Now is the Time.” I have been preoccupied by disasters, which I see as having a silver lining by providing an opportunity for people to connect with those around them in ways that are ordinarily discouraged by TV, social media and plain old inertia and fear. As a result of this, I sometimes hope for disasters.
I realize this sounds awful, but I believe the short-term (and sometimes medium-term suffering) of disasters is one of the few ways out of a much greater long-term Disaster. You see, disasters are one of the only things that wake us up anymore. And if we are not awake, we’re going to stumble into some very unpleasant circumstances.
In addition to the hurricane, we had just had a (very startling) earthquake this week, and it transformed just another day at the office to a massive post-evacuation gathering in the park – a huge cocktail party with nothing to drink and no script. It wasn’t all bad.
The next day at the office, things were subtly different. People touched each other, laughed nervously, admitted their fear, asked about how each others’ home held up. Suddenly, we’d all had a profound experience in a familiar and mundane place, with a familiar group of people. Things were different.
I believe that sort of difference is our only hope in the face of a crisis in which our economic and ecological systems are on the verge of collapse. So at least if disasters hasten that collapse in certain places, it provides more of a transition than would occur if we just merrily watch X Factor until the wheels come off the global economy and we find ourselves at each others’ throats because competition is all we know. That’s what’s described in the biblical book of Revelation and its description of the fall of Babylon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back at my rock, under the darkening morning sky, I had an epiphany that it didn’t matter whether the New York subways flooded with seawater this weekend. They will eventually, and it is essential not to wait until that happens to figure out how to get along without them.
Of course, that is primarily a problem for New Yorkers, but our own responsibility is to figure out how we can get along without New Yorkers having an easy and reliable way of traveling into Manhattan. Specifically, we need to learn how to live without Wall Street and the global web of exploitation that it orchestrates. Part of that is learning to grow our own food (or at least find cash-free ways of arranging for our neighbors to grow it). We must be able to feed ourselves as well as each other, without collateralized debt obligations.
Don’t forget: We pulled that off for most of our history. Fancy finance is new.
On the other hand, exploitation is the oldest trick in the book. It was behind the fall of Sodom (Ezek 16:49-50) and the schism between Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 12:1-19) and it will be the trigger for the prophesied crash of our beloved, abusive Babylon (Rev 18:4-19).
Ultimately, Nehemiah’s story is a tale of recovery from a disastrous collapse of a decadent society, where hierarchy, exploitation and dependence on outside powers demanded a response that turned traditional power structures on their heads. That’s why it is so terribly relevant today. The crash hasn’t happened yet, but it is already unfolding all around us.
In the same way that Jesus’ followers in the Book of Acts pieced together a better way in their time, we need to seek models that work better than what our own Empire has delivered.
Let’s not be stubborn this time and wait for generations to suffer the effects of our arrogance. Let’s learn from the mistakes outlined in Nehemiah’s story. Let’s start tangibly rebuilding community now by organizing in ways that help us unplug from a system that – can I just say it? – is evil.
But we should not distance ourselves from that concept of evil by limiting it to creepy little monsters with horns, or terrorists, or child molesters, or even police brutality against the few people who are taking a stand against whatever they identify as evil.
No, evil is way more sneaky than that. And to fully address evil, we have to unwrap the way that it has hidden itself from our view. The dominant single text used as a moral foundation in our society is now neutralized by fixation on its sexual teachings (which are sometimes good, sometimes bad, almost always a distraction from the real issue of how people treat each other in a society).
And even worse, the clear biblical stories of economic evil are veiled by the general separation of biblical times from our own. After all, what can we learn from stories where people are turned into pillars of salt or live three days in the belly of a fish?
Nehemiah is one of the less otherworldly biblical stories, containing no accounts of anything supernatural ever happening. Nevertheless, to fully extract its meaning, we must take a look at how we view biblical texts through a modern, “scientific” lens. We must recognize that Sodom and Jerusalem were both cities that failed to live within their means, that ignored the signs until God (call it Nature or Reality if you must) forced their hands.