Biblical disasters – part III

Nearly two months ago, I ended a blog post with the following:

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.

It is tempting for modern secular people to reduce the Bible to a collection of stories and symbolism at best, or an irrelevant bunch of hokum at worst. I know this temptation from experience.

What’s unfortunate about such a reduction is that it limits the secularist’s ability to learn from the stories even without believing their factual accuracy. Maybe nobody really turned into a pillar of salt, but does that make the lessons of Sodom any less important?

Now, by “lessons of Sodom” I’m not referring to anything about sex, per se. Indeed, one lesson from this story is how badly people can miss the point of the story. After all, the prophet Ezekiel tells that Sodom was destroyed for its sins of “pride, laziness and gluttony, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.” (Ezek 16:49-50)

Think about Sodom as a city wracked by some combination of revolt and invasion, not unlike that which later burned Rome, reduced the Easter Islanders to a confused remnant that couldn’t even explain how its ancestors had built the giant statues that are the largest things on the island or left the great Mayan cities deserted and swallowed by the forest. Europe as a whole almost went the same route, with the basic tools of civilized life -literacy and numeracy, for example – preserved only by a handful of monastic orders.

Social collapse is not unique to the Bible, but nor are societies in the Bible somehow exempt from basic laws of nature like the carrying capacity of the land and the near-inevitability of revolution if wealth inequality is not addressed. Violation of these laws does not always result in a full-blown smiting in which a city is wiped off the face of the earth, but it can.

A not-quite total collapse is depicted in the later fall of Jerusalem (of which Ezekiel warned in the above passage). The destruction of this city, which ultimately lay in ruins for more than a century, has a clear link to environmental degradation, which made the land unable to support its human population. Once the people were removed, taken away into Exile in Babylon, “The land finally enjoyed its Sabbath rest, lying desolate for seventy years, just as the prophet had said.” (2 Chron 36:21)

It seems we are not the first people to ignore warnings of environmental trouble ahead.

We usually think of sabbaths in terms of a single day of the week, but a seventy-year rest? That’s a long recovery time to make up for a lot of missed rest. And this is where we really need to learn: Our society is hell-bent on growth at all times and at all costs, and of course that’s not possible in the real world with its seasons and very definite limits to a small planet in vast space.

I just read “Toward a Jubilee Economy & Ecology in the Modern World” by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. It’s one of those pieces of writing that show up at just the right time (Thanks Mir!), and it has provided some nice material for tonight’s post. Waskow hypothesized that roughly every 50 years the economy will naturally grind to a halt, either joyfully or painfully:

Once every 50 years or so, if there is no redistribution of wealth and power there is a Great Depression. Why should this be so? Because over an entire generation, if the poor get poorer and the rich get richer there are more and more troublesome frictional effects. The poor become less able to buy what the institutions are producing and there emerges a glut of unused productive capacity…

Now in an odd way the Jubilee Year would itself be an economic “depression”: everybody is unemployed, the whole social apparatus stops. The difference is in the sharing. In a modern depression, the poor suffer terribly, most of the middle class a great deal, and some of the rich may lose their shirts. The burdens are unequal, and the pain of the “resting” that benefits the whole society is imposed on only some of its members. The Jubilee shares the “pain” of resting for in the short run, there might have been less to eat if for two years in a row no one had sown, cultivated, or reaped and turns the pain into a communal celebration.

To borrow another thought from Waskow’s other writings (I don’t recall the work, but this is one of those Great Thoughts that put him forever on my radar so I know he wrote it somewhere), the concept of Sabbath is not a law in the moral sense. It is more like a law of physics that we are completely incapable of breaking in the long run – no matter how naughty we might be. So either we find an orderly way to work Sabbath into our lives, or it will work its way in on its own terms in ways we are likely to enjoy less.

Back in today’s reading, Waskow also proposed:

a universal national “Sabbath” on all but life preserving emergency services.

Such a festival would give our society in a regular, chosen rhythm what only a few cities now experience only in a random, unchosen way. For such “festivals” now occur only when a great blizzard clogs the whole town with snow. Observers report that the first reaction is panic, an hysterical attempt to get to work. When it becomes clear that no one can work, a mood of joy and festive calm spreads across the city. Everyone shares: food, stories, emergency assistance. People play in the snow. It is a day of unemployment but in a mood of holiday, holy day. Much more a holy day, in fact, than most of the commercialized holidays that have been made occasions not of rest but of turning on the “consumption economy.”

This strikes me as particularly interesting because Waskow has turned disaster on its head. Ordinarily, those who see the Hand of God moving think of disasters as divine punishment. Most notoriously some declared Hurricane Katrina to be God’s wrath against sexual deviance in New Orleans even though the storm’s eye actually hit relatively-tame Mississippi.

But can disasters, in a sense, be a loving correction? Can they point us toward a safer, saner and more sustainable future?

Perhaps they can. If we are willing to learn. A blizzard is one thing, causing great disruption but minimal damage. But a major hurricane, tornado outbreak or earthquake is not much of a festival. Lives are lost and permanently altered in usually unpleasant ways. Even so, disasters point to our weaknesses and let us know that we must seriously attend to that which we prefer to neglect. Hurricane Katrina, oddly enough, was a perfect example of this, forcing us to look at the poverty and degradation of infrastructure that our high-rolling lifestyle has wrought.

New Orleans would not have survived Katrina on its own. As an independent nation-state it almost certainly would have become shorthand for unspeakable destruction – a modern day Sodom – left to molder away and sink into the swamps. The people of Baton Rouge would now whisper the name of the dark city whose corpse still looms out there among the bayous. But because New Orleans is part of a huge confederation of cities, it was able to draw support from its sisters and survive to fight another day.

Unfortunately, the whole family is not so strong these days. This year’s string of disasters has cast a stark light on the fiscal limitations of our nation’s ability to recover from injury. We seem to have mainly dodged the bullet as (so far) it’s been a quiet fall other than a few huge storms. So disasters are back off the front page. But the limits of our resilience is out there, lurking.

Religiously-minded folk might say that God has warned us. But whatever one’s perspective, its a warning.

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One Response to Biblical disasters – part III

  1. Pingback: Meet Our New King « Nehemian Organizing

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