Moving the Flock

In my previous post, I went out on a limb and declared the present day to be “biblical times.” A commenter named Olivia chimed in and we have had a great little conversation about how individual detachment is important to help us cope with the “end of the world.” In some cases individual action is the best or only option. But I’m skeptical that we can be individually “saved” in any meaningful way. The problems we face defy individual responses, and scripture points toward a salvation that is largely or entirely collective in nature.

This week’s selections from the Revised Common Lectionary include the biblical passage that launched this whole holy cooperation adventure for me: Back in 2005 I was given a Bible by a young woman named Mendy, as part of a bizarre string of synchronistic events including a rather biblical encounter with a group of Israeli tourists in a cave in New Mexico. Really.

The whole sequence was a bit too weird for my secular self, and it was only half a year later that I was ready to grok that the first followers of Jesus were a bunch of communists who were engaged in economic organizing that resonated with my own work in co-ops:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)

The other lectionary texts for this week are all about shepherds and sheep. And if there’s one thing sheep are not known for, it’s individual initiative. Sheep don’t even have a plural or singular, but rather exist as a drop in the ocean of sheepiness.

Sure, Psalm 23 is told from the perspective of one particular sheep, but not in a way that really indicates any particular individual coaching; rather, the shepherd keeps the whole flock out of the valley of the shadow. A different metaphor would have been more appropriate if the psalmist had wanted to illustrate a more focused attention to protecting individuals from our specific struggles.

Since I moved to Oakland in 2012, I’ve attended a regular Tuesday morning lectionary study group. It’s been a tremendous privilege and blessing to learn with this wise, expert and often radical little community. This Easter season we’ve been focused on the first letter from Peter, one of only a handful of canonized texts written by (or at least in the name of) the disciple who later became regarded as the first pope.

First Peter is a letter of reassurance to communities in what is now northern Turkey, which was then something of an imperial backwater where the letter’s recipients apparently faced persecution for their stubborn nonconformity.

Presumably there is some continuity in themes between this writing and Peter’s other teachings, including his great Pentecost sermon, delivered immediately before the miraculous outbreak of collective wealth described in Acts.

But oddly enough, the trials are not really described, and the content of Peter’s first sermon was reduced to this maddening little snippet: “And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” (Acts 2:40)

Only the preamble to his sermon survived, forming the bulk of Acts chapter 2 (v.14-36). This preamble is generally mistaken for the sermon itself, but anyone who reads it aloud will notice that it only takes a few minutes – not even a long or complex sermon by our attention-deprived modern standards, and certainly not a memorably long bout of preaching back in the day.

Whatever words were in Peter’s sermon, the response was immediate and intensely collective in nature. It must have been obvious what he meant by “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (2:38) No explanation was needed for the followers to see that they – first and foremost – had to repent from the Roman economy.

Economic issues were the driving force of Jesus’ ministry and the core theme of his preaching. Some of his great miracles were about food and drink, and furthermore involved an element of collective participation (read carefully – neither the water-to-wine nor the loaves-and-fishes were clearly the result of Jesus’ specific action).

It seems most likely that the meat of the message was omitted because there was some sort of assumption of shared values once the reader bought into the importance of the sermon, which was established by restating prophesies that had been purportedly fulfilled.

There was probably no need to write down that painfully obvious element; it would be like spending most of a New York Times op-ed with an elaborate case for private property or voting, or against al Qaeda or forced marriage.

Also omitted was building a case for collectively turning from sin and toward God. This makes sense, because when it comes to economics I honestly don’t see any other way to effectively repent than by working together.

Sure, we can take individual action, and we must: We can move our money. We can buy Fair Trade chocolate. We can avoid the companies that use the worst sweatshops (or even eschew new clothing entirely). We can recycle. We can ride our bike. And in the end none of this addresses the systemic nature of our problems.

Of course, why seek solutions to systemic problems if we believe (as I usually do) that the whole system is irredeemably corrupt and doomed to collapse in our lifetimes? Ultimately, I think the answer lies in the need to confront our deeply-rooted mythology of individualism.

If one nurtures the fantasy of individualist escape from a collapsing society, there are essentially two possible trajectories – both neither plausible nor pleasant.

First, there’s the siege: A stockpile of ammo, iodine and non-perishable food is built up in some sort of obscure and defensible compound. Basically, that’s resigning oneself to a life of shooting at starving people, who will come individually or in groups until the supplies run out – since there’s no plausible way of producing for basic needs under siege – or until one succeeds.

Second, there’s a sort of hybrid group siege. This has much in common with the naïve industrialist utopia of Atlas Shrugged. In this scenario one finds other like-minded folks to attempt the launch of a new world on a small scale, in hopes that the local circle will somehow gradually reunite with other “good” people. Eventually the survivors form a new civilization once the old one has died back to a much smaller and more sustainable human population, hopefully without rendering the planet uninhabitable through a combination of escalating warfare and increasingly unsupervised industrial sites along most of the planet’s waterways.

This is a popular one among those who think that Jesus is going to show up like the hero in some zombie movie, saving adherents from the unpleasant conundrum of Jesus’ commandment to love and serve the poor who happen to be increasingly desperate in their pursuit of food. Hopefully He will return in glory before that 10-year supply of freeze-dried beef stroganoff runs out.

This sort of millennialist thinking is based less on biblical models and more on the individualist myth deeply embedded in our collective psyche. This mindset is rooted in the notion that some rugged pioneers loaded their nuclear families into a wagon and headed west. Sure, they traveled in a wagon train. But upon arrival they found the best (often idyllic and isolated) piece of land upon which to build a homestead. There is truth in this; a great many people got 160 acres for themselves through formal homesteading programs that supported isolation by reducing the land to a grid of acreage (which continued until 1976 – and for another decade in Alaska).

The stereotypical rugged individualist actually stood little chance against the stereotypical bands of Indians. On the other hand, the communalist Mormons built a flourishing new civilization in a rather difficult region of the west. Although The Book of Mormon included next to nothing that explains their propensity to develop elaborate socialist economics, the Saints used commonwealth approaches to counter the hostile settlers who passed through on their way to the gold fields. More on this here and much more in Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

We should wonder whether many pioneers would have made it to California if their path hadn’t conveniently included a stop to rest and resupply in Zion. I believe that there would not have been a critical mass of emigrants to allow the United States to wrest the southwest from Mexico had it not been for the Latter Day Saints. The Great Basin would have remained a land of sparse outposts along a poorly defined border, perhaps along the lines of southern Algeria – certainly without any Olympic host cities among the arid plains and forbidding mountains in which Brigham Young’s followers attempted to build the Kingdom of God.

This conversation started with the recognition that the end of the world is not a bad thing. It’s the only way we can really see the flowering of the Reign of Heaven. It is true that individual choices about how to engage with the world make a difference about how we might experience the end of the world.

But I’d like to be setting a higher bar than minimizing our suffering. Indeed, Christ’s suffering is held up as something to emulate: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pet 2:21) But it seems like the suffering is something we should bear together in common struggle against the status quo, rather than individual submission to it.

All homesteaders also built systems of mutual aid, and somewhat obviously they worked together to build new economies and systems of defense against the land’s previous residents (for better or worse). And there were many dozens of communes constantly springing up as the United States’ spread westward.

Admittedly there is no clear line between the shared siege I described above and building new community; we just need to look strategically at whether a particular community is capable of reaching critical mass – through its unique blend of numbers, physical resources and passion.

There is no frontier anymore. We’ve got nowhere to which we might escape, so we have to stick around. We must pull out of the economy but remain facing it, ready to receive those who follow us. In the same way that the Mormon’s developed systems of emigration stretching all the way back to Europe, we need to find ways to draw people out from however deeply they are ensnared.

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Biblical Times

These are biblical times.

There. I said it.

I think this socially-unacceptable statement has been the root of my writer’s block. I’ve been afraid to say these impolite words, but we live in impolite times. We are on the verge of catastrophe like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

It is really getting biblical, folks.

That is, these are the kinds of times that are recorded in holy texts like the Bible. The Bible provides a number of interesting models, and there are also many others. However, I want to focus on the Bible since it is ostensibly a key document for our “Judeo-Christian” society.

Biblical stories can be translated into our own context and language. Syria and Libya are our Sodom and Gomorrah – societies that have had a much worse time than we have, basket-case remnants of societies that help us feel better about ourselves.

But now Ukraine is unraveling. Really unraveling. This is starting to hit close to home. It’s not just the Middle East and Africa that is producing failed states. The insane suicidal struggle between two dying empires is grinding up a nation that is one of the world’s great breadbaskets and a chokepoint through which an awful lot of natural gas flows to Europe.

We are one mishap – one car bomb in Donetsk, one assassination in Kiev, one pipeline sabotage somewhere in the vast Ukrainian countryside – away from circumstances that we like to pretend can’t happen because they haven’t happened in our lifetimes. We forget what a violent place Europe has tended to be over the centuries.

Of course the trigger for the imminent change may not be Ukraine. It may be an earthquake, or an anomalous storm that blows in off a dramatically-warming Pacific, or a stock market collapse, or a solar flare. The details aren’t yet clear, but it seems pretty obvious where this is all going. It’s going to be a mess, but fortunately we are not alone. Many have struggled with this before us, as we might learn from stories from the Bible about destruction and reconstruction of societies.

We can learn a lot from biblical stories of how communities have grappled with issues of wealth and power. The Bible contains more than a few social upheavals, and therefore provides a useful guide to the transition from one order to another.

Unfortunately, we usually ignore uncomfortable facts like this: The book of Revelation climaxes with the collapse of a large and wealthy trading society, whose loss is mourned by kings, merchants and ship captains. And then… “the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: ‘Hallelujah!
 Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments.’” (Rev 19:1-2)

We ignore stories that actually have a lot to do with our current situation, which remind us which side God is on, and which side we are actually on.

But not all of these biblical stories are about destruction. One of my favorites is that of how Nehemiah led a grassroots rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, restoring the city after a long season astray and avoiding Sodom’s fate of total oblivion.

Nehemiah’s adventure began in the early spring, after months of ignoring the calling that God had put on his heart until he just couldn’t tune it out any longer. (Neh 2:1-2)

It is Spring now. It is time to move. It is time to stop screwing around.

We have had a season of relative ease and leisure, but now it is time to get back to work. Things are changing rapidly and the sooner we let go of our old ways, the better.

I realize that most of us have been working frantically, but not in the ways we should. Rather, we’ve been pouring our blood sweat and tears into a system that is dysfunctional, counterproductive and evil.

We must not beat around the bush on that last point. By all serious ethical standards, global capitalism is a disaster without precedent, wicked to its core. Yes, it has temporarily created extraordinary luxury for a small portion of the earth’s people. But that story is not over; that luxury comes at great cost of isolation, depression and violence. And it can unravel quite quickly. Will unravel.

We face a deadline that is unknown but probably soon. The current order will end, and when it does we must have something to replace it. There can be no more bargaining.

We – that is, people oriented toward cooperation and building new economic models – carry the seeds of a new civilization. We must be ready to plant them at the right time if we want to have a harvest.

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Loyal Judas

In today’s Gospel text for the Revised Common Lectionary – a three-year cycle that keeps Christians of many denominations on the same page, so to speak – Jesus sends Judas out to betray him. (John 13:21-32)

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Who orders his own betrayal? And when doing so, why do it in a way that looks for all the world like the same physical act of communion that is otherwise oddly absent in John’s Gospel:

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (12:26-27)

Other than the mention of Satan, this moment looks, for all the world, like an anointing to carry out some key task. And indeed it was a key task:

Jesus was already well past the point of no return. He’d waltzed into Jerusalem at Passover (a very loaded time, when the Romans would beef up security to deal with frequent disturbances). He shouted to the crowds that they should listen to him rather than the quisling sellouts that were in bed with the Romans:

For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. (12:49-50)

Essentially he was claiming to speak for God, which meant that anyone up to the high priest who contradicted him was therefore not speaking for God. These were fighting words that put Jesus and his followers on a collision course with the establishment.

Jesus knew his martyrdom would come soon. Deputizing Judas to rat him out was an effort to face the Romans on his own terms, at the time of his choosing.

Here’s why: Passover was a time when the city swelled greatly to accommodate a crush of pilgrims. Once the festival ended, Jerusalem would empty back out as they headed home. It was time to act, and Judas was up for the task.

Peter, on the other hand, took the easy way out. Immediately after Jesus dispatched Judas, Peter tried to show off his loyalty:

“Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times! (13:37-38)

Jesus didn’t buy it, and he was right. After Judas loyally carried out his “betrayal,” Peter followed Jesus into captivity, always falling just short of engaging the enemy. He made it to the very gates of the high priest’s courtyard – a pretty spectacular spot for some suicidal preaching – if he were so inclined. Several people even asked him to tell them about Jesus. (18:12-27)

Peter had the invitation to jump up on the metaphorical tank, to give a rip-roaring sermon that could easily have set off a disturbance among the working people who were in closest proximity to the high priest’s elite world, who knew first hand how this captor of a true prophet lived.

And Peter blew it.

Saint Peter went on to have a pretty successful career, moving to Rome and becoming the head of a more inclusive and cosmopolitan movement than the uprising he’d left behind. He was later (posthumously) made the “first Pope” of the Roman Catholic Church, which became the dominant strain of the developing religion once the more radical true believers back in Jerusalem (led by Jesus’ brother James the Just) participated in the city’s eventual liberation from the Romans in 66 C.E., and then were wiped out along with the rest of the city during the reconquest a few years later.

Judas, like Jesus, became a martyr.

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Tax Day and Passover

It’s a good day to reflect on what we get in exchange for our growing and increasingly inequitable tax burdens.

Last night was the start of Passover, a potent Jewish holiday of liberation, commemorating the ancient story in which the Angel of Death passed over Israelite homes during the dramatic plague-filled run-up to the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt.

This year, Passover occurs at the same time as the Christian Holy Week, which began with the Palm Sunday uprising, tracks through Jesus’ betrayal and martyrdom, and ends with a grand finale of resurrection in which the struggle goes on despite the brutal execution of its messianic leader.

Passover is the “reason for the season,” as people like to say during another big Christian holiday. Passover is why it all went down. There are some specific political, social and economic reasons why Jesus chose this festival to launch his inflammatory march on Jerusalem, in which he mocked the usual Roman war-horse triumphalism with his ridiculous mother-donkey as a steed, then promptly ransacked the Temple’s market that served as a nexus of the tainted relationship between the Jewish establishment and the Roman overlords.

It’s no surprise that Jesus got himself killed.

Some Christians believe that co-opting Passover will somehow bring them closer to Jesus. That might be so, in the sense that mimicking a ritual in which he participated every year of his life helps to remind us of Christianity’s roots in the Jewish struggle for liberation. I hope to avoid the many land mines littering that terrain while still pointing out that Easter is rooted in Passover. I am not claiming that Passover was somehow a festival cooked up in anticipation of one particularly-rowdy year’s observances. Rather, the Passover upheaval that occurred around 32 C.E. was the predictable result of a festival of liberation observed by a community in urgent need of liberation.

So what was Passover like in Jesus’ day?

Imagine that the Soviets won. Now we all have to grit our teeth through that humiliating military parade every May Day, knowing that it’s only a couple of months until the Fourth of July. And that’s our Passover, when our suppressed sacred holiday comes. The freedom fighters up in the hills will launch raids, and protests and riots will erupt in the cities. People will get hurt but it’s a good season overall, when we reconnect with who we really are.

That analogy gives some idea of Passover in Jesus’ day, but there is one more detail:

We are the Soviets. As ironic as it seems, the snowballing confrontation with Russia coincides with a sort of role reversal, in which the U.S. has taken on the role of global bully and boogeyman that was the Soviet Union – our rationale for McCarthyism, a suicidal arms race and a military industrial complex that is making great strides toward destroying what’s left of our republic.

Our “Christian” nation is engaged in exactly the sort of imperial overreach that made life in first-century Palestine so violent, tumultuous and often miserable. Washington isn’t nearly as brutal or capricious as Rome, yet, but it plays that same sort of role.

Yes, Russia is bad. Russia is probably up to no good in a whole variety of places, most notably Syria and Ukraine. But consider how the U.S. has been behaving, egging on a revolution that has yielded Europe’s most terrifying military confrontation in decades. The Russians, for all their flaws, have good reason to fear a failed state on their doorstep, considering how things are turning out in other places where the U.S. has intervened, most notably Iraq and Libya.

There has been a mind-blowing string of revelations in recent days, underlining how far the United States has fallen from its ideal (which it never really reached):

Surveillance is rampant with no real judicial restraint. Guantanamo is still in operation, and the trial that is the best hope of escape for a few of those poor souls imprisoned for more than a decade has been disrupted again by accusations that the FBI was attempting to convert defense attorneys into government informants. Drone ostensibly run by the CIA are actually flown by regular army personnel. Meanwhile, USAID is running CIA-like covert ops to destabilize Cuba in the way it destabilized Ukraine. God only knows what our tax dollars are doing in Venezuela.

Sometimes it seems like our government knows that it has lost its way. It knows our nation is dying, and it is trying to take down as many other nations as possible, so we will have lots of company when we finally become a failed state.

Having lots of company will help us avoid the hard truth that failure wasn’t inevitable. And oddly enough, the path to avert failure is our supposed “Judeo-Christian” heritage. Ironically enough, our failure will come from our denial of the call for justice that is the common root of Judaism and Christianity.

It’s not too late, of course, but for starters, we have to remind ourselves that whatever happened after Jesus’ death (a topic that is a source of division), his martyrdom can be a source of unity among everyone interested in real justice – people of many faith traditions and those of a more secular bent. Let it remind us of the importance of confronting power run rampant even at great cost.

Jesus died for something. Let it not be in vain.

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The Tower

During February I spent most of a week at a Bartimaeus gathering, in the Ventura River Watershed near Ojai. There, Ched Myers led us through a deeply prophetic study of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 4, verses 1 through 11.

Eleven verses. All week.

We pretty much spent a day on each temptation. It was a detailed study, to say the least. Matthew’s first and third temptations – riches and power – were right down my alley; of course the devil would offer those.

The middle temptation was more challenging for me.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Luke 4:5-7)

At first glance, it looks like some sort of Lutheran thing about how it’s best not to show off. But it’s deeper than that, tied to our sense of entitlement as “American” Christians.

Over the second day of our study we unpacked this temptation. Ched launched a fascinating architectural analysis that drew a line from the highest point of the temple, all the way back before Abraham to another tall building.

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:9)

This narrative gnawed on me for a couple of weeks until I finally got moving. I see that this temptation is about us and our computers. And our algorithms.

The conceit of algorithms is omniscience. It is (they are, collectively) the Tower of Babel for our times, promising us the best Thai food within 5 miles (or 10!) and protecting us from bad massage therapists.

As I mentioned a few days ago, my Lenten fast is from algorithms. Of course, algorithms are everywhere and I am already deeply ensnared. I use an email account provided “free” in exchange for just a little information about myself. Each time I start typing an address, an algorithm helpfully presents a suggestion list based on whom I have contacted most recently or most often.

Another algorithm hides in the autospell feature that is currently urging me to change how I spelled its name. I will not comply.

I can’t escape them right now. The importance is not identifying (let alone avoiding) the many ways that algorithms penetrate me. However, I can at least improve my general awareness and seek to minimize the extent to which I rely on mathematical equations to tell me what’s important.

When our Tower of Data falls we’ll be unable to communicate beyond the very local level. This sort of disruption often happens temporarily after disasters like the earthquake that hit the North Coast this hour. It could also happen in ways that do permanent damage to our ability to “connect” with people electronically. This will be a problem due to the severe degradation of our natural connections to nearby human beings.

How many phone numbers of your various beloved do you know by memory? Emails? How many of these data points are physically printed somewhere? What will you do when the keeper of your contact list lies dark in your hand?

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Fasting from Algorithms

My fast this year is from algorithms, to which I am quite addicted.

Specifically, I am not going to take my news from Google. And I’ll use Facebook and search engines with maximum restraint, only after dark when my primary work hours are over. Blogs and their links are OK, although comments sections should be approached with great caution. Basically, I shall seek information that is put in my path by humans, not machines. I shall seek a world framed by consideration as much as possible. A world framed by discernment, and not by algorithms.

This morning my efforts to rely on human editors (in this case, at The Guardian, my current favourite these days) led me to a fascinating piece with disturbing implications. That is, the process of physically locating images and eventually realtime video in Google’s virtual world – the world of algorithms.

So here’s a question that the computers can’t figure out, but we perhaps can: Which is more beautiful? The old painting or the most recent digital perspective? And, if you share my sense that it’s usually the past instead of the present, what does that say about whether the internet has become a place of refuge from a real world that is increasingly grim? We have hundreds of algorithmic friends but how often do we listen to that urge to pick up the phone and call someone? How often do we reach out?

If you are still reading, I’d like to offer an invitation: Please join this fast (or some version of it) and see what is going on. Or support the fast by recommending articles in the comments below. These stories can provide the foundation for reconnecting with what is positive and hopeful in the world. I will be grateful for your help as I launch a period of discernment of what is to be done, so please feel free to contact me if you feel the urge to know more about whatever unfolds this spring.

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Prayers for Rain

I don’t know if it’s just the delirium that comes with dehydration, but this drought is getting weird.

Despite a bit of rain in the past week, the news is increasingly dire: Massive contractions in the agricultural economy are already underway. No state water deliveries projected for south of the delta. Only a few months of water left for 17 communities (and counting).

Not surprisingly, people inclined to pray are turning to prayer. And it seems that prayers and rain are at least correlated.

I first noticed this connection during the previous time it (sort of) rained, about a month ago.  My partner Miriam and I attended Jewish Sabbath services in Sacramento, and the message was focused on the drought. The sermon as well as the bulletin mentioned that the California Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued a call for prayer.

Praying for RainThe next morning’s paper included news of another prayer for rain that had been held a local mosque. It was a fascinating way for The Bee to frame a sidebar about a modest and uncertain rain forecast that ultimately delivered a few drops – just as another Muslim prayer service of about 100 people was underway at Folsom Lake (currently only 17% full and likely to cause serious water shortages in suburban Sacramento). Although the day’s totals were disappointing, this was the only precipitation in 52 days without measurable rain in Sacramento including one day with a high temperature of nearly 80 degrees.

Now it’s easy to dismiss this rain as a coincidence, and in any case the sprinkle was hardly the end of the drought. But if we might believe in the power of prayer to impact the material world, I can’t think of a better prayer to believe than Salatul Istisqa.

This Islamic prayer for rain has a lot of history among followers of a religion that – while thoroughly global now – was born in one of the world’s harshest deserts. If there was one thing for which Mohammed and his peers utterly depended upon Allah, it was rain. And now, here we are, centuries later: wondering whether California faces a drought that will go beyond inconvenience and discomfort, or whether a little divine intervention might help us out.

Strange rains

Admittedly one bit of rain following some prayers is not going to convince many people.

However, our most recent rainfalls hint at something unusual. The first rain was highly-anticipated but disappointing – it seemed like yet another case of computer models overestimating because the stable and linear world from which they create their assumptions no longer exists. There do not appear to have been any major prayer events before or during that midweek rainfall (from what I can tell with a few web news searches). The main exception was a Native American rain dance in San Diego a few days earlier.

The second rain event was a strange storm that ran the length of the state from north to south, soaking the coastal ranges but barely touching the Sierra Nevada. In contrast to the normal pattern of false rain forecasts and storms from the west, this weather came out of nowhere and turned out to be the biggest rain we’ve had this season. There had been some chatter on the weather blogs that we might get a few showers, but I didn’t see anyone predicting that it would deliver much precipitation.

To heighten the sense that our fancy systems of forecasting had failed, the local paper here in Oakland featured a screaming headline asking: “Where’s Winter?” The accompanying photos of beach life were incongruous on that frigid and blustery morning.

It turns out that a day before Winter’s return close to 1,000 people gathered at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton (in a valley southeast of Oakland that seems headed into some especially serious water problems due to their heavy reliance on the State Water Project, which recently announced plans for zero deliveries). This was yet another Muslim prayer event, although the announcement acknowledged that, “When God withholds the rain it is a trial for everyone. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists, men, women, children, beasts, birds, even the fish, as we see in the devastation the drought has wrought upon our salmon populations.”

And there is certainly some buzz among Muslims about the success of the Pleasanton salat, which not only preceded rain but also created a beautiful display of outward-looking unity. We rarely hear about Islamic concerns for salmon.

I found this page about the event to be particularly interesting. For those inclined to hear it, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s sermon is presented first alongside images of dry lakebeds, followed by a shot of the unusual clouds seen at sunset and finally excited footage of rain that fell the next morning. The last few minutes of video are worth watching even if you aren’t interested in a sermon that includes some social conservatism alongside its powerful denunciation of the economic sin that is behind the lack of rain.

The prayer itself is intense, and although I can’t understand the words it’s obvious that Yusuf is pleading, begging, beseeching Allah to send rain; I haven’t encountered anything that emotional in church lately. The video ends a couple of minutes of footage shot the next morning, by an unseen videographer joyfully praying in Arabic as water flows down a long-dry creek. It is one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a while.

Another religion with roots in the desert has also been busy seeking God’s help. There were a pair of Mormon-led interfaith prayer events with farmers in Nevada and Utah over the weekend. And a regular day of fasting that occurs on the first Sunday of the month was dedicated to prayers for rain.

And finally, there was another rain dance (a weekly event hosted by the San Juan Intertribal Council) at Mission San Juan Bautista. This is especially remarkable because it is an ancient and somewhat local ritual of those who are most connected to the land, held at a location intimately tied to their conquest by a new civilization that is unwilling to live within the limits of the land. It’s a great spot for repentance.

What does it all mean?

Set aside your “scientific” biases and look at the evidence that prayer is doing something: We had a large assembly of Muslims in one of our most hydrologically vulnerable communities, Mormons across the state, and Native Americans at an old Catholic mission all directing some deep ritual energy toward rain this weekend.

And whaddaya know? It rained.

So what are we to make of this? Are we entering a season of miracles and omens?

We face a profoundly difficult year – both here in California and everywhere that will be impacted by the dramatic agricultural crash underway. Effects will certainly include nationwide spikes in food prices as well as shortages and the displacement of thousands of people previously dependent on rural California’s ag-based economy at a time when jobless benefits and other safety nets are being shredded. This is going to raise some challenging social issues, to put it lightly.

At risk of sounding kind of nuts, things are getting biblical.

I am not claiming that God is going to punish the gays or infidels or liberals or whomever; indeed the best results so far seem connected to the prayers of those who don’t share my religious tradition. Rather, we are entering a period of profound social, economic and eventually political upheaval that is of the sort that people inclined to write scripture identified as pivotal moments in their histories.

We need all the help we can get. We need a miracle – or many small ones like what we (perhaps) just saw with these synergies of prayer.

Ultimately I believe that our survival depends on reclaiming and transforming our old belief systems before the cult of scientific capitalism and perpetual growth destroys us. In recent years much of my work on cooperatives has been focused on faith communities, and I have found a strong spiritual value in cooperation that transcends particular religions.

Going forward

Thinking back to that synagogue in Sacramento last month, I recall that Torah portion for the week (Exodus 13:17-17:16) included a scene where the fleeing Israelites were trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the Red Sea. God asked Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (14:15)

The sermon asked us to consider what we can do. I found the suggestions to be fairly tame considering the severity of the drought, but a larger issue is the focus on individual acts of conservation.

I do think that we each need to reduce our personal consumption; to do otherwise is greedy and sinful. However, I’ve been struggling to figure out the collective responses to drought. We also need to face fires collectively. I know working together is essential and possible but so far I haven’t come up with anything beyond generalities like tearing up lawns to grow vegetables that don’t use much water.

However, perhaps there is something to these shared prayers for rain. Even if they don’t actually cause rain (in a scientifically provable way) they bring people together in faith that collective action can change our situation. Whether or not the rains come in response to prayers (or whether we agree on why they do), we definitely can use more sharing to get through this crisis.

We are all in this together. Let’s go forward.

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