End-of-Civilization Stories

I’ve always enjoyed end-of-civilization stories* whether they involve zombies, asteroids, aliens, nuclear war, or ecocide. There’s something primal about these stories, and we’ve been telling them since before Hebrews and Babylonians told of a Great Flood.

But too often, in modern times, the cliché moral of the story is, “Human beings are worse than the zombies.” In the dystopian aftermath, roving gangs become violent and (almost always) super-patriarchal. Any institutions that do survive are authoritarian and dehumanizing.

Cory Doctorow made a point several years ago, after seeing the Snowpocalypse in Birmingham: what if, in a disaster, your neighbors are more likely to show up at your door with a casserole rather than a shotgun?

I think the steady drip-drip-drip of these end-of-civilzation movies trains us to see the world in a particular way. That’s why some people, in the midst of this crisis, feel it necessary to go stock up on guns and ammo. They believe our natural state is nasty, brutish, and short. They believe in the old-fashioned understanding of evolution or Social Darwinism, “survival of the fittest” (where “fit” simply means “strong” instead of “appropriate”). They believe that, if left to our own devices and without government oversight, our society will become the worst aspects of ourselves, and they will either have to kill and take, or be victims.

(It’s odd that these are often the same folks who pontificate on how we should shrink government to the size we can drown it in a bathtub. But maybe not so odd when you consider how they fetishize and look forward to the collapse.)

But we know better, now. Evolution isn’t just about “survival of the fittest.” It’s also about who can cooperate with others and create the greatest flourishing. We know that altruism, even between and among different species, can be adaptive. “Survival of the fittest” applies to “fitted-ness” of systems, whole forests and biomes—not just to individuals. Organizations, not just organisms.

We certainly do face many existential crises in our future. This pandemic is only the first ripple of many to come, thanks to climate change and growing economic inequality. But I think we, as a species, have some choices on how we prepare for them. We can rehearse hatred and fear toward the rest of humanity, preparing ourselves for hell and the hell we will need to unleash on others; Or we can rehearse an alternative future.

Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s always a need to defend our communities; especially against people who express the hell in themselves by inflicting it upon others. But survival isn’t going to be about who has the biggest guns or the most homogenous tribe. Guns can get you meat and protect you against people, but you can’t eat them and they can’t make you well. And homogeneity isn’t safe, because you’ll be missing the critical strategy or perspective that allows you to survive in a rapidly-changing world.

Just for the record, my interest in this is more practical than spiritual: I think civilizations that rehearse cooperation and altruism will survive better than those civilizations that rehearse violence, xenophobia, and social Darwinism. We’ve been trying the hateful one for awhile, and it just ain’t working.

I guess we’ll find out!

—————–

*”End-of-civilization” is better than “post-apocalyptic,” because “apocalypse” just means “revelation.” And I think if we the true nature of reality was revealed, we’d find it more funny than terrifying.

Lent, Day 21 — Fasting

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Fasting

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

 

  1. Traditionally, Lent is a season of fasting and repentance. But fasting as a spiritual practice is not as widespread as it once was. People in our religious context do not generally go out of their way to demonstrate that they are fasting.
  2. Perhaps this is partially due to our relationship with food. Ironically, as our society has become less dependent on agriculture and food production and less prone to famine, we no longer see hunger as something to be conquered or endured. The Great Depression, our last period of widespread hunger, was nearly a century ago.
  3. It may also have something to do with the way we think of hunger as a poverty issue. It is unimaginable to many of us that the wealthy, too, could starve. But that is exactly what happens in famine. Class doesn’t protect you. You can’t eat money. There’s a story about Joseph in Genesis (click the link to read it), when the famine got so bad that even the wealthy nobility became Pharaoh’s slaves because of hunger.
  4. Fasting is a way of reminding oneself of one’s radical dependence on rain, on insects, on fertility, on God. Hunger is not a poverty issue, but a human issue. It is a way to focus on God and remind us of our solidarity with each other, including those who are chronically hungry. You are not convincing God of your dedication, but transforming yourself and changing your perspective. You are enhancing your gratitude.
  5. Fasting, like sabbath rest, puts us at odds with capitalism.
  6. Some pundits, eager to judge, say that the whole season of Lent is problematic. They say people should not talk about what they are giving up for Lent, or wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, because of these verses right here. I receive that critique, but need to point out how different our context is. Most Americans today don’t even know what fasting is.
  7. In South Korea, it is a different matter. Because of the Korean War, the memory of famine is more recent there. Today, entire retreat centers are devoted to fasting prayer. The cafeterias even have special meals for those ending a week-long fast to gently wake up their digestive system.
  8. To place these verses in context, look at the word “whenever.” Like whenever you pray, and whenever you give to the poor. These are regular acts of devotion that people did all the time, not just during a season when it was expected. This is why I believe criticism of Lenten practices is overblown. (In fact, some criticism is just another way of performing one’s religiosity, of being a hypocrite).
  9. A few chapters after this, students of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14). They are making a comparison: “Jesus, your disciples don’t seem as religious as we are.” Jesus replies that the wedding guests shouldn’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. But who knows? Maybe Jesus’s disciples were fasting, but simply were not “disfiguring their faces?”

Lent, Day 20 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Forgiveness

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses
.
(Matthew 6:12-15)

  1. Jesus concludes his example prayer and resumes his sermon. I’ve included this transition so you can see today’s theme of forgiveness clearly.
  2. This is one of those places where word choice matters. In the first line, Jesus uses the Greek word here: ὀφειλέταις, opheiletais, in the phrase “forgive us our debts.” In the last line, he uses παραπτώματα, paraptomata, in the phrase “forgive others their trespasses.”
  3. There is another word for sin, ἁμαρτια, hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” I think it is interesting that Jesus doesn’t use it here at all. He uses metaphors: stumble, owe, trespass. I think the metaphors are important for correcting the way we normally think about sin and forgiveness.
  4. The last two lines are intimidating: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is God’s forgiveness really a tit-for-tat?
  5. There’s evidence that Matthew would say yes. Matthew 18:23-35 is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which is about a boss who forgives a debt of millions of dollars. The forgiven man goes out and demands repayment from another man who owes him fifty bucks. So the boss un-cancels the debt! Is Matthew saying “This is how God behaves?” Or is he saying, “This is absolutely NOT how God behaves?”
  6. More evidence: in the next chapter, Jesus will say, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Yes, it is intimidating!
  7. Theologically, I don’t think this is how God operates. But what does it do to our thinking if we prayed this way? “God, inasmuch as we forgive others their debts, forgive us.”
  8. Here’s a crazy idea: what if we are God to each other? What if my judgment and condemnation of others is reflexive, because Christ dwells in me and in them? The Bhagavad Gita says, “The Lord dwells in the hearts of all creatures” (18:61). If I cannot forgive God for creating the jerk who just cut me off in traffic, can I truly let God forgive me? If I damn him to hell, aren’t I damning myself, too?
  9. I think this is why Jesus uses “debts” and “trespasses,” instead of sin, because this section isn’t really about the nature of sin. It’s about forgiveness. And if we want to understand how God operates, we have to understand forgiveness from both sides.
  10. Because the secret is that there are not two sides at all, debt and debtor, trespasser and trespassed. There is only God extending grace through each of us to the other.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 19 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Prayer

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in [the heavens],
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in [the heavens].
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:7-13 NRSV)

1)    Don’t be like them. In this sermon, there are two groups of people Jesus tells his followers not to imitate: religious hypocrites and Gentiles. Jesus already showed us how hypocrites behave. They perform their religion for social approval.

2)    Jesus’s words about Gentiles are rooted in his Jewish identity, because God had chosen to reveal God’s self as a liberating, life-transforming God. Gentiles (that would be us), like the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians, lived in fear of capricious, fickle gods. If a god fell in love with a mortal, the mortal would likely get crossways with another god and get turned into a tree or bird or cow. If the gods decided they didn’t like you, you might spend seven years trying to get home (like Ulysses). If you said your child was smart or pretty, you’d better hope the gods didn’t get jealous and smite them with something. Nothing you did was ever good enough for the gods, so it was best to fly under their radar and not draw attention to yourself. If you did choose to pray, you had to convince them to hear you. “You don’t need to filibuster the Source of the Universe,” Jesus says.

3)    In contrast, God (who Jesus indicates is already present in your secret place and your innermost self) already knows what you need.

4)    There have been whole books written on this prayer, so I will not break down all of its elements. I’ll just mention a few of its big parts. First, hear how God’s will is done “in the heavens.” This is why people do astrology, because the stars and planets move according to God’s will. A star appeared to herald Jesus’s own birth, according to Matthew. “God’s will done in the heavens” is not about a mystery realm in the afterlife. People literally believed God was ordering the movements of the cosmos. This is a plea for life to be made predictable and in right relationship. It is a call for justice. (And this is why I keep pointing out that we should translate this phrase as “the heavens”.)

5)    Daily bread is a reference to manna in the Hebrew Bible. This is about teaching us to live in the moment, with what we need for today. Jesus will revisit this theme when he talks about money and worry.

6)    Debts. Debt was rampant in the first century, and it held people in poverty. Jesus uses debt forgiveness in his parables. The difference between “forgiving sins” and “forgiving debts” is that debt forgiveness is revolutionary and systemic. There is a reason predatory lending, medical debt, education debt, and climate debt are in our news so much today. I’ve chosen to use the NRSV today, because it says “debt” instead of “trespass” or “sin.”

7)    Save us from the time of trial. The Pope recently told Roman Catholics to use this phrase instead of “lead us not into temptation.” It even made the news! I think it is high time. God doesn’t tempt us with sin. Tests and trials, on the other hand, are certainly in the Hebrew Bible.

8)    I think these word changes help us hear that God’s activity is less about sin management and getting our souls into heaven, and more about God’s saving activity with us here on this planet. “Your will done on earth as in the heavens.”

There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

A Prayer on Ezekiel 34 in a Time of Pandemic

To the One in Whom we live and move and have our being:

Though I long for normalcy
May we never return to normal.
May we cling to the embrace of the world
With the tenacity of a lover
Or a child to its mother.
May we hold tenderly
the knowledge that we are one human body
And that what affects one affects all.

May we never again return to normal,
Looking at the world as if we were hoarders,
Viewing the world through the lens of scarcity.
Let us see your abundance:
That there is more than enough for everyone,
More than enough food
More than enough housing
More than enough health care.
Let us all see clearly that the ideology imposed on us
Is arbitrary
Cruel
Mendacious.
Let us expose the lie
That in order to have food
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to have housing
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to have health care
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to deserve time off
We must be rich.

May we never again return to normal.
May we see with clarity
Who are the real “makers and takers.”
May we value garbage collectors and grocers and farmers
The way we value our own digestive systems.
May we value teachers and professors and counselors
The way we value our own brains.
May we value orderlies and nurses and doctors and researchers
The way we value our own health.
And may we value the proper role of government
Instead of trying to drown it in a bathtub
So that we are left without competent leaders
In the midst of a crisis.

May we never return to normal.
May we restore to their proper role
The shepherds we have appointed
Who should be judged on their ability
Not to make money for investors,
But to take care of the flock
To bind up the injured,
Who take seriously the notion
That they will have to give an account to you
For every one lost, exploited, or shoved aside.
Hold them accountable, God,
For they have fattened themselves off of the flock
And allowed the fat sheep to foul the water with their feet
And trample the pasture with their feet.

God, let us not waste this opportunity for peaceful social change,
Because as surely as predators hunt the weak among us,
There are those already working
To seize property
To enslave us even more
To impose burdens on us just because they can,
Who claim, like Pharaoh,
That those who work for liberation, for sabbath rest,
For reparations, and for justice
Are simply “Lazy, lazy.”

May we never return to normal
Forgetting how intimately and physically we are connected:
That what was in one body
So easily takes up residence in another.
We have lived so long under the lies
That we do not need each other,
That we do not belong to the Earth,
That we are not part of the same web,
That some of us are more important and more worthy than others.
Too many eyes are shut tightly against the light of your revelation, Lord.
Open them. Help them bear the truth which hurts
And sets free.

God, though I long for normalcy,
May we never, never return to normal.
Amen.

Lent, Day 18 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Prayer

When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

  1. Public prayer. Hoo, boy. Prayer in schools. Before football games. Before legislative sessions. In restaurants. At protests. In hospital waiting rooms. Which of these are acceptable? I get this question all the time.
  2. Some people use this verse as a proof-text to bash ALL forms of public prayer.
  3. In the gospel of John, when Jesus prays for Lazarus, he says this: “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me” (John 11:41-42). Jesus explicitly says he is praying so that others will overhear him. Is Jesus a hypocrite for praying in public? Is he twice a hypocrite because, in Matthew’s gospel, he says not to pray in public? This is why I believe we cannot use these verses to disallow all forms of public prayer.
  4. As with Jesus’s words on giving, the question is, “What’s going on under your persona, your mask?” Are you an actor, performing for others so that you will be thought of as an upstanding citizen? Or are you actually speaking to God and helping others relate to God?
  5. Again, Jesus switches between singular and plural forms of you. This is addressed to individuals and our need for social approval.
  6. But there are times when it is appropriate for the community to pray, as a gathered body. At those times we may appoint a spokesperson to express the needs of a community to God.
  7. The ethical question of public prayer for a legislative body, or a sporting event, is not about an individual seeking praise, or of a community of faith speaking with one voice. It’s about imposing certain beliefs on minorities. I’ve been in public spaces where the person who prayed used language I could never say “amen” to.
  8. An often-overlooked part of these verses is that God is present everywhere, even in your secret place. “Your Father who sees what you do in secret” is repeated three times in this section. This secret seeing is not like police-surveillance. It is benevolent and sympathetic. God already loves us. We don’t have to earn it.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 17 — Hypocrisy

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Hypocrisy

Hi, friends— I know this is a trying time. I hope these Lenten devotionals continute to offer you spiritual sustenance in this time of fasting from social interaction. Please let me know if you need to talk. You can email me at dave@saintjunia.org.

Whenever you give to the poor, dont blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, thats the only reward theyll get. But when you give to the poor, dont let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)

  1. Hypocrite. It’s a word that we use casually now. We usually mean “someone who says one thing and does another.”
  2. But Jesus invented this metaphor, and it’s actually less specific. It means simply “actor.” The word hypocrite meant a theater performer, someone who plays a role.
  3. Greeks introduced theater to the world. Actors in Jesus’s day wore elaborate masks with built-in megaphones. A mask was called a persona.
  4. I think a good substitute word is “Drama Queen.” Jesus is saying lots of religious people are simply drama queens, performing for public admiration.
  5. Today, when someone donates a large sum of money to a university, they often get a building named after them. This form of honor was even more showy in the ancient world. Honor was currency. If you gave a large sum of money to an organization, you could expect a statue of yourself and your family in the garb of royalty.
  6. When Jesus says “I assure [y’all]” he uses the plural form, because he’s talking to a group. But when he illustrates particular situations, Jesus switches to the first person singular pronoun: “Whenever you (singular) give.”
  7. For the record, I don’t think it is showy for a church to talk about the good things they are doing for a community. Recently, when churches have canceled medical debt, it has been a witness both to the good they are doing and the oppressive debt of our health care system. I think this is one way the church as a group can be a “light to the world” while we, as individuals, avoid “blowing a trumpet” or tooting our own horn.
  8. Sometimes in churches it is important for people to share their own story of giving, or what giving has done in their lives. This often gets done during the “stewardship campaign,” which is unfortunate. But if we do not talk about how giving changes us, we are failing to teach each other. This is different than Jesus’ illustration of how actors call attention to a particular act of generosity.
  9. I think Jesus’ challenge to us is to examine what’s going on under our persona, under our mask. The language about our left and right hand shifts our awareness to what’s going on in our own bodies and our own selves. Is there something we are trying to cover up with our performance of piety? Some kind of insecurity?
  10. Insecure people often shame other folks for being exceptional or doing good. If I feel you are getting “too big for your britches” I may feel it necessary to “take you down a notch.” I call you out as a hypocrite because I am a hypocrite. Humility, pride, hypocrisy: Sometimes religious people wield these words as a cudgel because they are insecure. (Jesus will talk about the log in our own eye in the next chapter.)
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 16 — Shining vs. Showing Off

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Shining vs. Showing Off

Be careful that you dont practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in [the heavens].

Whenever you give to the poor, dont blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, thats the only reward theyll get. But when you give to the poor, dont let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-4)

  1. Let’s just focus on the first two sentences today. We’ll look at the rest tomorrow, but I’m including it for context.
  2. In the last chapter, Jesus told his new community to “let y’all’s light shine before others, so they can see the good things y’all do and give glory to your Father in the heavens.” He even said, “Your reward is great in the heavens.”
  3. But here he makes a turn: “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in [the heavens].”
  4. Whoa! Which is it Jesus? We’re supposed to let our oil lamp shine and not put it under a basket (or mattress), but we’re also supposed to not let anyone see it? This tension is deliberate.
  5. Jesus describes the difference between civic religion and prophetic religion. Civic religion rewards people for upholding the status quo, for making a display out of religious behavior. The things Jesus highlights in this next section—giving to charity, praying in public, public fasting—are all about impressing other people, but not creating any kind of substantive change in ourselves or society.
  6. Let’s talk about rewards for a minute: Jesus just finished talking (in chapter 5) about the sun shining and the rain falling on the wicked and the good. Our love should be impartial, like God’s love. It’s a stark contrast to these words, which describe religion as transaction: I do X to get Y.
  7. Let’s not read these words about rewards too literally. God is not a vending machine, churning out rewards for our secret righteous actions. Jesus is trying to redirect our attention from the reward of social reinforcement to something more intangible. Psychologists might call this the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
  8. The reward may simply be a reference to how Jesus started this sermon: “Happy are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.” The reward for the prophetic community back in the last chapter was happiness in the midst of persecution!
  9. The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, says, “The awakened sages call a person wise when all their undertakings are free from anxiety about results… Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments” (4:19-23). I think this is the direction Jesus is going. The “reward” should not be social praise, nor is it a jewel in your crown in the afterlife. The reward is God’s own self acting in you.
There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!

Lent, Day 15 — Summary of Chapter 5

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Summary of Chapter 5

 

We’ve made it through the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount! Now that we’ve put the individual sections under a microscope, let’s zoom out and look at the structure together.

Jesus is building an argument: This is what his prophetic community should look like. They are not “getting rid of the Bible” or abolishing the Law and the Prophets. They are instead living out God’s action in the world. They are happy in the midst of their struggle for justice, love, and peace.

Unlike the people usually called “religious” (the religious leaders), they internalize the ethical commands of the Bible. They don’t think they are good citizens just because they don’t murder or rob banks. They try to live an ethic of love, impartially showing it to friends and enemies alike.

Here is my outline of Jesus’s argument of the first chapter:

  1. Happy are people who ____, for they will ______. People who see God’s kin-dom live with one foot in the present and one foot in God’s timeline. (5:1-10)
  2. Guess what? Y’all are a community of prophets, just like in the Hebrew Bible. So expect to be challenged. Y’all are my salt and light to the world. (5:11-16)
  3. Don’t think I’m getting rid of the Bible; I’m raising the bar, not lowering it. (5:17-20)
  4. Lots of religious leaders think they’re good people if they avoid murder, adultery, and breaking promises. They think revenge makes them righteous and loving their family makes them generous. This is conventional religion. (5:21-42)
  5. But you are to be a community of peace and justice inwardly, in your spirit and your relationships. You are to show the world what God’s impartial love looks like. (5:43-48)

You can read the whole chapter here in the Common English Bible translation. (Ignore their headings and use my outline as a guide. You can even turn off the headings by clicking on the little gear. It gives you a more seamless reading experience).

Our next devotional will pick up with Matthew 6.

There is a different way to follow Jesus. We’re trying to live it and teach it. Support Saint Junia financially so we can keep it up!