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?”

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.

Nothing is Wasted

The_Delivery_of_the_Bhagavad_Gita

In the Bhagavad Gita, just before a great battle with his own family, Arjuna has a conversation with Lord Krishna. Arjuna is lamenting that he is at war with his cousins, that he faces a battle with people he has loved, and feels like giving up. Krishna tells him that as long as he is following the right principles, “No effort is wasted, and there is no failure” (2:49).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I hear many of my friends who are seeking peace and justice lament that the world seems to be falling apart. They talk about being at war with their own families. They see how our politics have moved closer to fascism. Our economy more closely resembles the Gilded Age. They see that our civic religion simply justifies the state’s most awful abuses of power. It is hard to believe that “no effort is wasted, and there is no failure.” Many of us feel defeated already.

Part of this is because we believe the lie that the healing of the planet and our species depends upon us, and that we are not up to the task, or that we have already failed. I believe all of our great spiritual traditions teach us otherwise.

In the book of Exodus, God has a plan for what the Hebrews need to do to escape slavery. God does not tell them to take up arms—if they do, they will lose. God does not tell them to stage a teach in. God does not tell them to win the hearts of minds of their oppressors by building relationships and making persuasive arguments.

God tells them to throw a party.

Have a feast, God says. Only keep your shoes on and keep your walking stick in your hand.

What if the greatest acts of resistance to tyranny were about coming together and celebrating life? What if it was about feeding each other and telling our stories around a table?

Then, after God springs them from captivity, they find themselves trapped between a sea and an advancing army. God says, “This is actually why I brought you out here. Y’all are my bait, and also my witnesses. You don’t even need to fight. Just watch.”

God then proceeds to demonstrate the useless power of armored chariots against the sea.

Freeing them from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches involves teaching them with a demonstration. God turns the power of nature against the machinery of the state. “The domination of the oppressors is unsustainable,” God seems to say. “Their wealth and war machines will not save them, nor will you be under their power. Do not put your faith in such things.”

I do not always feel hopeful about the future, and am grateful when someone shares an encouraging word. These typically say to keep your eyes elsewhere. Don’t look at power or victory the way the world does. Two examples I’ve read recently speak hope to people who are tired, traumatized, and fearful. The first is titled Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. The other, written over a year ago, is an op-ed by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times titled We Are Not the Resistance. Whether you are a religious reader or not, I think these articles speak to a spirituality of grassroots activism.

“By practicing [these principles] you can break through the bonds of karma. On this path, no effort goes to waste, and there is no failure” (BG 2:49).

“The Lord will fight for you today; you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).

No, it does not mean sit back and take it easy. It is not a promise that the work will not be hard, scary, painful, or sad. It does not mean give it all up to “thoughts and prayers.” No Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian who knows the mystics of their traditions will tell you that.

What they will tell you, Arjuna, is that divine revelation comes to you in the chariot before a great battle—when you realize both how pointless and how necessary the fight is. These mystics will tell you that sometimes God brings you out of slavery and places you between a sea and a hard place, or helps you leap from the pan into the fire—just so you can see more clearly that this isn’t just about you. It is about all of us.

Most of us in the west misunderstand the concept of karma. Karma is not about getting what you deserve. It’s about letting go of the concept of deserving. None of us deserves either the good or the bad, so we should act without attachment, plant seeds without the assurance that we will see the trees grow, “cast our bread upon the waters” and trust that even if we do not see the good in this life, that there will be good that manifests itself.

I find it fascinating that our religious traditions tell us that what is working among us does want witnesses. The Great Mystery knows that we are forgetful, fearful, and frail. She knows that the act of throwing a party, of setting a table in the presence of our enemies, of celebrating our liberation before it ever happens, of acting without knowing the future is both an act of defiance and of faith. It reminds us that we are not alone, that no effort is wasted, and when we learn to be truly still and at peace in the face of the advancing enemy, we will know the power of God. That is victory.

Don’t Waste Your Breath

 

 

Lung cancer does not know if you are conservative or liberal, atheist or believer. Cancer does not care about your race, gender, sexual orientation, or if you are a good person. Heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, strokes, car and air crashes don’t care how wealthy or famous you are. And when we die, (because we all do), our fleshless skulls all smile the same smile—which makes justice and kindness all the more urgent.

Urgent even if you believe that there is a symphony on the other side of death, that a choir spot is reserved for you, the sheet music opened to the right spot, marked with a pencil where you are supposed to join in. Imagine showing up and standing mute, unable to sing, because your voice never learned to speak up for what is just and good, because it was never able to rise above a whisper for anything but yourself. In the chorus of those who are blessed because they are poor, because they mourn, because they hunger for righteousness, because they are persecuted, imagine losing your voice because it only ever spoke for the rich, the comfortable, and those who have never known hunger.

Regardless of what you believe about life after death, over your lifetime on this planet, in this life, you are allocated a certain number of breaths. What words will you choose to say with your own limited supply of air?

If you are a preacher, a pundit, a talk show host, a teacher, a leader—

If you are one of the lucky ones with a platform, whose voice is magnified, whose privilege makes your voice louder than others—

What message will you leave to the rest of us with your dying breath? Will you laugh with it? Sob with it? Sing it? Scream it? If it were set to music, would it make you proud?

Say it early. Say it often.

The rest is just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

On School Prayer

1640-50

Christians, do not ask for prayer in schools.
Make sure that students do not learn
about the God of the Bible.

This is the God who said “Don’t take my name in vain.”*
So unless you want your children to rebuke you
for slapping “In God we trust”
on your currency, your police cruisers, your weapons of war, and your campaign posters,
do not teach them to pray;
Because they will see that you actually worship
Money, Violence, Power;
Pluto, Mars, and Jupiter.
And they will reject your heathen religion.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice;”*
whose Chosen One said, “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but do not lift a finger to move them;”*
and “You lock people out of the kingdom of God,
you yourselves do not go in, and when others try, you stop them;”*
whose wise man said, “A poor person’s land might produce much food, but it is unjustly swept away”*
whose prophet said, “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to undo the thong of oppression and break every yoke?”*

So unless you want your children to reject debtor’s prisons,*
mass incarceration,*
capital punishment,*
and the use of cash bail to force guilty pleas from the poor,*
do not teach them to pray in school.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God whose writers said it is a sin
to use religion to justify bloodshed,*
to wage war on the trees,*
who condemned rich people and fat sheep for shoving the poor out of the way with flank and shoulder
and polluting the water with their waste and trampling the good pasture,*
for adding house to house and field to field, gentrifying the land
until there is room for no one but them.*

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who promised to destroy those who destroy the earth,*
or you will see your children and grandchildren
whispering about you
whenever they try to remember what it was like
to hear the sound of buzzing bees by day
and chirping of frogs by night.*

This is the God who says
I AM the one who brings down the mighty from their thrones.
I AM the one who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
I AM the one who opens prison doors and sets the captives free.
I AM, and no other.

This is the God whose Chosen One says
that religious people can become dull
and like salt without flavor,
that they can become worse than useless,
fit neither for soil nor the shit pile,*
who fertilize nothing, preserve nothing, flavor nothing.
These religious people are like desiccants, Jesus implies,
like the little packets found in plastic-wrapped containers,
marked “DO NOT EAT,”
leeching life out of whatever they touch.

No, you should not ask for prayer in school,
for it will be as if you had lit an oil lamp,
and then hidden it under your mattress,*
because those who actually come to know the God you claim to worship
will become a flame,
and then
you will burn while you sleep.

How to Kill an Imaginary Giant

Good gravy, liberal armchair politicians are the worst generals. Goliath comes walking along the front lines, full of taunts and contempt, and y’all are literally like, “no, no, this person can’t fight him. This person can’t fight him. OMG, what are we going to do?”

That’s part of the story: a whole army of terrified, traumatized soldiers. They should be crawling over each other to punch that SOB in his puckered sphincter of a mouth, but none of them do. It takes a shepherd boy to do the job. And his big brother is like, “How arrogant of you to show up thinking you can win.” (1 Samuel 17)

Y’all are like, “there are too many people running!” I am glad we’ve got a variety of people throwing their hat into the ring to fight. I expect them to throw some punches and get elbowed in the face on their way to do a job that maybe slightly less than half the country will hate them for. If only one person volunteered to do the job, or stepped aside meekly when someone you think is more qualified showed up, I would weep for humanity.

This guy isn’t even a giant! He’s literally the worst president in history who posts photoshopped images of himself as a fighter. Never actually been in a damn fight in his life, can’t walk with other world leaders without getting winded. Has to ride in a golf cart. Tweets from the toilet at 3AM. Only in power because a corrupt cabal of oligarchs will lie and cheat to keep a useful idiot in power.

And of course, all of this physical violence metaphor is fiction anyway. Trump isn’t even real. He’s in your imagination. Nobody’s throwing punches, they’re just saying words. The real violence happens down the chain, far away from CNN.

Our biggest enemy is our fear and hopelessness. This is why, in the story, it takes a poet to kill a giant.

Space Force is a Stupid Movie

Screen Shot 2020-01-13 at 9.24.36 AM
I love many sci-fi movies. But too often, battles in space feature explosions that have no debris. Space ships just magically disintegrate while their attackers dramatically fly through the colorful explosion.
This is one thing (among many others) I enjoy about the TV show The Expanse: it portrays the unintended consequences of stuff blowing up in space. Tiny bits of shrapnel continue traveling at incredible speed with no atmosphere to slow them down, penetrating metal and flesh. Blowing something up creates new problems for everyone, and the collateral damage may be you.
Good science fiction and fantasy reminds us that there are always unintended consequences to cool weapons or powerful magic. Actions that seem heroic or impressive (at first) can cause disasters. We often say, “If I could wave a magic wand…” we could make our troubles disappear, but good fantasy reminds us that waving a magic wand creates a cascade of other social or political actions that cause complications for our protagonists. Good sci-fi does the same: there are unintended consequences to inventing time machines, gaining superpowers, cloning warriors, or militarizing space.
Which is why we know that creating a Space Force is just stupid. Military action in orbit is just stupid. And Donald Trump is stupid. He has shown, time and time again, he has no understanding of unintended consequences. One significant military action in orbit could ground humans beings almost permanently, rendering further space travel prohibitively dangerous and expensive. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out, because rocket scientists are telling us that space junk is a significant problem already. Just like I don’t need to be a climate scientist to understand the logic behind climate change, or a political scientist to understand what creeping fascism looks like. All I need is the ability to read, an imagination, and a capacity for critical thinking.
People who read and tell stories about these things understand them better than wonks who dismiss them as “fantasy.” Communicating ideas and using our imagination is the superpower of our species. You hold a cellphone in your hand, in part, because Gene Roddenberry made a television show about people exploring space and talking on flip phones. The futures we imagine, we have the capacity to build. The problems we imagine, we have the capacity to avoid.
“Space Force” is terrible science fiction. Our policy-makers don’t have the imagination required to appreciate good science fiction or fantasy or anticipate potential problems with militarizing space. They suffer from a stunted imagination and chronic stupidity. This is “vincible ignorance,” ignorance for which there is no excuse.
Or perhaps we are living in great classic science fiction. Perhaps we’re living a farce about the hubris of a stupid president and his stupid supporters doing many stupid things that future humans will regret for decades. Perhaps it’s about how people can hear a story and totally miss the lessons it teaches, whether that story is the Bible or Starship Troopers. Perhaps it’s about how we export human sin wherever we travel, even into space.
Perhaps it’s about how we invent an amazing global communication network called the internet but cannot escape the human tendency to tell lies until we believe them. Perhaps it’s about how we are so good at imagining world-ending apocalyptic narratives that we create self-fulfilling prophecies that kill us, and if only we could imagine a better “apocalypse,” a better revelation, we could imagine our way to a better, more peaceful, more life-giving future. I wish we would imagine and share more and better futures instead of recycling stories of magical explosions and pathetic men trying to be badass.
Lack of imagination is a particular kind of sin. We have a God-given capacity for creativity and imagination. Let us not kill ourselves with vincible ignorance because we simply failed to imagine a better future for ourselves. Let’s imagine a better story than this F-rated flop film we’re watching now.

The Parable of the Addicted Students

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.” (Matthew 21:40-41)

 

A Drug Dealer came to the playground of a boarding school. “Hey,” he shouted through the chain-link fence. “I’ve got something you need to try.”

Some students stopped their play and gathered near.

“It’s called Fuel™. It’s a performance enhancer,” he said. “You will run faster, throw further, and jump higher than you ever did before.”

“Throw farther.” Said one precocious girl. “No thanks. My parents taught me that drugs will mess up your grades.”

“Not these drugs, sister,” he continued. “I told you they are performance enhancers. Fuel™ will give you more energy to do everything, including study. You will get better grades. See if you don’t.”

The Drug Dealer had not lied. In the coming days, the students began to excel on the playground. They ran faster, threw farther, and leapt higher than they ever had. Students who were reluctant at first realized they could not compete unless they also took Fuel™.

They spun so fast on the merry-go-round that some flew off, crashed through the fence, and died. But they had never had so much fun. The see saws presented their own dangers. A couple of student were catapulted clear over the school building, never to be seen again. But in spite of the danger, the students kept using.

Their schoolwork also improved dramatically. They went from making C’s and D’s to all A’s. In fact, they excelled so much in their schoolwork, the administration had to readjust their criteria and invent new grading systems. Students went from making A+++ to grades like AQA450. They changed the school motto from Ex Sapientia Modus (out of wisdom comes moderation) to Work Hard, Play Hard.

The administration was delighted. “It’s our innovative educational model,” they boasted to the world. “We have the best pedagogy and the brightest students in the world.” They won grants and cash prizes for their outstanding work.

In response, they raised tuition and school fees. They also blocked all the windows so the students wouldn’t be distracted by the view from outside. They reduced recess and lunch from an hour each to fifteen minutes for both. They eliminated summer and Christmas vacation, so the students could spend more time on their grades.

One day the students noticed that their playground had become a mostly empty gravel lot. There were no more trees to climb. The merry-go-round was rusted. Sticky puddles of some unidentifiable substance had collected beneath the swings. The sky was rust-colored. They were miserable.

They also noticed that the building itself was running down. Rain leaked through the roof and filled buckets stacked on desks. It was stiflingly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

Some of the students approached the drug dealer one day on their ten-minute lunch-and-recreation break.

“You did this!” they said. “You knew this would happen.”

“Knew what would happen?” he replied. “Everything is the same as before.”

The students went to the administration.

“You need to do something about the drug dealer who is ruining the school and our lives,” they said.

“Oh, you mean Provost Drug Dealer?” the administration replied. “Sorry, he’s in charge of security now. He also writes most of our rules.”

“This is wrong,” the students said. “We must stop using Fuel™.”

“What is wrong about it?” replied the administration. “You all have new crisp school uniforms. We have the highest-paid administration and best educational model in the world! Would you throw all of that away?”

“But we are miserable and our school is falling apart!” complained the students.

The administrators were too busy to answer; they were packing up gold fountain pens, expensive computers, framed art, certificates, and awards into boxes and loading them into their limousines in the parking lot.

The students went down the hall to Provost Drug Dealer’s office.

“You have ruined our school and our lives,” they said to him. “How long have you known?”

“Oh, we’ve known the side effects of Fuel™ for decades,” said Provost Drug Dealer, as he stuffed bundles of cash into a duffel bag.

“You must pay to make things right,” they said.

“Fat chance!” said Provost Drug Dealer, as he put on his hat and headed for the door. “I’ve got business at other schools. See you, kiddos.”

Now, what will those students do? Will they do the hard things and learn the hard lessons? Will they not protest, kick out the Drug Dealer, hold sit-ins and teach-ins, take over the administration, and create a curriculum of life?

For the king of the poor willingly took up his own cross and carried it with help, but the kings of the rich had to be dragged to the guillotine.