I wasn’t planning on being a cultural critic when I sat down to write, but the week has been long and I am tired. I didn’t come to the desk with a ripe idea; my mind felt as blank as the page in front of me. So I went looking for other words or, should I say, other’s words. On top of one of the desks in our house I found two small bookends holding three books. The one I chose was The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger, one of my favorite writers and one who intends to be a social critic. He pulled me in.
The book is one I have read several times and have left well marked. I flipped through, reading bits and pieces I had underlined on previous journeys. Towards the end of the book is an essay entitled “Against the Great Defeat of the World.” Near the conclusion of the essay I came across these words that sound as though they were written this morning and not in 2001.
The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed; in the culture of globalization, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise. The given is a prison. And faced with such reductionism, human intelligence is reduced to greed.
This week, the majority of the elected officials in our state — I can’t bring myself to call them leaders — began working towards passing legislation that would do away with corporate income taxes, personal income taxes, and raise the sales tax — even on food and other necessities. Intelligence reduced to greed. Intentional actions to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. And our state is not alone. On the national level, most of our elected officials have backbones about as strong as overcooked pasta and the vision of bullies on a middle school playground. Greed — for wealth, for power, for control — rules us.
Berger goes on to speak of how we rise up against the defeat of the world:
First, an horizon has to be discovered. And for this we have to refind hope — against all the odds of what the new order pretends and perpetuates.
Hope, however, is an act of faith and has to be sustained by other concrete actions. For example, the action of approach, of measuring distances and walking towards. This will lead to collaborations which deny discontinuity. (214)
Approach. I thought first of walking up the altar for Communion, standing in the unbroken line of saints who have come before us, who point us to the horizon even as we feel the push of those who will come after us, expecting the path of discipleship to remain well worn. I thought also of Communion as we pass the plates down the pews, offering and receiving, approaching one another in the name of Christ, reaching out as we give and take. Approach: the Peace of Christ be with you; and also with you.
Measuring distances. “Teach us to measure our days,” wrote the Psalmist. And so we mark forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, not counting Sundays, even as we also count the days of Advent, Christmastide, Eastertide. And Ordinary Time. God has shown us how far it is to forgiveness, how close by grace resides, how long and wide and deep and tall the love of Christ truly is.
Walking towards. One of the choruses we sing with some regularity at church is “We are Walking in the Light of God.” As I noted a couple of nights ago, Jesus knew he had come from God and was going to God; we follow in his steps. We walk towards God, towards love, towards justice, towards kindness, towards making sure everyone knows he or she is wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.
Berger’s words remind me of the opening verses of Steve Earle’s song, “Jerusalem” —
I woke up this morning
and none of the news was good
death machines were rumbling cross
the ground where Jesus stood
and the man on my TV told me it had always been that way
there was nothing anyone could do or say
and I almost listened to him
I almost lost my mind
and I came to my senses again
looked into my heart to find
that I believe that one fine day
all the children of Abraham
will lay down their swords together
We are six months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Though the event is somewhat of a cultural icon, we have let the greedy ones build walls and blind us to the vision of what life together might look like. And we have let them do it. We have listened to them. We have even let some of them get away with claiming they are speaking for God. They are not. Greed is not God’s word.
But that’s stating the obvious. Tonight as I read Berger, listen to Steve Earle, and hear Jesus saying, “I have come to proclaim liberty to the captive,” I wonder what I’m doing to tunnel out, to rise up, and to remember what I know is true.