Friday, February 23, 2018

Reading the Bible - Reading the World

I am in the second half of the third year of a five year seminary program. My classes demand a lot of reading and writing and thinking and asking questions. All of which is right up my alley. My studies also involve rethinking some of the Bible's stories and figuring out how those stories relate to us today.

Several of the prophets wrote about the mistreatment of the poor, widows, orphans, and aliens and how their mistreatment led to some of the hard times that the people of God faced during the centuries leading up to the common era. Over and over, the people were told to "Do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)." "Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17)." Do what is right for the most vulnerable among you. Protect the land from overuse and misuse, and do not steal land from those around you. These were repeated themes. These demands of God were repeatedly disregarded and disobeyed. Those demands of God are still widely disregarded by many who claim to be God's people.

Another of the repeated themes in the books of the prophets was the disregard for the lives, the dignity, the health, and the safety of women. Books like Jeremiah and Hosea offer several accounts of women who were described as unfaithful wives and prostitutes, worthy of being cast aside, humiliated, treated violently. Some Bible scholars say that these accounts were metaphorical, that the images were intended to demonstrate that in comparison to the high standard that God had for the people in their lives and interactions, they were like unfaithful wives and prostitutes.

It's not pretty stuff. It's not easy to explain away. And we shouldn't explain it away. We need to be courageous enough to wrestle with the stories in Scripture. Some of them are indefensible. Some of them are inexplicable. My professor said that not every part of Scripture deserves to be fodder for our sermons. Some of this stuff is just plain dreadful.

Yet some of the most dreadful stuff can still be pulled apart and salvaged. It can serve as fodder for deeper thought and analysis of some of the dreadful stuff that is happening in our world today. Let's not kid ourselves; women are still the objects of scorn and humiliation, and we are still victims of violence, rape, and murder. That hasn't changed.

We still don't care for our planet as we should. We almost never let land lie fallow, to rest and recover from our industrial over-farming. We dig up hallowed ground in order to extract resources that we could certainly live without - if we learned to care for the planet and its resources more carefully and tenderly. We steal land from its rightful owners. (I like the quote I recently saw: "How can you talk about banning immigration while living on stolen land?")

Three weeks ago, the professor asked us to write a one page piece that tied together some form of suffering in our world with a stark image that is commonly known in our collective psyche. The prophet, Hosea, had written about his wayward wife and the waywardness of God's people. We were to come up with a similar type of comparison: a difficult image that points to the need for repentance and restoration. Does that make sense?

Anyway, here is what I wrote. I hope it makes my explanation more understandable.

Out in the fields of Iowa and Nebraska, here in the fields North Carolina and Georgia, farmers sow seeds of corn and soy, cotton and kale. Over those seeds, within those seeds, there are pesticides and poisons, and below ground the seeds murmur, “I can’t breathe.”

As those fields are watered during spring time and harvest, the water is laced with chemicals and herbicides. Therefore, both the water and the soil cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

Field workers bend low for strawberries and reach high for apples. They gently pull the grapes from the vine and vigorously shake almond trees so that they will release their fragrant and flavorful fruits. As they pick, as they work, as they bend, as they sweat, those underpaid, overworked migrants are exposed to the same chemicals that poison the water and deaden the soil. When they lie in their beds at night, when they cough their way through the day, when they arrive at emergency rooms and urgent care centers, coughing up blood, they whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

At processing plants and slaughter houses, tomatoes are steamed and canned. Beans are boiled and canned. Tuna is filleted and canned. Cows are shot, chickens are beheaded, sausage is ground. Bread and cookies are baked. Oranges and clementines are sealed into nets and plastic bags. Factory workers are diagnosed with emphysema, COPD, asthma, and the coal miners who produce the coal that powers those processing plants die with blackened lungs and mesothelioma. They gasp for air day and night, choking out the clipped words, “I can’t breathe.”

We buy those poisoned, breathless products at Food Lion, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Publix, Earth Fare, Fresh Market,  and Whole Foods. How can we be surprised that we are dying of kanswer at unprecedented rates? Lord, forgive us and heal us, we pray. Because we can’t breathe.

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