Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sinking Feeling

A little known passage stuck in one of the more obscure books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, is this little tidbit:

There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’ [9:14-16]

Forget wisdom, just for a moment. Just get in touch with what it is like to be the lone voice crying out in a desperate situation. What is it like to be inside a city that is virtually helpless against immeasurable odds? Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt thoroughly inadequate, worse than inadequate, totally choked by the enormity of some wrong that held everyone in its fist?

A part of my story that I rarely talk about is that I grew up in an alcoholic family. I suppose I don’t talk about it much because, for one thing, over the decades a great amount of healing took place. Daddy’s sobriety took root about the time I was in my mid-twenties, although there had been a stretch of good years while I was in junior high and high school. Although the resolution and the healing delivered me from an unspeakable burden of shame and certainly from massive anxiety, I have very clear memories of being a little boy in a family that was consistently besieged by a formidable demonic power, not knowing what to do, feeling utterly powerless to affect any positive change, scared, bewildered. A few times I have been in less dramatic, and certainly less protracted scrapes, some of which I have had some means of controlling. Yet a part of my psyche, my soul was shaped on those hot and tortured nights when I was a child shaking with terror, a sinking feeling in my young gut.

I suspect that a good many of you can relate to my vignette. You have no doubt been there too, on that proverbial ocean so great in your boat so small. Small, yes, and being swamped by billows past any bailing. Or, to return to the Ecclesiastes metaphor, a little lone person in a city being battered by forces that any minute will vanquish it and utterly lay it waste. Do you think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that that is very close to the way I feel, and the way you might feel, up against the enormity of global climate disaster? We can argue from now till the cows come home about the degree to which human beings are contributing to global climate change; but there is no arguing with the fact that earth’s climate has changed and is changing dramatically. Nor can anybody sane argue against the effects of global climate change in increased drought, far more frequent and severe hurricanes, rising sea levels, more extreme temperatures, and the all but certain disappearance of species, especially large mammals, who will be gone in a few decades if trends continue, unable to adapt to the swings in weather.

Add to that the weighty problem that there are hosts of people who believe that the climate crisis—global warming—is a bunch of claptrap invented by American liberals. I am never quite clear on why it is supposed that people would want to make up a lie about such a thing or what it is that would be gained by doing so. I suppose if you yourself are used to making up lies and disseminating them for popular consumption it is relatively easy to believe that everyone else is doing the same thing. If you doubt the strength of such reaction, I suggest you simply spend a little time on YouTube, for it is full of documentation that the whole so-called global warming is a total hoax.

The whole thing gets me down. It appears that the words in Isaiah 24 were written sometime about three days ago:

<4> The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
<5> The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
<6> Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left.

Except for the “few people are left” detail, this is fairly descriptive of the situation at hand. The situation is far graver than “just” global warming. The amount of non-biodegradable trash in the world is astonishing. I have been in some developing countries where the streets and streams are full of plastic, styrofoam, metal, glass, and all manner of things in piles mounting higher and higher. Of course, some of that happens in this country. Indeed it happens in Washington in places. But the scale of the trashing of creation is monumental.

It is precisely at such a juncture as this that faith makes a difference. We have every reason to despair, simply because the mounting disaster is so terribly severe and its threat so impossible to defuse. But, as Koheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, saw, wisdom is stronger than might, witness that one poor wise man in a besieged city. Koheleth does not tell us what the wise man did to deliver the city, only that he was wise. Wisdom and faith are certainly not synonymous; but faith can take a chapter out of the book of wisdom, so to say. Certain forms of faith can be awfully foolish—such as the notion that it does not matter what we do with the natural world, God is going to end it all soon anyway. Or the notion which is just about as bad that God is going to pull us out of the mess we have made of the earth so that we won’t have to reap the consequences. We need not just to be faithful, but to wise up.

The current issue of Time carries an article about Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1977, long before apartheid ended, Bishop Tutu, 45 years old, addressed a crowd of 15,000 at the funeral of a murdered black consciousness leader. “The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst, and they have lost,” he declared. “They have lost because they are immoral and wrong, and our God…is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. Our cause…must triumph because it is moral and just and right.” If you know anything at all about Desmond Tutu, you know that he did not fold into a little heap of piety believing that God was going to intervene like the deus ex machina making a surprise appearance in an ancient play. No, Bishop Tutu worked tirelessly to deliver a besieged people from the weight of a powerful oppressor. He built alliances. He thundered against oppression. He refused to submit to a racist curriculum and lost his teaching career. He kept on going. In the nasty fights in the days of apartheid, he would walk between protestors and armed police, persuading both to walk away. He disarmed people with humor, laughing, dancing, taking God very seriously and himself not seriously at all. Certainly he did not bring down apartheid single-handedly, but like the poor wise man in the besieged city, he had a peculiar combination of faith and wisdom that helped to seal the fate of oppressors. “In the end,” says Tutu, “the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stag of the world often seemingly unbeatable—there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust.” And he laughs, saying, “Wonderful, wonderful!”

That is exactly the kind of dedication, the sort of courage, the quality of faith, the exercise of wisdom that needs to inform those of us confronting this giant global challenge. One by one, parish by parish, diocese by diocese, community by community, we can raise consciousness, build alliances, start letter writing campaigns, explore ways of living green, pressure the politicians to act and industry to change. I’m far less certain that the planet can be rescued from environmental disaster than Desmond Tutu is certain that the forces of repression will ultimately be vanquished. But I refuse to believe that despair and paralysis and gloom are a better alternative. Blog. Talk. Call. Write. Organize. Give. Pray.

Already a couple of people have surfaced in the last couple of weeks who are willing to work seriously on changing the face of energy use right here in St. Stephen’s. They don’t yet know what we’ll do and neither do I. But it is a start. And when the forces of carelessness or greed or hate or stupidity are banging against the gates of a fragile, vulnerable planet, the only hope we have is that there will be at least one wise person whose wisdom will mean the planet’s deliverance. In South Africa, one such person was Desmond Tutu. In 2010, that person just might be you.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

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