2014 11 16 – North Leamington United Mennonite Church
We are on Unconquered Land. That was the first thing I learned about the history of Canada when I came here in 2010. Although wars have been fought here, although all the horrors of conquest have been known, this country was founded on treaty making, not military conquest.
Something went wrong. The settler signatories to the treaties took control of the whole land. The concentrated Indigenous populations into small camps called reserves and controlled their movement. They used disease and starvation to ensure compliance. They stole money, land and technology and said that it was in the best interests of the victims. They tried to destroy the languages, religions and cultures and developing industry began to destroy and reshape the environment, poisoning the air and water. And then they came and took away the children.
But Canada was never conquered. Right?
In the Genesis reading, we find out what happens in the life of Joseph that is not covered by the musical. This is a man who has had a blessed existence. As a child he dreams of being in charge and throughout his life, however horrible the circumstance, someone in authority sees his genius and puts him in charge of everything, time and time again.
And now his dream comes true. He and Pharaoh manage to seize control of the means of production totally legally and turns Egypt into a slave nation, a totalitarian empire, and Joseph brings his entire extended family to live as a part of that empire.
You can probably look ahead and see the consequence of this. Before too long is it the Hebrew people who are enslaved, forced to build storage cities to allow the new Pharaoh to continue the plundering of the land. The economy that Joseph created turns out to have a life of its own and it is hungry.
To draw on another great myth – it’s like the Jedi in the Prequel Trilogy of Star Wars. The Jedi Knights were meant to be the guardians of peace and justice in the time of the Old Republic. They agree to lead armies of Clone Troopers, even taking military ranks, to violently hold the Republic together. They do not see the Republic gradually turning into a militarized Empire until it is too late. The Jedi are destroyed by the very same military apparatus they helped to lead.
We all can agree that the Bible teaches that actions have consequences. I want to specifically look at the consequences of being a conquerer, the use of violence, and collaboration with systems of domination, colonialism and oppression which I will call ‘Empire’.
Consequences of Conquest
Egypt’s Empire, like all Empires, is based on aggressively exploiting the lands beyond its borders and importing foreign workers to do the work.
Time and time again in the Bible, God raises up a prophet. This time it is Moses. We see Moses confronting Pharaoh with the direct consequences of the Empire, an urbanised and militarised civilisation founded on slavery.
There are 10 plagues. Can anyone remember them?
Water to Blood (agricultural pollution? Divine judgement of Egypt’s source of life?)
Frogs (forced out of the Nile)
Flies (on stinky frog carcase piles)
Livestock Dies (insect borne infection)
Boils (insect borne infection
Locust (blown by same storm as Hail?)
Darkness (clear miracle? Locust? Smoke from pyres?)
Death of the Firstborn (patriarchy. Firstborn tend the infected animals? First to eat the infected food?)
Some people have come up with theories about how these plagues could be natural phenomena, each one triggering the next in line. I am confident that they are direct results of Egyptian slave agriculture and imperial ambition. Even those with less clear natural explanations are clear divine judgements on the symbols and powers of Egypt – the transmuting of the Nile, the heart of Egyptian agriculture, into blood, representing the violence of the slave state, the days of darkness that deny the power of the Sun God, and the death of the Firstborn as a final terrible judgement on patriarchy,
If you are worried about the violence in these stories, I would encourage you to see their symbolic value. Their primary power is mockery of Egypt. The magicians manage to replicate the first few miracles, spoiling more water and making even more frogs, but throw in the towel at gnats and we don’t see them again. Egypt’s livestock gets totally wiped out, then killed by the hail, and then all the firstborn die. So the real miracle is how quickly their insurance companies paid out.
But however you read it there is a clear consequential link between the plagues and the nature of Pharaoh’s Empire. The Empire opposes God, the created world, and a righteous way of living. The Empire is founded on industrial exploitation of the land, slavery and oppression. This breeds paranoid xenophobia and prompts the genocide at the beginning of Exodus. Meanwhile, Pharaoh is too busy polishing his chariots to pay attention to the signs of the times, which build to an ecological collapse.
In the north of Ontario, provincial clearcutting into old growth forest creates habitation that is sometimes more attractive to deer which are being forced north by urbanisation. The deer graze on new growth in the wake of the clearcuts and hinder forest regeneration. They carry a parasite that is harmless to them, but that kills the brain of moose. So the moose die out. And the Ministry of Natural Resources can claim that there is no moose to be affected by further clearcuts. The Anishinabek hunters will tell you this. They have known about it for some time. But Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources chooses to prioritise its responsibility to non-Indigenous forestry companies over Anishinabek hunters.
Neither Egypt nor Ontario conquered the land but they are both treating it like a possession. Conquest has consequences. Sometimes these are known, and the conqueror simply does not care. Sometimes the conqueror chooses not to believe. Sometimes the conqueror does not know, or cannot know, or cannot listen to those who know. In the case of Ontario, I have learned by listening to the people of the land. Hunters & Farmers. They see strange weather, sickly game, dying trees, drought and flood. The negative consequences primarily affect the people of the land, not the leaders! No wonder God’s actions are described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Can you imagine a leader whose response to terrorism of this sort is to declare that the nation will never give way?
God raises up prophets, and the prophets remind the kings, emperors, presidents and prime ministers that their actions have consequences. Even belief has consequences. Which god(s) they worship. Which economic structure they invest in. These are not mere personal preferences – not if you are a person with power. The prophets remind the holders of power that God has the authority, and that actions have consequence. The typical response of the unrepentant ruler is ‘no, they don’t. We are free, strong, rich and respected. Invincible. We know best. We can act without consequence. We can sin freely.’
These Biblical stories are not mere metaphors for the sin we face today. These are exactly the sins we face today. We face the same temptation to collaborate with God’s enemies in the form of modern empires, corporate and state and religious powers-that-be. Have no doubt, just like in Joseph’s day; the wealth of the world is being squeezed out of the global majority and into the bank vaults of the super rich. This is the aim of capitalism – it’s not meant to work for everyone! When we read these stories we should not be thinking ‘how are my personal sins like the sins of Joseph and Pharaoh’, but, ‘how is my community facing this sort of imperial violence? How are other communities suffering violence and dispossession and how is my community implicated?’
The question that comes from that is ‘and what are the consequences?’ This is the question that the Empire will never properly ask, but it is our duty to ask. Through following Jesus we gain the ability to see. We lose our Imperial perspectives and become aware of the violence we find ourselves in, and the consequences of it, and that no one is immune.
Take a look at the Thessalonians text. Paul is writing about the Day of the Lord as the arrival of unforeseen consequences. “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”
His readers would have understood the reference to ‘peace and security’ as a Roman imperial slogan, something of a campaign rallying cry, the justification for the conquest and assimilation of nations. For ‘them’ – who participate in the Empire and mouth its banal slogans and believe its lies and drink the Kool Aid, they will face sudden destruction, as their violence and passivity brings violence upon them, and their lies become known.
But for ‘us’, the people caught up in the middle of this, seeing it happen without the confidence of the military commander or secure financier, we are promised salvation. Perhaps that is why Paul links the sudden disaster with an image of birth. We see something different. How is it that we who follow Christ are able to see more clearly than Empire?
By salvation I mean the state of being saved – saved in practical and literal ways from the evil around us. Not just souls saved from hell but bodies saved from starvation, minds saved from slavery…
Some believe because they see. We see because we believe.
We are to be people of the daytime, awake and alert even when the world tries to lull us into sleep. Jesus lamented that the Pharisees and Sadducees could not interpret the signs of the times, but wanted a miracle. The writing was on the wall, Jesus was even interpreting it for them, but they could not get it. He predicted the violence to come, first against his own body, and then against Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod the Great. Jesus says to them “why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my words”.
See, we might assume that the people with something to lose would be the most cautious, pay attention to ensure they remain safe. Actually, ownership limits perception. It is not that they don’t want to understand – although they do not want to believe – but they actually cannot comprehend. Part of that is the myth of invincibility. Every Empire loves this. Remember the unsinkable ship? Remember the arms race 100 years ago that would ensure peace because any war would be too horrendous? Remember banks too big to fail?
One of the oddest things for me about the 2008 Credit Crunch was how many experts professed to be surprised. They did not know it was coming. This is odd, because I knew it was coming. The people around me knew it was coming. We did not know precisely how or when but we knew that something had to break, soon. I think it was because we did not have much to lose. We had nothing much invested. We could see, clear as day, the dangerous spending patterns of the broader society, because we participated less.
And yet, so many heard the Empire’s cry ‘progress and prosperity’ and clung to it atthe moment of sudden destruction, as it all collapsed. “A minor hiccup” they said. “Simply bail out the banks and we will get back on top”. Nothing changes, except that the poor are poorer and the rich are richer – so, nothing changes.
Why is it so hard to change, even AFTER you have suffered the consequences? The Bible occasionally mentions the worship of a foul god named Molech. Worship of Molech apparently involves sacrificing children. Imagine that everyone in your society has made this sacrifice. Imagine it is your turn. How hard it would be to say you do not believe. Imagine you have already done such a horrible thing. How could you allow someone else to get away without doing the same? It would invalidate the death that was already required. Even if there was no purpose in further deaths, how could you dishonour those who had given their lives? You MUST participate. We cannot just abandon the system we have invested so much in.
Sisters and brothers, worship of Molech is alive and well, for example in the form of our military. God save us. How hard it is to escape this death system! Jesus has shown us the way out.
God’s word is clear. Do not put your trust in princes – no matter how shiny their chariots. Don’t look to human government and military intervention for salvation.
First – they will not prevail. Violence provokes violence. Sometimes the violence on one side is too great, but violence never disappears, it just transforms into another evil.
Second – we become entrapped. These false saviours take our wealth, our children, our allegiance. They make themselves a perpetual necessity- a hungry idol. Remember what Jesus said – for where your treasure is, there your heart is also. If you are paying for war can you pray for peace?
Third – God is sovereign. God is our Rock and Redeemer. God is our salvation, and Paul assures us that we are meant for salvation, not wrath.
The Promise of Peace
On that word salvation. I have to break it to you. We are not the saviours of the world. Jesus has already saved the world. Those whose aim is to save this world will violently oppose evil. That is not us. We are expected to resist oppression and violence forcefully, with nonviolence, in the name of Jesus, whether that violence is against us or against others. Christian Peacemaker Teams is one experiment in nonviolent resistance. We don’t expect to save the world. We are not Jesus. This is all part of the Good News. Yea! There is Good News! Of course there is.
And that is the promise of peace. The Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s people, as steadfast witnesses, must see the ways that the Empire is collapsing. We must pray and proclaim Jesus. We must refuse to participate in violence and endure the consequences as best as we can, with the help of God.
I began by saying that this is not conquered land. This is not the Canadian Empire. There is no Department of Assimilation or Expansion Doctrine. But key elements of the political and social institution in this country acts in these ways. Capitalism asserts that the earth is a storehouse waiting to be plundered efficiently. Authoritarian leadership ignores dissenting voices and sees no benefit in debate. There are consequences to this.
The people of God will see those consequences. And we will see salvation. When I say we will see salvation, I don’t mean that God will fix everything for us while we watch. I mean that we will discern the way out, because it is the way of Jesus, into new life. Following Jesus we will see the truth and be set free from the lies all around us. Lies of progress, privilege and power. Lies of violence and division and grievance. Lies that build hierarchy, that arm soldiers, that enslave people and planet.
As we painfully follow Jesus out of these lies, we will discard prestige, wealth, position, friends, and the illusion of life, and we will see salvation. We will see how to live as children of God and we will see the consequences of living as conquerers under the Empire of Death. We will wonder how we ever thought that life was worthwhile. And we will reach out to those trapped and collectively work for our joint liberation.