Continued from yesterday’s reflections on the lectionary for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost
By Ched Myers
Isaiah articulates the contemptible socio-economic disparity in Israel. A series of prophetic “woes” (howy) commences in verse 5:8 that extend through 5:23, and the first one summarizes starkly and succinctly all that will follow. The image of “joining house to house and field to field” specifically refers to the phenomenon of “latifundialization,” the economic process by which large landowners increase their holdings by foreclosing on indebted small farmers. Theologians Urich Duchrow and Franz Hinkelammert point out that the 8th century BCE saw history’s first wave of “privatization” spread throughout the Mediterranean world, including Israel:
A new form of property economy with its credit mechanism seeped into the monarchic, feudal system… It led to a concentration of land in the hands of large landowners, and drove smallholders into debt… The nouveaux riches were able to achieve their property concentration quite legally by means of creditor-debtor contracts. But they formed an upper class…that could manipulate the very law that, according to Israelite understanding, was supposed to protect the vulnerable and the poor. It was precisely this unfortunate development in public and social life, caused by the new property economy, which called forth the protest of the great prophets in the last third of the eighth and seventh centuries. (Property for People, not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital, Zed, 2004, pp 6f.)
What does God think of such stratification of wealth according to Isaiah? Verse 9 begins with the ominous phrase “the Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing,” underlining the gravity of the situation. It conjures an image of a child overhearing her parents raging about her bad grades in the next room. God’s verdict? Trophy homes will be razed, and profitable fields laid waste.
Isaiah’s critique is uncomfortably relevant to our world. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on his haunting indictment: the rich consolidate their holdings “until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live along in the midst of the land!” We’ve seen how this works throughout the economic landscapes of our own time and place: banks posting huge profits while thousands lose their homes; agribusiness buying up small farms until the family farm teeters on the brink of extinction; whole beaches, hillsides and canyons developed into exclusive gated communities for the wealthy. Such patterns of stratification and exploitation—whether local or global—truly reflect a world in which there is room only for the elite. It’s criminal—but Isaiah insists that the God of the Bible still hears the cry of those disenfranchised.
But the crisis is even more profound in our time. To put it bluntly, our deepening ecological crisis is threatening to destroy the entire lovely vineyard we call Earth. We can no longer enjoy the luxury of pretending otherwise. There are at least two other ways in which we, the inheritors of the culture of Affluenza, are unwittingly complicit in the engineering of a world in which there in no room for anyone but us.
One is the unfathomable self-centeredness of our industrial society. In contrast to traditional cultures, which think about the impact of their lifestyles “seven generations forward,” we continue to focus only on our needs and appetites. On one hand, our fossil fuel addictions depend upon the stored planetary wealth of millions of years; we are pillaging the past in a manner unprecedented in human history. On the other hand, we are well down the path of mortgaging the future by relentlessly drawing down on precious resources such as aquafirs, ozone, and soil fertility. “What we call profitable development,” said Wendell Berry famously, “the future will call theft.” Calculations of our global Ecological Footprint indicate that human activities have been in this overshoot position for three decades, and are increasing over time. In such a world there is truly room for no one but us—the most selfish generation ever to have dwelled in the Garden given to us by the Creator “to serve and preserve”).
The other way in which Isaiah’s indictment addresses our historical moment is equally sobering: our industrial end-game is utterly predicated upon a consequential and deadly anthropocentrism. We continue to make choices to exclude all other species but our own. Our way of life authorizes a continuing holocaust of species endangerment and extinction. Just in the last few years, the Baiji Dolphin is gone forever; so are the West African Black Rhino, the Golden Toad, the Pyrenean Ibex and the Spix’s Macaw. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species includes a tenth of the birds evaluated across the globe, a fifth of mammals, a third of fish and reptiles, 40% of invertebrates and 70 % of all plants evaluated. California alone has 289 threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Isaiah’s “groan” surely arises from mountain lions and kit foxes in our own bioregion, from steelhead trout and red-legged frogs: “Woe to you who join city to city and industrial system to system until there is no room for anyone but you.” Does not the Creator hear their cry too?
Surely if Jesus thought it important to recontextualize Isaiah’s parable in his time (see today’s gospel), then so should we in ours. And today this oracle is a radical indictment of our current condition: which we might call “civilizational solipsism.” Solipsism is the condition whereby someone is convinced that no one else truly exists, that one is alone. “Solipsism Syndrome” is, by extension, the overwhelming feeling that nothing is real. Sufferers become lonely and detached from the world, and eventually become completely indifferent to it. This diagnostic speaks to our condition. In a biosphere defined by fundamental interdependence, our civilizational solipsism is a social, economic and ecological endgame. Refusing to face this crisis squarely represents the central pillar of our fatal pathology of collective denial.
But let’s remember that prophets act from love, and that biblical warnings are always intertwined with promise. We need, therefore, to find a love song to sing to the place where our hearts are at home. I believe the most important theological and practical journey of our time is to reclaim and restore our sense of place in and on the land. The dominant culture of urban modernity in which most of us were raised is one characterized fundamentally by displacement and alienation from land and place. Mobility has trumped roots for most non-indigenous North Americans. Indeed, capitalism promotes “exotic” lifestyles: patterns of domestic life, work, and leisure which are “not native, naturalized or acclimatized” to their place.
In Los Angeles, for example, the atmosphere of our coastal desert basins cannot bear the pollutants of the millions of cars we use. Virtually none of the land’s indigenous natural resources are used in local economic production. And the water table could not support a 20th of our current population. This metropolis was built upon import and theft—of water, flora, resources, human labor, electrical power, etc. The consequences of mismanagement and depletion of this place have finally caught up with us, and the result is an environmental crisis that is as profoundly local as it is global.
As a fifth generation Californian, I’ve seen too many beloved places relentlessly bulldozed, paved over and disfigured into condominiums. I am learning to focus my fierce grief and rage into the work of learning, healing and tending my southern California home place. This is what has motivated my work on the constructive and contextual ethic of “watershed discipleship.” As the old prophet Isaiah put it, only by “taking root downward…can the surviving remnant…again bear fruit upward” (Isa. 37:31).
Ched Myers is an activist theologian who has worked in social change movements for forty years. With a Masters degree in New Testament Studies, he is a popular educator who animates Scripture and issues of faith-based peace and justice. He has published over 100 articles and more than a half-dozen books. He and his partner Elaine Enns codirect Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in the Ventura River watershed, traditional Chumash territory, in southern California.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.