By Nichola Torbett
The following is a sermon I preached at Open Door United Methodist Church today. The scripture is Isaiah 58: 1-12.
I was reminded this week of a short story by science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin. The story is called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s the story of a city called Omelas. Imagine a place where everyone lives happy, peaceful, rich lives, a place filled with music and dancing and cultural expression, where everyone has what they need.
Well, almost everyone. There is one exception. A small one. Very small, in fact.
In a tiny, dark mop closet of a dank, unfinished basement in a single building within this vibrant and beautiful city lives a small child—emaciated, terrified, and alone. She has been in there for years, but you wouldn’t guess how old she is, because her development—physical, intellectual, and emotional—has been stunted by neglect and malnourishment. The only interruption to her unending empty terror comes when someone rattles the door open and slides in some meager food. At these times, she cries out, “Please help me! I promise I’ll be good! Just let me out. I’ll be so good! Just help me!” But every time, the door slams closed and she is left in the dark.
Now, you might think, well, it must be that no one in Omelas knows about this child, but in fact, everyone knows. As young people come of age, they are told about her. And many of them come to see her or hear her cries for themselves. But they do not let her out.
Because, see, the good people of Omelas cannot let her out, cannot even speak a kind word to her. It’s written into the pact they made with an unknown entity long ago—the prosperity and peace of an entire city for the cost of just this one small suffering.
It’s not that the people of Omelas don’t care about the child. They do. In fact, often when young people first learn about the child—at age 12 or 13—they rage and cry and brood. But eventually, as LeGuin writes:
they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.
This story is fiction, of course. It’s about a fictional child. Right?
But it is also about
—the child forced into the cobalt mines in Africa to extract the mineral needed to make the touch screens on our devices, because the caves are too tiny for adults to enter
—the child in a cage at the border, brought here by neoliberal policies that subsidize our bananas or palm oil at the cost of her freedom
—the child living mostly alone in a car whose single mom works three jobs but still can’t afford rent
—the child wrested away from her parents to attend Indian boarding schools or to be sold into slavery (and don’t think those children are not with us just because this happened in the past—they are still here, and they are haunting us)
You see, the yoke’s on these children—the yoke that we are charged by Isaiah to break—but the yoke is also on us. We are yoked in our prosperity to these children of God, and their parents, and the people who employ them, and the governments who do or do not regulate that employment, the prisons that incarcerate them, the speculators who control the housing that they can or can’t afford, and the retirement accounts of ordinary, middle-income Americans who subsidize those prisons and mines and speculators….As my friend Amy Hutto says, “We flip on a light switch in the East Bay, and across the world, someone dies.”
Great pains are taken so that we don’t have to see that death. The flow of capital, the trade routes, the supply chains, and the political frames are all orchestrated to hide it—in other parts of the world, across the border, out in the ex-urbs, or on the other side of the freeway, the cost of our electricity, our gasoline, our technology, our food, our so-called “safety” plays itself out in the lives of people—“other people”— whom we never see.
That’s why the so-called housing crisis is generating such headlines right now—because the suffering is so visible. It can’t be hidden, and those of us who are moving into city centers really do not want to see the people who are paying the price for our cosmopolitan condo-dwelling.
The changes in global climate are likewise becoming more visible. Under the freeways, at the border, in the dying sea creatures washing up on our beaches, we are experiencing the insurgency of the invisiblized.
But whether we see it or not, the yoke’s on us and on others and on everything that is alive, and until it is broken, we cannot truly know God, or at least, that’s what Isaiah hears God saying:
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
….You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high. [italics mine]
Many of us, I think, recognize that there is something that is not working in how we are living, that life feels a little hollow, that our relationships are not what we wish they could be, that we are losing the battle to care even for ourselves, much less those we love. Speaking for myself now, even simple gestures such as eating healthy food or stretching my body often eludes me. And the loneliness….
Now I want to be clear that I don’t believe in a punishing God. I don’t believe in a God who is up there looking down on us and saying, “You all are screwing up, so I’m not going to let you be happy.” I don’t believe that God has separated God’s self from us, and that’s why we feel disconnected. As far as I can tell from my reading of scripture and my efforts to relate to God, God is not in the separation business. God longs for connection all the time, intimately, with all God’s heart.
The problem is not that God is not willing to relate to us, but that God cannot answer us right now because God is in that mop closet with that terrified child. God—God’s own self— is down in the cobalt mine, is being held in a cage on the border, is unable to secure housing. God is the dying coral reef and the whales beaching in record numbers, and God cannot answer us if God cannot breathe.
And we are yoked to all that is suffocating God. We have entered into a pact that offers us prosperity at the cost of God.
The yoke’s on us, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we cannot keep living like this. The future of human beings on the planet hangs in the balance.
How do we break the yokes? How do we break the yokes when we don’t hold the reins—if we did, we surely would drop,them, wouldn’t we?—but we are ourselves yoked. The yoke is on us. We are being driven like oxen ourselves, spurred onward to keep the machinery of profit running. The machines in which we are embroiled—whether as workers or as middle managers, as gatekeepers or board members, as producers or consumers, as savers or borrowers—the machines in which we are embroiled, the network of intersecting systems and structures in which our lives are bound up— is so much larger and more complex than one simple ox and driver.
The yoke’s on us. How do we break it when we ourselves are bound up in it?
I think we are getting clear that denial doesn’t work. Rationalization doesn’t work.
As we sit this morning with Isaiah’s difficult charge to us to to “loose the chains of injustice / and untie the cords of the yoke, / to set the oppressed free / and break every yoke,” let’s return to Omelas with its beauty and happiness and its single terrified child. This is how the story ends:
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
That’s the end of the story.
One way that we might cope with the grief and emptiness of living in a world this degraded by injustice is to walk away. I know people who have packed up and gone off the grid. In a more sinister version, billionaires are right now building underground bunkers where they intend to ride out climate chaos and emerge in the post-apocalyptic future. Others take expensive vacations or pay top dollar for yoga retreats, hoping to escape the yawning emptiness of their day-to-day life. Others—many of us who can afford it—try to buy out of the system by shopping organic or driving a Prius or purchasing only green cleaning products.
Some of these are probably good things to do, but I can’t escape or run away from the knowledge that that child is still in that mop closet. Even if I don’t shop at Amazon because they are all bound up with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and border detentions, other people will.
Another way we try to break the yoke is by taking back power from those who have installed the yokes, or at least continue to tighten the reins—the servants of global capital and its handmaidens white supremacy and xenophobia. If only we can get them out of office, we will be freed from the yokes that keep us bound in systems of injustice. Campaigning, voting, impeaching—these are all worthy things to do, but the reality is that they are not going to save us unless we also transform the conditions that put these people in power—in other words, unless we change. We would do well to wonder, along with Audre Lorde, whether the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. We are the thing we fight against; it runs through us like blood.
This is the only way I can understand, for example, people who are seriously fighting for climate solutions that involve manufacturing, marketing, and releasing MORE CHEMICALS into the air to capture carbon—the long term effects of which are of course unknown. One has to wonder: Are we even capable of learning?
China right now is ostensibly “protecting” people from coronavirus by taking everyone who has a fever and confining them in detention camps, and if you don’t think the same thing could happen here, you haven’t been paying attention! We are trapped within the way of thinking that has gotten us to this place and installed that child in the mop closet.
The gravest danger in the struggle for power is that we become that which we fight against. Friedrich Nietsche famously warned: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. As we gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes back into us.” Those of us who engage in justice struggles on the left struggle not to become mirror images of the right; many of our tactics don’t look that different from theirs.
The yoke is on me. The yoke is on us.
Those of us who want to untie the cords of oppression are like a wild animal tangled in barbed wire—the more we struggle, the deeper we cut and claw into ourselves and others. We are powerless to free ourselves.
Now, when you are in the grip of something that has you so bound up that you cannot free yourself and cannot stop doing harm to yourself and others, any addict knows there is only one way out, and that is to surrender to a power greater than yourself.
What does this look like in our current global context?
This morning I find myself thinking that if we cannot hear God’s voice because God is in the mop closets of our world, then we need to go where God is. That means under the freeway and in the detention camps and prisons and over to the wrong side of the tracks. And we need to go there not with some idea that we can fix things but to LISTEN. To enter into relationship with humility. To bear witness…or maybe even that is too distant. Philosopher poet Bayo Akomolafe has been talking a lot lately about “with-ness” Practicing with-ness. Actually becoming willing to sit with the suffering and to feel it ourselves and to stay there and to linger there and to feel that uncomfortable and at a loss until maybe….
We don’t know. Maybe something new would emerge from our togetherness and newfound relationship with those on the underside, those we have refused to see, much less know. Maybe together we could untie each other. Maybe we would all be changed.
Before I close, I want to hypothesize with you about a couple of concrete examples. In my city of Oakland, we have a program called Ceasefire that is ostensibly designed to curb gun violence. It works like this: People—usually young men—who are thought by police to be gang members (or we might call it members of an alternative safety team for those the police will not protect or serve) or people who are participants in one of the underground economies that are sometimes the only means of survival for those on the underside of global capitalism—these folks are “called in” to the police station where they are told that they have a choice: Either sign up for a job training program or some other support or know that you will continue to be surveilled by police until you inevitably misstep, and then you will be sent to prison. It’s called the “carrot or the stick” approach. The problem is that the carrot programs have never been fully funded and do not really lead to jobs, so the program doesn’t really work. Lately I’ve found myself fantasizing that instead of being offered a carrot or stick in these call-ins, authorities instead sit these young people down and say, in earnest “Look, we’ve really screwed up. We’ve created a world that has systematically excluded you and has left us empty, lonely, brutal, and confused, and we have no idea what to do about it. We need your help. Will you help us dream up a different way of living together?” The humility that would require is matched only by the creativity it might unleash.
Likewise, I wonder what might happen if groups of Americans greeted migrants at our border, and in the tradition of many indigenous peoples around the world, broke bread together in a magnificent feast before sitting down in council together to imagine how we could reorder the world in a way that worked for the Global South as well as for us. How can we reimagine our relationships? What can we learn from you about how to survive in the coming collapse? How might the world change shape?
Here this word, again, from Isaiah:
Is [the fast I require] not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
In closing, I invite you to imagine the people of Omelas gathering around the doorway to the mop closet. Imagine them sitting vigil there, sitting with their horror and shame, grieving, refusing to look away, refusing to rationalize what they have allowed to happen. And then imagine them opening that door and inviting the child out. Imagine their beautiful city crumbling to ash around them—everything that they had built up, all their prosperity, the sources of all their comfort, gone in an instant.
And then imagine them walking away through the rubble, but not alone. Together with the child. Vowing never to leave her behind again.
Like the wanderers of Omelas, we are going to have to walk away from the shining city. We walk toward a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. We cannot describe it at all at this point. “It is possible,” as Leguin wrote, “that it does not exist.” But we will know where we are going, because we have this promise from Isaiah:
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.