Salty Language

Over ten thousand feet above sea level in central Peru it was surprising to find a whole industry dedicated to the production of salt. The Maras salt pans go back over a millennium to the Chanapata culture. As this civilisation gave way to the Inca Empire, they continued to provide their distinctive pink salt far and wide. At such a distance from the sea, and at such altitude, the steady supply of salt seems miraculous. Long ago, this land was below the sea and left salt hidden in the hills. A spring which runs through the complex of underground passages this enables the striking ‘pink gold’ to be extracted from the small stream that emerges above the pans. The rights to salt production are handed down through the generations, back to a time now lost to memory, with tourism adding further value to the enterprise. It is hard work, but the rewards can be significant.

Photo by Roger Duran on

For all of my life salt has been readily available and cheap. This was not always the case and for most of human history salt has been a precious commodity. In the Roman Empire it was taxed, and served a wide variety of uses – religious sacrifice, medicinal, fish preservation and, of course, the seasoning of food. Like anything that is taxed, this also made salt political. In Matthew chapter five, when Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth’, it follows only a few verses after the calling of the first disciples. In a way largely missed today, the leap from those involved in fishing, to an image of salt, was entirely natural. Everyone was connected to salt in some way; and no one doubted its value.

In the Jewish Scriptures there are intriguing references to the ‘covenant of salt’. In the various covenants God made, such as with Noah and Abraham, there is a theme of constancy (at least on God’s part). Probably due to its properties of preservation, salt was often used for these moments of commitment. In Numbers 18:19 we hear about the relationship of God to the people as ‘a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants’. A commitment made in salt was expected to endure.

In Greek and Latin the words for ‘salt’ also carry the sense of wit and sparkle. Salt put the zest into a meal, transforming the plain into the delicious. As an image used by Jesus (‘salt of the earth’) to address the crowds who came to hear him, it suggests that those who are alive to God should be the people changing the taste of living. Like the image of yeast used by Jesus, this isn’t about changing what would become the Christian Church, but about how the baptised are called to transform the world.

is it really the salt
that really matters
or is it the bitterness
that wakes us up
and lets us know
what this life is all

Ric Bastasa, 2009, The Salt of the Earth

Salt is undoubtedly a powerful and necessary part of our lives, but it is not benign. We talk about ‘rubbing salt into the wound’. When we distrust what we are being told we ‘take it with a pinch of salt’. Spilling it is seen by many as bad luck. The language about salt reminds us that anything significant can be used for good or ill. As Ric Bastasa conveys in his poem, we can spend too long wondering about the salt – and not enough time thinking about the changes it brings. Portrayed as the salt of the earth, the crowd was being encouraged to preserve its sparkle; never to lose its wit and flavour. Jesus may be suggesting – by comparison – that the religious leaders had grown bland and stale: ‘but if salt has lost its taste… It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot’. Without the responsibility to enliven others these leaders had failed in their calling: to enable people to be God’s salt for the world.

The Undeserving Rich

It feels as though the Victorian idea of ‘the deserving poor’ have largely dropped out of our consciousness. There are the frugal poor, the people using all the tips and tricks recommended by governments and gurus to try to keep our heads above water. While advice about saving costs and keeping warm is welcome, it freights the implication that the poor have some hand in their own misery. ‘If only they could be a bit wiser, a bit more canny, then everything would be OK’. Apart from that, even right wing politicians don’t feel much need to divvy up the poor between deserving and profligate. The poor are now one homogenous mass of food-bank using, low income living individuals, occasionally doled out a bit of help from the centre. Put bluntly, we are now a society content to live with high levels of endemic poverty – set alongside an elite that clearly deserve to be rich, and are entitled to become even richer.

Perhaps this is the chief legacy of Thatcherism. The import of the notably American idea that we make, or discard, our own opportunities to be self-made and wealthy. Consequently, poverty is simply individual failure. Despite the mountain of evidence that refutes this simplistic narrative it can feel as though it’s now welded into the psyche of modern Britain. The very fact that we can tolerate such significant rates of poverty, including child poverty, supports the view that we have somehow imbibed and owned this destructive myth. While there is general support for striking nurses and paramedics, there aren’t yet massed crowds present in support asking why an employee of a national health service should need the support of charity in order to live. Compare this with France, where a million people demonstrated in response to the proposal to change the state pension age from 62 to 64.

Last week an MP suggested that if someone couldn’t live on £35K a year without using food banks ‘something is wrong with your budgeting’. I found this reminiscent of the remark made a decade ago, that in the face of a strike by petrol tanker drivers, people should store a can of petrol in their garage. Apart from the lunacy that this would add to shortages by encouraging stock-piling (and potential danger in holding unnecessary petrol supplies at home), there was also the implication that everyone with a car had a garage. It appears to be a constant thread throughout the gaffs of wealthy politicians, that they are wildly out-of-touch with the circumstances of many voters.

Which brings me to the undeserving rich. It is not unreasonable to expect that wealthy people in public life would want to ensure they have done at least the minimum to contribute to the public good. Which is why the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi rightly raise serious questions about his suitability for political office. The penalty imposed by HMRC is a strong indication that Zahawi has (at best) been fairly uninterested in paying his correct contribution to the NHS, and everything else funded by the public for our collective wellbeing. I am sure that there will be voices speaking in his defence, implying that he is very important and very busy. Yet there seems to be no end of money that can be found by rich individuals to ensure accountants let them pay the minimum amount of tax. Why not spend a little bit of money on other accountants, who will ensure you never pay less than you should?

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

Pope Francis as quoted in The Pope, the Bible and Trickle-Down Economics, by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.

In 2022 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out a ‘minimum income standard’ (MIS) for the UK. If the nurse mentioned above is part of a couple with two children, then the JRF calculate that the household MIS would need to be £43,400. Given our current inflation this figure might now be closer to £50K and, it is important to emphasise, this is a minimum income. It can hardly come as a surprise that a nurse earning £35K might need to use a food bank.

Even if MPs lack personal experience of poverty or the challenges of low income, there is no excuse for a failure to engage with reputable and independent sources of data and analysis. Whether it is in a lack of attention to personal tax obligations, or the choice to live only in an echo-chamber of the likeminded, there is plenty of evidence that the undeserving rich are happily thriving in post-pandemic Britain. Change is long, long overdue.

A Jangling Noise

During a recent trip to Austria I decided it was time to learn some German. In the dim distant past, at secondary school, I’d done a couple of years studying the language – but with very limited success. Now the internet and various apps make language learning much more accessible and entertaining. Alongside this I decided to learn one or two phrases by rote, including ‘happy New Year!’, which had rather specific and time-limited utility. However, making any attempt to speak a local language brings rewards, not least as it conveys the desire to learn; to understand and to be understood.

The only language in which I have any proficiency is Spanish. Living for a year in a Latin American country immersed me in the sounds and the culture of a land which felt very different from my own. Slowly the words seeped into my thoughts and I realised for the first time that language is about far more than translation. Words approximate – but they are not identical. Living and speaking in a culture different from my own taught me that language is an embodied experience of a particular way of seeing the world. As a result, the way we speak offers a unique insight into how human beings encounter community; reflect history; and give voice to their desires.

In the book of Genesis there is a fascinating account of how human beings moved away from one language to having many. It is a myth of explanation that seeks to translate the phenomenon of linguistic diversity into a tale of divine intervention. In the beginning ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Genesis 11:1). This is typically interpreted as a story about human pride in which, in due course, we would be able to achieve anything. Consequently God intervened and ‘confused the language of all the earth’ (ibid., v. 9). As Milton puts it, God sowed a ‘jangling noise’ amongst the people. In effect, pluralism of language was a punishment designed to slow the development of human power in response to the growth of human ambition.

“But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown”

J Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII verses 48-55

Some interpretations of the Babel story have seen it as God’s response to Empire. When one people use their common heritage to mobilise resources and expand their territory, to such an extent that nothing seems impossible, their pride is met with punishment. This interpretation is linked in particular to the role of Babylon in the oppression of Israel and Judah. Undoubtedly this view is informed by the common practice of single-language empires to suppress (sometimes with violence) the use of local idioms. However, this interpretation feels at times to stretch a point beyond its supporting evidence, and some recent scholars have turned away from the ‘pride-and-punishment’ exegesis to focus on the narrative as a theme of cultural origins following the flood.

In his paper on the interpretation of the Babel story, Theodore Hibert, argues that the primary motive of construction is not to affront God (pride) but to remain in one place (i.e. to avoid being ‘scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ ibid, v. 4). This suggests that God’s concern is that human culture will remain homogenous and limited. Strikingly, this interpretation is aware that language and land belong together. Therefore, the mixing of language and the dispersal of the people is an early recognition that cultural diversity is dependent on geographical location. While there is no explicit reference to it Genesis 11, it is tenable to infer that the desire of the people to be culturally uniform and in one place ran counter to God’s instruction earlier in the book for the people ‘to fill the earth’. Consequently, the cultural diversity that arises from dispersion is seen to be divinely desired and instigated. (see Hiebert, T., 2007. The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures. Journal of Biblical Literature, 126(1), pp.29-58. Vancouver).

Yesterday The Guardian featured an article about the demise of many languages. The reason for this is primarily connected with climate change and the fact that many distinct cultures live in places liable to be harmed by global warming. The article reports the launch by the United Nations of a Decade of Indigenous Languages, recognising that this diversity is not only important for the people speaking these languages, but for all of humanity. As languages become extinct (which happens for one language every 40 days) we lose a distinctive way of seeing the world and, importantly, connecting with the natural environment. At the same time, as the late Ken Hale put it, losing any language is the cultural equivalent of ‘dropping a bomb on the Louvre’.

In a few weeks time Lent will begin, the 40 day period of reflection for Christians with a focus on the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. This Lent I’ll be mindful that in that brief span of time a language will die, and hope I shall be more motivated to contribute towards limiting climate change and its consequences – as well as continuing to learn and appreciate new languages. In my experience the rich diversity post-Babel is a joyful jangle, and God help us if we end up with the horror of a single voice.

This Doubtful Day

In Austria, on Palm Sunday, branches of pussy willow are used instead of palms to honour the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the parish church of Viehhofen, in Hinterglemm, I found a spray of pussy willow attached to a processional cross as part of the Christmas decorations. I am unclear about the reason for this, and a search of the internet turned up little. However, it seems a fitting nod towards the passion of Christ and serves as a reminder that events in the Christian year are interlaced in ways that are sometimes surprising.

In 1608 John Donne wrote about the coincidence of the Annunciation (25 March 1608) falling on Good Friday. (We don’t need to worry about that happening in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, as it occurs next in the year 2157. It happened last in 2016). Donne reflected on ‘the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead’, the day when news of great joy lands on the remembrance of deep sorrow. News about the same person – anticipation of new life held simultaneously with the pain and suffering of that life being extinguished. In the calendar, the Church transfers the celebration of the Annunciation to another date. It is almost impossible to attend fully to both these extremities without experiencing some kind of theological breakdown.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

The conclusion of Donne’s poem: On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day

As a hospital chaplain there were many occasions when joy and sorrow were held in the same time. I shall never forget working in the neonatal units at Christmas, when all attention in the outer world was fixed upon a particular birth but, tragically, I was baptising and blessing lives that would not last the day. Every Christmas I think of those parents and families, for whom this date of joy in the world had become a time of painful recollection. Our annual baby remembrance service was held in early December in order to allow families a ritual of acknowledged loss, and then proceed to keep Christmas as well as possible for other children in the family.

We tend to think that Christmas should be a time when we are shielded from the harsh experiences of being human. Sadly, as the UK has witnessed, violent deaths have taken place over the festivities. Families have been devastated by loss when so much public narrative focuses on being together; reunited. Police officers speaking about these events have often said words to the effect that: ‘while this would be appalling at any time, it is particularly difficult coming at Christmas’. The remembrance of families will forever be made in a context of public joy and celebration.

It is the work of the Church to hold these things together. It is always both ‘our duty and our joy’. The word death is spoken in front of the family and friends of a child brought to baptism; in the joy of a wedding we are reminded it is ’till death do us part’. In a funeral we hear the language of a life to come, and resurrection. The wonderful life which Mary brings into the world is destined for abuse; mockery; humiliation; and a criminal’s execution. Donne called the coming together of joy and sorrow in 1608 ‘this doubtful day’. He knew not whether to feast or fast.

The crucifix doesn’t leave the church to make our Christmas feast more palatable. Neither is it wrapped in tinsel to pretend that suffering can be masked, so that our carols might be more joyful. Pussy willow seems a fitting decoration. A foreshadowing of the Passion that begins on Palm Sunday – but also one of the first heralds of Spring, and a reminder that in the death of winter, new life is promised.

The Stillness

In the stillness of a church where candles glow,
In the softness of a fall of fresh white snow,
In the brightness of the stars that shine this night,
In the calmness of a pool of healing light.

In the clearness of a choir that softly sings,
In the oneness of a hush of angels’ wings,
In the mildness of a night by stable bare,
In the quietness of a lull near cradle fair.

There’s a patience as we wait for a new morn,
And the presence of a child soon to be born.

Katrina Shepherd

Bet Leḥem

A long time ago I spent a year working as a bread-wrapper – in an ASDA store on that U-bend in the Thames, the Isle of Dogs. This was back in 1988, when the Docklands Light Railway operated, but the foundations for Canary Wharf were still being dug. It was a time of transition, and the supermarket was rumoured to have an annual staff turnover of 110%. The old East End was giving way to a flood of wealth and gentrification that would soon alter the character of the local community, and move low-paid workers elsewhere.

Working in the bakery at the store was an education. It enlightened me about the misleading nature of marketing, as the photo heading this blog illustrates. People might imagine that ‘baked in this store’ equates with ‘made in this store’. Little could be further from the truth. Frozen and chilled goods would arrive, produced in a factory far, far, away. The purpose of the bakery was to finish these products while filling the store with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.

As Christmas approached I opted for two overnight shifts. This only ever happened at Christmas. On the nights of 22/23 December, and 23/24, one baker and I staffed the bakery on a shop floor devoid of everyone bar a security guard or two (these were the days before 24/7 opening). The purpose was clear. Anything wrapped after 00:01 hours bore the date of the day yet to dawn. By 8 am whole stacks of baked goods were on the shelves ready for the deluge of shoppers eager for their festive essentials.

At this time of year special foods are synonymous with the season. Dodgy adverts also tend to proliferate, and we are lured into imagining that this gift, or fragrance or food, will enable us to have the perfect Christmas. More often than not, these illusions arrive part-cooked, and never deliver everything the advertising appears to promise.

Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew name ‘Bet Leḥem‘, meaning ‘House of Bread’. In the Bread House Jesus is made human, with all the pain and risk that any birth at that time might occasion. Wesley may be right, following George Herbert, that here is God ‘contracted to a span’, but incarnation isn’t the creation of a bite-size divinity. In Bethlehem and after Bethlehem, Jesus is being made flesh, and fashioned into the saviour he becomes. Bread that will feed the hungry and energise those seeking justice, but sticks in the craw of vested interests, and those bent on retaining privilege and power. I’m not always sure that the Church is advertising accurately the kind of God-incarnate who is ‘bad news’ for some, and a stumbling block to others.

But the child that is Noble and not Mild
He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled.
He is Noble, he is not Mild,
And he is born to make men wild.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) From the poem ‘Christmas’

Works of Darkness

The nose of a Springer Spaniel is a remarkable thing. Not simply the nose, but the overall capacity to find. Our morning walks now take place in darkness, and as I launch a tennis ball into a landscape of lesser and greater obscurity, I never doubt the ball’s return. It may take time – but another remarkable thing about spaniels is their tenacity. I watch as various search patterns are executed. There is always a careful eye kept on me, and if I start to head in a particular direction, the ground is swept from side-to-side in advance of my approach. Occasionally – very occasionally and after a long time – we concede defeat. However, almost always, the panting hound returns to my feet tail rotating in triumph, and discards the ball so that the whole routine can begin again.

In these shortening days we head towards the old feast day of Thomas, the 21st of December. As the Revd Richard Coles commented at the recent York Minster Carol Concerts, these are days when ghost-stories come into their own. Reading a section of Simon Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (‘It was Christmas at Camelot…’), as well as A Christmas Carol, there is no doubting the antiquity of humanity’s imaginings during the days of darkness. In the Northern hemisphere this sense of gathering gloom, met with festive lights, seems an altogether fitting climate for Advent and the approach of Christmas.

The Collect throughout Advent petitions for grace to ‘cast away the works of darkness’. Looking at the world today it can feel that this call continues to go unheeded. Both cold and darkness will be the experience for many people, some of whom would never have imagined a time when they would need to choose between eating and heating. In the trenches and dugouts of Eastern Ukraine, soldiers will face winter warfare away from family and friends. In a world where wealth abounds for the few, most will struggle to find the basic securities and necessities of life. There is little need for ghost stories when the grizzly realities of life are so close at hand.

Once lost, it is never easy to retrieve from darkness the things we took for granted. Nevertheless, both Advent and Christmas feed the imagination of a better time; a more just world; and salvation from our own, dreadful, folly. Churches – at the only time of year when many people attend – are charged with holding out the vision and promise of something more worthy of our potential. To speak especially to ‘the people who walk in darkness’ and to stand with those who know their need of God. During the next few weeks we shall invite people in to taste something of the ancient hope the church is called to cherish and proclaim. More often than not, it won’t be the powerful who ask for grace so that we might live in light. As the poet Stewart Henderson puts it:

Don’t miss Christmas –
the splendour of it all
our brittle, gift-wrapped anthem
sleeps in a cattle stall
as the poor and lost and starving
weakly start to sing
it seems only desperate subjects
recognise their King.

Extract from: Stewart Henderson, Don’t Miss Christmas’

Waiting & Hoping

While standing on the platform, expecting a train to Machu Picchu, I noticed the sign to the waiting room. In Spanish, a waiting room uses the word associated with hope (‘la esperanza’): it is the ‘sala de espera’. At times it can feel in the UK that ‘hope’ would be a more fitting description for a waiting room on our less reliable routes. However, it led me to ponder whether there is any real distinction between waiting and hoping. Looking up the Spanish led me to an interesting thread, which includes discussion about the Bible translations of the two terms. Although there are alternative words in Spanish, in many cases – where either waiting and hoping would be used in English translations – it is the single verb ‘esperar’ that is favoured.

Perhaps the principal difference lies in the passivity of waiting. As with the example of a train station, waiting is what precedes movement and change. On the other hand, hope can be part of the journey. The people who travel from across the world to Europe, or across the border in the USA, are hoping to find safety and a new way of life. Writing about hope and waiting in the lives of migrants, Bendixsen and Eriksen ask questions about the different ways in which this can be experienced by people in an uncertain state of seeking refuge:

“What is it that we ‘do’ when we wait for something, given that waiting is normally defined as the opposite of ‘doing’ something? In what way can waiting be converted into political resistance? Waiting does in fact entail an engagement based on anticipation – an in-order-to motivation – of an improved life. How do conceptualizations of the future influence the ways in which people wait? And what can we say about people’s capacity to act in future-oriented ways even in a condition of temporal limbo?”

Bendixsen, S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2018). Time and the other: Waiting and hope among irregular migrants. Ethnographies of waiting: Doubt, hope and uncertainty, 87-112.

In his seminal book The Stature of Waiting WH Vanstone sees in the act of waiting the unfolding of Christ’s purpose. From the moment when Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers his willingness to be subject to the actions of others becomes the driving force of his mission. Here, waiting is not an absence of purpose but the only way in which salvation can come.

There are many things that can incline someone to journey hopefully. Often there is a life-long dialogue between the difficult experiences that are all too real, and the hope that is far more than simply wishful thinking. Such hope is strongly connected to the now, and sees the world as it could be and should be. Because of this connection hope itself is not static, but shifts as both our understanding and desire grow. Most often it is killed off by certainties we have decided are fixed and beyond change. For anyone finding faith difficult, Ronnie Scharfman expresses both the struggle to hope, and the hope-against-hope that faith might be found in the struggle:

I have always hoped
that struggling towards You
is You.
But I am never
And that is, perhaps,
You, too.

Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Prayer’ in The Poet’s Quest for God, 21st Century Poems of Doubt, Faith and Wonder, ed. Brennan, O., Swift, T., and Myddleton-Evans, C. Eyewear Publishing Ltd., London. 2016

The hope of faith during Advent requires courage. It is a time when the liturgy of the Church makes no bones about the darkness and suffering of the world, or the fact that the world as we know if will come to an end. Given the multiple crises assaulting the planet at the moment this seems less difficult to imagine. Holding any hope is an act of courage – a defiance of doom and a way to connect with others who share the idea that there is a better way. Perhaps this brings waiting and hoping back together, because our hopes are seldom realised quickly, and dissatisfied waiting can be a vocal irritant to the people who block the path to change.

Cartoon Catastrophe

In the cycle of the Church’s year we are now in the ‘Kingdom Season’. It lasts until Advent Sunday and features a lot of readings from apocalyptic Bible passages, with an emphasis on judgement and the end of the world. The season concludes next week with the last Sunday in the Church’s year – a celebration of Christ the King.

Sitting in Morning Prayer at York Minster during these days matches the appointed readings to the panels of the Great East Window. It is an experience that spans time. The Book of Revelations probably dates from the final years of the first century AD. The window was constructed between 1405 and 1408, and I ma sitting listening to one, and looking at the other, in the year 2022.

In some respects the window feels like a cartoon strip telling the story of the Book of Revelation. A way for people with limited reading ability to follow the Biblical account of the end times. The colours and depictions are vivid, with suitably grim and menacing monsters and angels variously inflicting several plagues. Each frame gives life to a passage from scripture, which can easily be followed with the excellent navigator website. Given the content of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it is hardly surprising that it has enjoyed a very mixed reception. For George Bernard Shaw Revelation is “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”. DH Lawrence hated it so much that he wrote his own commentary.

It is certainly true that outside the context in which it was written, the text is often puzzling and perplexing. When I did a course on the Book of Revelation in the 1980s, I recall being told that the text was meant to be heard – to be read aloud. Maybe it sits uncomfortably on the page because the visions and drive of the apocalypse is designed to be a crashing and pulsating narrative. The various sequences and repetitions suggest that this may be right.

In March 2020 many may have felt that apocalyptic events were unfolding in our own time. Perhaps there was an expectation that, however difficult, this was a trial humanity had to undergo before sunnier days would commence. Writing in the final weeks of 2022 it now appears that crises of major proportions are fact of life. Maybe there is something in the Book of Revelation that suggests an initial calamity precipitates subsequent disruptions? In choosing ‘permacrisis‘ for its 2022 ‘word of the year’, Collins Dictionaries is reflecting the challenge people are experiencing in attempting to return to turbulence of more familiar proportions. Along with the continuing lack of inter-governmental action on climate change, evidenced by the debates at Cop27, there is growing awareness of the plummeting diversity of species on the planet. It is certain that climate change and loss of biodiversity are connected issues. More and more of our planet bears the fingerprints of human involvement and, consequently, there is a vanishing number of true wildernesses in our world. On top of which, this year is likely to be the warmest on record for the UK.

Perhaps in the last 50 years we have become accustomed to a significant level of control in our economic and social order in the West. This is an exceptional experience for any human society, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to speculate that some fundamental issues may overpower us. In this respect at least, we have something in common with those who first heard the revelation of St John the Divine. Individually there is only a small amount we can do to meet the permacrises of the present. It requires a bigger and more international solution.

The apocalypse literature of this season encourages us to consider the shape of the future if we don’t change. The books of Daniel and Revelation suggest that we cannot predict the future as confidently as we should like. The dizzying imagery of these visions remind us that we sow today what we shall reap tomorrow. Both in personal faith and actions of collective responsibility, we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Apocalyptic literature should focus our minds and stir our spirits to work for a future where there is hope for our world.

Land and Liberation

The forced loss of land is probably the chief cause of the world’s most entrenched political and personal discord. In The West Wing, in a throwaway comment about Palestinian resettlement in the episode entitled Gaza, Admiral Fitzwallace remarks: “You know, after 50 years, one option might be to get over it”. The comment doesn’t recognise the enduring wounds of injustice which haunt people who have been forcibly removed from their land. I was reminded about this recently when speaking with some visitors from South Africa. Their families had been relocated during Apartheid under the Group Areas Act. Part of the rationale for this was the argument that they were a growing population and needed more space – which wasn’t available. However, revisiting their original home-town they had noted that many of the areas they were told could not be developed, now had housing. The forced relocation of people, accompanied by lies and coercion, leaves a stain of injustice that lasts much, much longer than 50 years.

The commodification of land is a widely accepted aspect of economic life in the West. However, this was an alien concept for many peoples around the world during colonisation. The protracted, trans-generational misery of exclusion from historic lands continues to blight the lives of indigenous communities around the world. Having land removed, or the rights to access land denied, can contribute to a disintegration of culture, customs and wellbeing that cannot be easily repaired or replaced.

“The current discussion concerning the environmental crisis emphasizes the need for a theology of land. One of the key observations of this thesis is that Indigenous communal identity includes the land, and that has underscored for me the general dislocation from the earth of modern Western people. A theology of creation must move even closer to the earth, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between people and the earth. Indigenous people understand that the Creator put them in a specific place, and this forms a vital part of their identity”.

Aldred, Raymond Clifford. An Alternative Starting Place for an Indigenous Theology. Diss. 2020p. 251

A consideration of indigenous peoples, land and theology must include the religious dimensions and complex politics of a ‘promised land’. While some territories have been ‘virgin’ (from a human perspective), most people around the world are settled on land that was once occupied by someone else. When religious legitimacy is given to the removal of people from land it does nothing to diminish the sense of anger and injustice. The Radio 4 In Our Time series has an episode giving attention to the debates in Spain that following the conquest of indigenous people in South America. The assumed benefit of bringing Christianity to anyone was a key ideological factor in the approach that was taken to land acquisition. Around the world religious ideas, and the Bible in particular, were used selectively to underpin and implement egregious acts of violence and land acquisition.

Land that is understood to be promised is at the heart of many of the most politically complex situations in the world. In the Middle East the desire for peace is met with seemingly intractable complexities of religion; geopolitics and history. Despite the interventions and attempts by many world leaders the situation remains volatile and dangerous (and not only for the Middle East).

“For those who might have heard about what befell the Palestinian Arabs, it is possible that they felt sorry for us, but in the great master plan of God and God’s purposes for history, the Palestinians who were killed by the Zionists in the war and the hundreds of thousands who were dispossessed and became refugees were probably considered collateral damage and a small price to pay compared with what God was accomplishing through the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”.

Ateek, N. S. (Ed.). (2017). A Palestinian theology of liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Orbis Books.

In material gathered before the end of Apartheid, RS Sugirtharajah’s work Voices from the Margin there is a case study from South Africa which includes the following comment by a participant:

“We want to live freely as we used to before the white man came. When I was a small boy, my grandfather had land, cattle, sheep, goats, plenty of land that they tilled and could reap good harvests and had cows to milk, And life was good. You felt you had what you wanted. But they took the land away from him; something to do with title deeds and white farmers, and that happened to other blacks as well, and the men had to work for the white farmers or come to town to work. So that’s how we came here”.

Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1991). Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.

Our ability, or capacity to restrain our intervention, seems to leave only tiny exceptions to the general rule of conquest and assimilation. A combination of economic exploitation, religious mission and academic curiosity has put an end to many distinctive cultures and civilisations. The people of the North Sentinel island might be one of the few remaining cultures almost entirely left alone. When an American missionary was killed on approaching the island even the US State Department decided not to pursue an investigation for murder. We have no idea what ‘murder’ would mean in the culture of the North Sentinelese, or what shared framework of human perception and understanding would enable a fair trial. In an earlier colonial era such acts would legitimate conquest and subjugation.

The legacy of colonialism undoubtedly leaves many indigenous people and communities bearing a burden of injustice. Today, in a different way, it is also these communities which are often those most affected by changes to our climate. A UN independent experts panel has called on the States attending COP27 to “allow for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and civil society… Indigenous peoples and civil society play an essential role in the advancement of climate action, and their voices must be heard”. When the voices of indigenous people are absent, or go unheard, humanity’s vision is diminished. This is especially true when such voices come from people often very close to the land, experiencing and lamenting the changes that make their way of live increasingly difficult. As we continue to debate and respond to a crisis from which none of us can escape, the relationship of human beings to land sites at the centre of any meaningful action. Altering our attitudes and perceptions about land, especially its commercial use, is essential for any meaningful sense of liberation.