Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
Many have called Hedges a pessimist and even a crank. His voice reminds me of some of those prophets of old who warn us to flee the wrath to come. It would be great to dismiss him if it weren’t for his detailed, researched and comprehensive observations.
The danger signs are everywhere according to Hedges: our entertainment-all-the-time culture that rewards amusement over substance, the subversion of free speech, the abandonment of all pretense of fiscal responsibility by our legislators, the near-absolute control of the strings of government by massive corporate interests, the dismantling of Social Security, the demolishing of environmental controls, the destruction of public education, the squandering of federal dollars on a bloated military that demands over half our annual federal budget, and the use of domestic security to criminalize dissent. But these aren’t even the worst. He writes:
The most ominous danger we face comes from the marginalization and destruction of institutions, including the courts, academia, legislative bodies, cultural organizations, and the press, that once ensured that civil discourse was rooted in reality and fact, helping us distinguish lies from truth, and facilitate justice.[ii]
I could go on, which is something of the problem. The relentlessness of Hedges’ evidence makes for a hard-to-deny assessment on the state of things. It is this reality that, I confess, sometimes overwhelms me and prevents me from living as the light of the world we understand we are to be as the church that, according to Ephesians, makes known the wisdom of God in its rich variety to the rulers and authorities.[iii]
So I’ve been reading a little of this, mixed with a little of a book called A World of Three Zeroes by the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and “banker to the poor,” Mohammad Yunus. I’ve told you about Yunus before as well. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance and founding the Grameen Bank which now provides loans to entrepreneurs throughout the world who are too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. The three zeroes that Yunus imagines in this most recent book are zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions.
Despite coming from the most impoverished country in the world, Yunus is anything but a pessimist. He believes in our potential to turn the world around—especially if we give the poorest among us an opportunity to shape the future and reimagine the economy. Yunus says “the skills and instincts that make entrepreneurship possible are shared by all human beings, not just a select few.”[iv] And his experience partnering with both rich and poor tend to back this up. Yunus says it this way:
FOR TOO LONG, WE’VE TOLERATED the persistence of poverty, unemployment, and environmental destruction, as if these are natural calamities completely out of human control, or, at best, unavoidable costs of economic growth. They are not. They are failures of our economic system—and since the economic system was created by human beings, these failures can be corrected if human beings choose to replace that economic system with a new system that more accurately reflects human nature, human needs, and human desires.[v]
I think part of the work here—at least for me—is to try to establish some stable way of taking an honest assessment of where we are and letting it live alongside the hope and possibility we hold to as a people of faith living in this world at this time. This is rarely an easy thing to do—perhaps especially in these days.
I feel a little like the magi, I suppose. Perhaps you do too—willing to go searching for some promise that feels like it has real potential, but not wanting to get lost in fantasy or delusion along the way. Perhaps this is some of the important work we all have to do these days as a people of hope. In this season of Christmas, we seek to place our hope in what is real and factual, we seek a sober assessment of what gifts we can truly rely on.
The Ephesians reading offers a little Pauline interpretation to the meaning and gift of Jesus’ birth. It seems to Paul that this birth is an act of God that reaches out farther than we imagined before—to affirm the claim of God and the blessing of God on all people—not just a single tribal group or coalition or a few insiders of another kind.
And if we are attuned to this story we are sober in our assessment. Facts on the ground do matter. So we are not surprised that this message of God’s expansive love is not met with universal joy. Indeed, Paul understands that he is in prison because of his claims. And in Matthew, Herod is threatened because of the claims that blessing is to be shared and not hoarded that God might work in other ways than on his terms.
Isaiah expands on the implications of this in ways that both Yunus and Hedges would agree with, noting that blessing has to do with both spiritual and material things—prosperity for the people noted in the abundance of the sea; the wealth of the nations; the multitude of camels; gold and frankincense.[vi]
The psalm is even more straightforward, its poetry linking righteousness and economic justice: prosperity is for the people[vii]; defend the cause of the poor, deliverance to the needy, crush the oppressor[viii]; God delivers the needy and poor and abandoned[ix]; God redeems their life from oppression and violence [because] they are precious.[x]
It seems all these texts for today have some of these same topics in mind. It’s almost as if we aren’t the first to face these challenges or question where authentic, lasting hope is to be found. And we are reminded that we have not looked far enough if we do not take into account the Spirit of God in the mix known in the foundations of the earth and in the spirit of people who dream and love and imagine something new into being. We have not remembered well enough if we forget that the foundation of the peace we long for are these gifts that abide: faithfulness, righteousness, compassion, justice, and steadfast love. These go to the very ground of our being, the essence and character of an abiding and incarnate God.
The writer Ursula Le Guin (lGWIN) reminded us that “Truth is a matter of the imagination.”[xi] And I suppose this gives me hope as much as anything, as I look around and see the imagination in you and in others, lives that are lived faithfully, and steadily, and creatively. There is perhaps nothing more moving and inspiring for my soul than generosity, than acts of giving, whether from these seekers in Matthew or these biblical testaments of faithful commitment and self-sacrifice, or those real examples that you and I can reach out to and touch around us of joyful curiosity and re-creation. These together affirm a spirit of life and love, and peace. They together point us again to that star of wonder of what is not yet but just might be and what not-yet-imagined pathways might lead us there.
Thanks be to God!
[i] Hedges, Chris. America: The Farewell Tour (p. 19). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
[ii] ibid. (p. 13).
[iii] Ephesians 3:10.
[iv] Yunus, Muhammad. A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions (p. 36). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
[v] ibid. (p. 39).
[vi] Isaiah 60:5, 6.
[vii] Psalm 72:3.
[viii] Psalm 72:4.
[ix] Psalm 72:12, 13.
[x] Psalm 72:14.
[xi] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.
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