Where Land and Community and Justice and Promise Meet
I was brought up being told that God is everywhere, and all powerful, that those who seek shall find, and that it is quite possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, while fearing no evil.
But this kind of teaching seems incongruous with the idea of holy places, or places that God is close to, his power and presence more tangible; places which are the peaks to those shadowy valleys.
I am confident that these places exist.
But that seems at odds with the idea that God is always there, always dependable.
I suppose there’s no reason to expect that God has an even spread, or an even affection for all places or times… but I still feel like I’m missing something, and have never been able to understand this.
What do you think?
Fantastic question, eloquently written, and stimulating to boot.
I’m going to take it in two directions.
First, I once heard of a parent of many children who was asked, “Do you have a favorite?”
The mother said, “Yes. The sick one.”
That resonates with this mama.
And I think God might appreciate the story too. That is, I think that God cares for all of God’s children, but is most concerned about those who are suffering.
There are good reasons to make this case, the cross being one of them. It’s been said by Robert Farrar Capon that the only prerequisite to being raised from the dead is to be dead. That is, God is in the business of giving life, and so where there is death, there is God.
Many theologians have talked about God’s predisposition toward the forsaken as it concerns poverty: God demonstrates preferential treatment of the poor–and so too God’s people (should). For example, not to be lost is Luke’s point that just as the poor should be redeemed from their poverty, so too should the rich be redeemed from their poverty.
The point is, then, not that there are places where God is not, but that there are “pet” concerns of God, places and events that most fully reveal what God intends for the world.
The second way of thinking through is concerns more specifically place. I know that this is more the gist of your question. Still, the two themes overlap. More on that in a moment.
The other day I was asked where I found God most of all in my day-to-day life. I answered that I experience God most profoundly when I am snuggling with my two children before bed, reading with them and warming their feet with my legs wrapped around and over them. There is a saturation in the air of love and joy in these moments, and I feel here most blessed.
Secondly, if I may say so, my study at OMG seems to have something of God in it, with the wood and the stone and the light and the books and my knowledge of sacred conversations that have and that will take place between these walls. Some of those who have been here have said that they too feel that this place has a bit of the holy to it.
But naming these two spots also names that I think God is present more clearly in places unique to people’s experiences and relationships. While I have fondness for other children, nothing captures my heart and gives me peace and announces blessing and grace than snuggling up to these two particular children. God’s activity is not generic, but relates to and is evidenced in the relationship between specific places and people.
It’s here that I reached up to grab Walter Brueggemann’s terrific book called The Land. In this volume Brueggemann (an Old Testament scholar of extraordinary brilliance and prose) writes about God’s relationship with the people of Israel and the land.
It is not a simple relationship.
Brueggemann is fascinated by the repeated cycle of landless people being promised land which then becomes lost because the people fixate on the land rather than on justice. “When the people are landless, the promise comes; but when the land is secured, it seduces and the people are turned toward loss.” (175) Land equals power which becomes more important than the one who bestowed the land in the first place–and more important than that One’s intention for the stewardship of that very same land.
Promise and land are intertwined in the biblical tradition. Brueggemann points to Ezekiel 36:28 “You shall dwell in the land…you shall be my people, and I will be your God,” and Ezekiel 36:33 “I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt…I, the Lord, have replanted that which was desolate….” (141) One can see similar references in Psalm 69:35 (“For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah, and people shall dwell there and possess it,”) and Isaiah 61:4-6 (“They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations,”) and Jeremiah 31:23-24 (“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes: “‘The Lord bless you, O habitation of righteousness, O holy hill!’ And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks.”).
God’s promises occur in and are about place, because God’s interaction with Israel must take place somewhere, and that somewhere is land. Land is where God’s shared history with Israel occurs. (142). And with his typical poetry, Brueggemann writes that this promised land “is the restoration of livable turf. The land is redivided to prisoners and other outcasts. The land is gift given by the One who has pity (Hos. 2:23), who leads and guides (cf. Ps. 23:1-3). The outcasts are given places and comforted.” (150).
In this way, land becomes a symbol for sustainability and sufficiency (with, yes, a nod to my ELCA tradition in their statement on economic justice). As Brueggemann states:
It is clear that the land emphasis, which concerns transmission of the inheritance from generation to generation, places the faithful believer in the flow of the generations. A focus on “now” decisions of faith is untenable because land must be cared for in sustained ways. It is equally the case that the land possessed or the land promised is by definition a communal concern. It will not do to make the individual person the unit of decision-making because in both Testaments the land possessed or promised concerns the whole people. Radical decisions in obedience are of course the stuff of biblical faith, but now it cannot be radical decisions in a private world without brothers and sisters, without pasts and futures, without turf to be managed and cherished as a partner in the decisions. The unit of decision-making is the community and that always with reference to the land.
…The central problem is not emancipation but rootage, not meaning but belonging, not separation from community but location within it, not isolation from others but placement deliberately between the generation of promise and fulfillment. (186-187).
Do you see how Brueggemann ties land to community?
Do you see the implications for stewardship of land?
creatures on it?
people on it?
And here is a fundamental difference between the Jewish tradition and the Christian.
Jews focus on present justice, not, to be clear, because they have to, but because they live out of their relationship with God which calls them into communal well-being. So, relevant to your question, land issues concern justice issues: is there justice going on in the land?
Christians have tended to spiritualize land. “The promised land” is now heaven. We have a habit of turning our hearts and minds toward that place, and simultaneously turning our hearts and minds away from the desolation of the land–in all its forms–here and now. We figure if heaven must be God’s focus, it ought to be ours too…at the expense, all too often, of the land.
That is, land, the earth, has become a stage upon which the human drama is played. That drama often is fairly individualistic, concerning the interplay of “me and Jesus.”
The Lord’s Prayer is awfully Jewish, and awfully helpful here. Note that the pronouns are all plural (that is, not “My father in heaven….give me this day my daily bread, forgive me my sins…), and that there is this noteworthy petition: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Land, community, justice, and promise.
So, back to that question of yours:
Both/and. God does have particular concern for particular places, and God’s presence is everywhere, because God cares about the land and the creatures on it.
That’s my first run-through. Contributions, anyone?