Thoughts On Failed Societies And Hope

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A great calm settled itself on me this week after weeks of feeling completely overwhelmed by events, frantically trying to figure out what I can do to stop the flood, what I can do to stop the world from dissolving around me. What brought me this calm feeling is my weekly Torah study as I realized we have been here before.

I read the Torah as an extraordinary, powerful and poetic account of human experience in the real world, human experience within creation that recognizes a connection to the transcendent dimension beyond it. It is a statement of our interdependence — on each other, with the rest of creation and with transcendence. It describes how the relationships between these domains should work, must work for our own survival.

The Torah teaches, through its “ordinances,” the attitude of humility we should maintain in relation to transcendence, the attitude of care and compassion toward the rest of creation, and the requirement not only for care and compassion in relation to our fellow human beings but for justice.

Torah also relates the consequences of failing to maintain correct relationships, putting forward the case that all is interdependent. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in others. Rules or guides for social relationships and a correct relationship with nature are as immutable as rules that guide our relationship with transcendence, and the consequence of repeated and widespread choices to ignore the guides in any dimension causes a roll back of creation, a reversal of the story in the first three chapters of Genesis.

As I read these powerful words each week, I find that they speak to me of my life experience in these times. They speak to me about what happens when a society fails to maintain correct relationships (Torah Ecology: Va-era/Bo). They speak to me about trying it again within a fourth, perhaps more intimate, domain, “neighbors,” about how relationships should work between these neighbors, between all human beings, the rest of creation and transcendence (Torah Ecology: Beshallach and Torah Ecology: Mishpatim).  And they speak to me about what happens when a society fails to live in right relationships. They speak to me about an economy of consequences (in a section of Vayera, Gn 18:16-33), where the righteous actions of 10 could have saved a corrupt civilization.

In Mishpatim, Moses brings down from the mountain a series of regulations that governs relationships within the community of Israelites.  While we don’t read the end of the story in this portion, we know it: the society will fail, as any human institution does that fails to recognize the freedom not only of human beings but of our fellow creatures and all of creation in a relationship with transcendence. The prophetic reading for Mishpatim, the Haftarah, associated with this Torah portion tells us of that failure:

“You turned and profaned my name and caused every man his servant and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and you brought them into subjection, to be to you for servants and for handmaids…you have not hearkened to Me to proclaim every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim for you a liberty… <so> I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth… bodies shall be for food unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 34:16-22).

The judgment Jeremiah pronounces is inevitable, irrevocable: “So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence” (Jer 14:11,12).

The prophet Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576 b.c.e. His career, lasting more than 40 years, spanned the reigns of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoaichin, and Zedekiah. Jeremiah’s opposition was unrelenting, and he was even imprisoned at one point — yet he persisted in his message.

Jeremiah’s prophecy proclaimed the coming destruction and the reasons for it.  When the people’s relationship with their neighbors is wrong, out of balance, when they deny fundamental freedom and justice to their neighbors, their relationships with all other realms are disrupted. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in all.

The nation as a whole, not in part, was declared guilty of:

  • Love of other gods
  • No love for the truth
  • False prophets
  • Kings and princes who do not seek justice
  • Adultery, theft, and murder among the people
  • Exploitation of the poor

The nation brought inevitable consequences upon itself, and these consequences are described in cosmically cataclysmic terms, a roll back of creation, like the destruction that came to the Egyptians in the Ten Plagues, a reversal of the creation stories in Gn 1-3:

“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord…” (Jer 4:23-26).

We live in times like Jeremiah’s. The crimes he lays at the feet of his nation are in our headlines every day.  They form the slogans on banners and in political campaigns. Like the ancient Judahites and the Egyptians before them, we live in a failing society. I contemplate these specifics of our own imbalanced relationships:

  • We disdain religions, science, expertise of any kind, any perspective not our own.
  • We reject truth claims and accept fake news.
  • We follow people who claim they will save us.
  • Our leaders do not have as their primary goal seeking justice.
  • Serious crimes go unpunished, crimes against humanity and crimes against creation, while many are falsely imprisoned (Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).
  • We exploit the poor and disadvantaged. The “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[6] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%.

Further, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. Worldwide we kill to eat more than 150 billion animals every year and 90 billion marine animals. Of those, the average number of animals killed for food per year per American is 280, while the average number for each human being on earth is about 21. Even as we guzzle the earth’s resources, we waste 40% of our food and create who knows how much material waste? Walking distance from me, a new bank building was razed to the ground to make way for newer construction.

We not only continue to guzzle but anticipate sucking even more life from the planet without cessation as the president signs resolutions that trample on the rights of people, allow pollution of our water and air and decimation of our fellow creatures, domestic and wild. We see our leaders, with an absence of humility, wield narrow religiously motivated regulations like weapons instead of encouraging discussion, understanding and respect for the values of others and of their religious and secular traditions and commitments.

We watch as the government hides what we are doing in order to relieve citizens of their moral complicity, which might otherwise cause them to speak out. Legally entering refugees are quickly sequestered in hidden rooms at the airport for deportation, and those who came over the southern border, some here for many years, some with permission, are rounded up at night. EPA and animal welfare records disappear from the internet. Daily our government erases our modern Bible, our record of the ways in which human activity has devastated creation. The process will hamper future efforts to hold back the flood waters.

When I watch a president carelessly guzzle hamburgers made from the flesh of farmed animals, killed out of sight to separate us from the moral responsibility of taking life; when I see his trophy-hunter sons proudly displaying a beautiful but lifeless animal they killed and offering trophy-hunting opps through the White House; when I see that our society has coughed up a Steve Bannon or a Stephen Miller to positions of prominence in our nation; when I see a president more intent on bragging about his election victory than on honoring the men and women who serve us every day; when I watch the gates close to desperate people seeking compassion and safety; when I hear of mounting attacks on minorities and disadvantaged; when I watch unrelenting attacks on truth and fact day after day; when I see policies that deprive citizens of their basic rights and continue the trend of sending money to the top 1%; when I see us utterly neglecting the less advantaged as we slash programs for them, I feel as though a flood is rushing in upon us. And it is.

This flood is the inevitable consequence of what our society has become. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, it is an inevitable consequence. We are not at the end of those consequences yet.

Our system of justice will see further perversion. Human rights will see further erosion. The innocents and those without the resources to resist will suffer more. We will devastate the creation that surrounds us even further, oblivious to the life that is in it while proudly marching with pro-life banners. Our neighborhood, our nation, is failing. We are profoundly out of balance.

So I feel this deluge, I feel its inevitability, and I suffered from my unspoken awareness. Until I was able to fully identify my profound sense of inevitability and name it, I rushed about trying to plug holes in the great dam, engaging in frantic activity that would never stop what was coming.

We are, indeed, in very literal ways, experiencing a rupture in the fabric of creation, a roll back. And here’s the unlikely idea that brought me peace this week: In a strange way, it is reassuring to know it has happened before, others have experienced this cosmic cataclysm and preserved something of value.

In addition to naming this cataclysm I was reminded that Jeremiah’s message has another aspect to it. He brings not only the message of the inevitability of consequences but the inevitability of restoration, not a restoration of what was but of what might yet be: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). It was futile for that small nation to fight the armies of Babylon, but even as the walls of Jerusalem fell, its inhabitants could plant trees and build. They could preserve the great principles that should have guided their society. They could get their society ready for a better day that would come.

Although we live in times that pronounce a judgment on us, times when pre-creation darkness descends on us, the inevitable consequence of our failure as a society, we also have an opportunity to build and plant. We have an opportunity to preserve something that will guide us in a restart. When we restart, things may not look the same as they do today — but they shouldn’t.

If our nation produces and chooses leaders who value successful competition above all else; if we moment-by-moment absolve ourselves from the moral responsibility we have for life on the planet, whether our fellow human beings in Syria, our “neighbors” in minority communities in the U.S., or farmed animals bred as commodities to be killed after short lives of abuse; if we fail to protect wildlife, showing compassion and respect for all our fellow creatures on the planet; if we indulge our impulses and greed; waste our precious resources; deny facts or the possibility of truth; or arrogantly insist on our ideologies whether left or right, religious or secular, we will fail. We are failing.

So what to preserve? What to plant and build? When I read Torah, its words speak to me of life in these times, of preserving life in these times, of what we must hold onto going forward. These powerful narratives tell me what I need to do as the destructive forces reach the walls of the city:

  • They tell me that the values at the base of our society are wrong. They may once have been reasonable, even inspiring ideas, but they are now completely corrupt, a progressive process that culminates in our time. Values which discount everything but individual self-interest, values that put us completely out of balance with every thing outside ourselves, cause a roll back of creation. Within our lifetimes, without a course adjustment, we may see that happen literally.
  • They tell me our task is so much greater than voting in a different government. We must, rather, replace the values that drive our country today with different, sustainable values, values of interdependence, cooperation, compassion and justice.
  • They remind me to be humble in the face of transcendence, humble in the face of what others might know that I don’t.
  • They tell me to love truth, reject ideologies that obscure truth, and resist following leaders who say they will save us.
  • They tell me about an economy of consequences. If Americans on average eat 280 animals per year, some of us must eat none, and I see the number of those doing just that growing. If Americans usually participate in a food supply mechanism that supports waste and injustice, I need to do my best to support ways of doing food that create a different narrative. I can support my local food coop and work in the fields at my CSA, planting and harvesting, supporting local farmers and putting my body into the work of a different way of doing food.
  • They tell me that all change begins at the local level. G-d created…then brought a flood to destroy it all and start over. In the new creation, G-d focused on a local group. That local group, the “neighbors” of the 10 Words or Commandments, Israelite society, also failed. Apparently G-d thought that was still a good plan, though, because the ongoing story tells us that G-d was ready to try again with that local group. We may be limited in what we can achieve nationally right now, but we can do a lot in our neighborhood.

We need wisdom from every source to address this transformation of our society. I have unique insights to share based on my life experience as does my Muslim neighbor as does a secular humanist or political activist or individual experiencing life in the coal belt. Subsistence farmers bring as much wisdom and experience to providing food as does Big Ag. Someone who simply sits and watches the sun rise and set each day has unique wisdom. We need it all, every bit of wisdom and expertise from every person on this earth, to not only pass through these times but to discover the seeds that will let us plant, the stones that will let us build.

We can and must build a society that inspires in its citizens a capacity for humility and radical amazement in the face of the wisdom throughout creation, a society that teaches its citizens how to live in harmony with their fellow human beings, fellow creatures and the natural world, a society that teaches that each citizen can make a unique contribution to building a meaningful life for us all on this planet and that includes each citizen in that project.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

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