Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Blue Mountain Mama's 'Wordless Wednesday' has refreshed my irritation. Here's what I mean:
There's a haunting lament by the musician Damien Rice which, today I can't get out of my head. In it he speaks of cold, cold water surrounding him. Of course it's a metaphor, but something of his aching and longing for something lost has stirred my soul. I don't know where this journey began - I think my first visit to Africa - but what I do know is that I now suffer from a condition that Scottish writer and campaigner Alistair McIntosh calls communalism. Such an idiom brings us to questions of identity and belonging - in short, our search for community.
Generations, most of which have now passed away (I am remembering particularly my grandparents), speak of a time of interconnectedness, a time when there was an interdependence on one another for survival. A time of sharing what little they had and not demanding anything in return - I suppose the Biblical simile would be that everyone was their brother and sister's keeper. It is something the social thinker Ivan Illich calls the 'vernacular economy', which explained in mortal speak is a way of doing and being that is learned, naturally, through our culture, which allows equality within society.
As with anything important, we realise just how essential something is only when it is gone. Something I think we (as a global community) need to address with some urgency is an economy for people and not profit, which at its deepest level I would describe as mutuality. This is something which most of Africa and the developing world have had to live with for too long. Need should lubricate our relationships. Surplus should be for sharing before trading and happiness should come from giving rather than accumulating.
Historical and sociological insights urge theologians to look hard at situations where church praxis is worked out. Ideas in isolation are not enough. Theology needs to be seen in relation to the events that shape it. Ubuntu, Xhosa expression, is one such example. It is an ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others'. Like many African words it has numerous translations, another is ''I am what I am because of who you are.'
Where am I going with this? Well, I read the story of the feeding of the 5,000 for the first time in a while the other day and I tried to get beyond the basic narrative and burrow under and inbetween the text. I've always had a nagging suspicion that there was more to this story than Jesus performing some kind of magic trick to feed hungry people. And after a while of pondering the text, it hit me. These were not hungry, starving people in front of Jesus and his disciples at all (maybe a little peckish at most). Many were proud Jewish women and their children and I have never met a Jewish mother who doesn't make sure her family isn't more than well fed.
This miracle is not about feeding starving people. As an aside, most Jews in Jesus' time had 200 calories per day more than the World Health Organisation prescribes as necessary for the minimum sustainable diet for people today. These were not starving hungry people. The point is this; who with thousands around, is going to share? the crowd is experiencing a late lunch because of a silly concoction of politeness, social reserve and selfishness. In the face of all this prissiness, Jesus accepts the naive offering of a young boy who has the courage to share his lunch and with this shames 5,000 people into opening their boxes.
Am I undermining the authenticity of the miracle? No, not for a minute. What I am trying to do is underscore its credibility and importance for our time. For Jesus to transform the fish and loaves would not be impossible. I have no difficulty whatsoever with that. But for Jesus to feed 5,000 people when no one but a young boy is prepared to make any individual suggestion that they have food is an astounding feat, because he is taking on human selfishness.
What makes it more incredible? (If indeed we believe Holy Scripture kind of transcends time) That Christ should feed a non-starving crowd out of kindness? Or that we in the West should be aware of the perilous state of millions of our fellow human beings and have to wait until skeletal children appear on our television screens before we are generous? Or are we finally going to wake up to the fact that we are 'Ubuntu', we are interconnected, that we need one another - that we are our brother's and sister's keeper?
Sobering isn't it?
* as a sub note, anyone who says my thoughts are not accurate with the exact text - take a history lesson on how much the New Testament text has been fiddled with to say what a bunch of men wanted it to say - you'd be surprised