Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
As part of my fellowship I am required to periodically write theological reflections relating to my time in Zambia. I thought this one would be good food for thought for this blog.
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3).
These lines from Ecclesiastes offer one of the most exquisite expressions of despair I have ever come across. They take the refrain of “Everything is vanity!” and give it meat, filling it out with the realities of oppression. The oppressors have power and continue to gain power over the oppressed who have tears and continue to shed tears. In saying that neither the oppressed nor the oppressors have anyone to comfort them, the teacher reveals that this unjust relationship creates a condition of brokenness for both. The teacher then shows that this condition of brokenness rooted in unjust power relationships has become systemic in all the world. For, it is better to be dead and still better to have never been born than to witness this evil that exists under the sun.
I cannot help but read this in light of the teacher’s image of chasing after wind—an image evoked no fewer than nine times throughout the short book (1:14, 1:17, 2:11, 2:26, 4:4, 4:6, 4:16, 5:16, 6:9). It is an image illustrating what is often interpreted as the futility of our actions, from the toil of our hands to the quest for wisdom. The teacher initiates this image in the opening chapter by describing the circuitousness of the wind, going round and round and back again (1:6). In effect, when we embark on the impossible journey of chasing the wind we end up running in circles, retracing over and over again the same steps we and others have taken before.
Having spent significant time in India and now in Zambia, I have gotten much more in touch with paradigms of circular continuous time in which patterns of life and history repeat themselves as time progresses towards some end—of course with the belief that perhaps after that end it all might start over again. I include “continuous” not only because time still progresses but because there is a general continuity of life in the persistence of spirits, ancestors, and even the self on this same plane of existence after death. I do not buy into the often oversimplified distinction between Western paradigms of time as linear and progressive and Eastern paradigms of time as circular, but I do think that in broad strokes the West has been more controlled by the narrative of progress.
I think that the teacher of Ecclesiastes is also more prone to view the world through the narrative of progress, though perhaps with a healthy understanding that progress should not be the end goal of life. With progress as the major driving narrative, each repeating pattern seems like a failure, as it shows we have not learned from what has come before. It thus makes sense that chasing the wind in circles and realizing that there is nothing new under the sun would cause great exasperation and despair. If, however, the seeming failures and futilities of life were viewed through the lens of circular continuous time, there would be an acknowledgement and even acceptance that history repeats itself. The key, though, is that these circular repetitions are still continuing along toward some end. Further, without linear progress as the central narrative, there would also be more acknowledgement of the good that is repeated throughout history as well as the incremental growth that does occur.
I am learning that I need to keep integrating my linear progressive paradigm with the circular continuous paradigm, for if I do not then I will indeed sink into the despair portrayed in the verses at the head of this reflection. It is difficult to be away from the U.S. each time there is another mass shooting, another black life lost to State violence, another hate crime, another drone campaign, and another weekend of killings in Chicago. Every single time I hang my head and cry out, “Why haven’t we learned? How do we allow this to keep happening? There is no comfort for the oppressed! There is no comfort for the oppressor!”
The same thing happens when I see the recolonization of Africa and the rise of despots and civil wars on the continent. Along with continued neocolonialism by major corporations, there seems to be an actual recolonization by China. Money is paid to governments, and Chinese companies take over the extraction industries. They even bring their own laborers, increasing the unemployment rate for African laborers. I cannot help but think of the history of colonization by trade companies—i.e. The Congo by the Belgian trade company under Leopold and the many places across Africa and Asia by the Dutch and British companies. Likewise, the likes of Robert Mugabe and Joseph Kabila remind me of Latin American and European leaders of old who took their countries to hell just for the sake of staying in power. Finally, the flaring up of civil wars in the Central African Republic and South Sudan hearken to those in Rwanda and the Sudan. Again, the temptation is to despair.
And then there are those persistent oppressions that happen across contexts. Patriarchy, racism, colorism, casteism, homophobia, ableism, human trafficking, and xenophobia all lead to daily acts of systemic and interpersonal violence. These phenomena also seem cyclical to me. They repeat themselves and compound each other, and then when progress is made in one area we choose new identities to otherize and oppress. This can be seen in rising violence against migrant workers and albinos here in Zambia and in rising xenophobia and Islamophobia in the U.S. And of course we cannot forget our own individual patterns of behavior, of relapses, of neuroses, and of repeat relational mistakes. Linearly it is failure after failure after failure. We move forward in time, but we do not learn.
Now, there is of course a bit of fate or a loss of free will inherent to the paradigm of circularity. But that is also there in certain doctrines of providence. It does not have to be defeatist or fatalistic. It can be a simple acknowledgement that things may happen that are beyond our control, and we can expect those things to look like that which has come before. In light of this, we Christians should take heart and have great hope. For, if we look at time as carrying circular patterns moving us towards an end goal then we should notice the repeating patterns of creation, fall, and re-creation; life, death, and resurrection; wholeness, brokenness, and reconciliation; righteousness, sin, and redemption. With these repeating cycles as the driving patterns of our faith, then we should be the people of hope in this world.
We should acknowledge the fall, death, brokenness, and sin, but we should proclaim re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption. We should also proclaim the fact that God decisively broke into the patterns of this world through the Incarnation, changing the trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward whirlwind. And through the Incarnation we were given an imperative not only to live as people of hope but to be active agents in bringing about that which is hoped for. This means that we must do all that we can to hasten the coming of re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption each time we find ourselves in a moment of fall, death, brokenness, and sin.
When we spiritually dwell on the latter, then we inevitably extend the reality that we physically dwell there. We allow the oppressive stage of the cycle to become that which dominates the most time. If, however, we dwell on the hope and indeed promise of our faith that we have seen over and over again, then we can actively fight and shorten the time of oppression. As we strive towards this, then I believe we will also press onward more rapidly towards that end goal, the completion of the Kingdom. At the level of daily life this should change our entire perspective. We should recognize evil, but we should dwell on that which defeats evil. We should lift up the re-creations and resurrections that occur all the time in every context. We should change the entire narrative that gives power to oppression and defeatism as a response.
When we make this our work, then indeed we should rejoice in our toils. When we are celebrating re-creation, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption, then we should indeed enjoy our food and drink. When we understand that the object of chasing the wind is not catching the wind but rather learning from the steps we have traced before, then all will not be vanity. And when we change society so that the fall, death, brokenness, and sin are not the dominant realities, there may just be fewer oppressions under the sun. Then there would certainly be something new under the sun.