Predators in the Peaceable Kingdom

I can’t get Isaiah’s prophecy of a peaceable kingdom out of my mind.  Many congregations heard it read out loud on the second Sunday of Advent.  When the Messiah comes, “…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. (Isa 11)

It’s a beautiful scene, made all the more so by Edward Hicks’ familiar paintings.  It’s pleasant to imagine what that world would be like, but where are the people?  Aren’t there supposed to be people in the peaceable kingdom, or have we so disappointed God that he’s given us up for cows and bears?  Jesus’ nativity says no, God has not given up on us.  To the contrary, Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3), humanity in particular, along with cows, bears and the rest of creation.

The peaceable kingdom vision depicts predators and prey living in harmony with one another.  No longer will one species need be nourished at the cost of another species’ life.  Among earth’s creatures, we humans stand apart from all others as the most voracious of all predators.  We kill all manner of other animals to satisfy our bodily hunger.  We kill for the sport of it.  We kill each other with heedless abandon, sometimes in the name of the state, and sometimes out of personal animus.  We have even been known to kill each other for the sport of it.  

Our skills at predation have become quite sophisticated. We kill to nourish our fears, anxieties, ambitions, and egos. We do it not by taking whole lives, just parts of them, through looks, words, and deeds. Abusing, oppressing, humiliating, dominating, intimidating are all ways to kill a little of another’s body, mind and spirit. We cheat and steal from one another in criminal acts, and in the ways we conduct business, treat employees, violate that which has been entrusted to us, and more. They are all forms of predation.

Earthly creation was given into our hands, entrusted to us by God to serve as stewards responsible for its welfare.  We have used its resources to benefit the well being of humanity, but not always wisely.  We have too often failed to consider the well being of creation itself.  Our ability to apply new technologies for our personal benefit have often surpassed our ability to reflect on how they affect the long term health and well being of the rest of creation.  We have, in some insidious way, become parasites preying on the host that gives us life.  It’s dis-ease is our disease, and we are adept at denying both.  It’s not out of evil intent.  In fact, we’ve usually meant for good things to happen, and taken pride in our achievements.  More people live longer, healthier lives.  There are fewer famines and less extreme poverty.  We’re more aware of our interdependence as peoples of differing ethnicities and nations.  Nevertheless, we have trashed our environment, and threatened the viability of our fellow non-human creatures. 

As predators go, none have surpassed us.  I wonder if it’s one reason why we’re easily frightened by the science fiction threat of invasion by extra terrestrials who are more powerful predators than we.  Is it fear that another life form superior to our own would have to be predators because evolution favors predation over all other traits?

Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is not about wolves, lambs, leopards and kids.  It’s about us.  The animals in his vision are metaphors for human beings.  It is we who will neither hurt nor destroy in God’s peaceable kingdom.  But when?

Theologians are fond of talking about the already but not yet; the inbreaking of God’s kingdom already present in our time and place, but the fullness of it is not yet ours to experience in this life.  Isaiah’s vision of God’s peaceable kingdom has always been present, at least in small pieces, because God has always been engaged with creation as both judge and savior.  But with God’s incarnation in Jesus, whose birth we soon celebrate, it ceased to be a matter of visions, prophecies, and God’s words mediated by human agency.  Jesus did not speak and act for God, but was God speaking and acting for us.  What Jesus did, Jesus still does, and will continue to do.  Jesus is not a historical event to be remembered but a present reality to be followed.  

Followed in what way?  As bearers of the peaceable kingdom, at least as much as each is able, in the ordinary events of daily life.  The first rule: do no harm.  Bringing healing, restoration, and opportunity into the lives of others may be the goal of discipleship, but first we must accept for ourselves the healing, restoration, and opportunity for new life Jesus offers to us.  Having done so as best we can, we must commit to doing no harm to other creatures, human and non human.  It’s not that easy.  We remain predators depending on the lives of other creatures to nourish our own.  We remain creatures for whom violence in some forms may be necessary to defend against violence in other forms.  As predators, we remain suspicious of each others’ intentions, and for good reason.  It’s not that easy to do no harm, but we can try.  And when we try, we can begin to bring the healing and restoration to new life that has been given to us, into the lives of others, at least a little.  It’s a start.  It’s good news. 

Perhaps, in some small measure, we might then also begin to say, as Jesus said, look what’s happening: Those who were blind have new sight; Those who could not hear God’s gracious words have heard them; Those who could not follow Jesus are walking with us; Those who were excluded as unclean have become one with us; That is good news.  It’s not easy.  History tells us that in enthusiastic hubris, we’ve often done great harm trying to bring the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  We’ve used our predator skills to proclaim the good news.  It doesn’t work that way.  Remember the first rule: Do no harm. 

Healthy Congregations: It's a Balancing Act

Every clergy gathering sooner or later turns to the social psychology of parish membership, with special concern for what motivates new comers to attend in the first place, decide to stay or leave, and what works to accommodate them within the existing culture of the place.

Academics and church consultants have lectured and written about it for decades, but every gathering seems to start all over as if for the first time.  And why not?  The river of clergy who have been exposed to well researched guidance from experienced experts moves on, leaving behind those who, indeed, must start from the beginning.  

I have my own take on the question based on years of consulting and teaching in the realm of community organizations.  It’s only a partial answer, but it might help one or two others work out their own better ways.  It begins with why someone might come into a church in the first place.

To be sure, there are life long church folk who, upon arriving in town, search out a church that looks good to them and start attending.  For most newcomers, their entrance is related to a personal issue held close and seldom shared.  Personal issues are high in emotional content, meaning entering a church for the first time is not without anxiety.  Will I be welcomed?  Will there be people like me?  Will it be a place where my hunger will be fed?  Will my wounds and fears be tended? Will I understand what’s going on?  Will they like me?  Will I be embarrassed?  What if I do something wrong?  Entering a church for the first time is a deeply me centered experience.  Some may enter in shyness, others with feigned self confidence, or brash plunging straight ahead, but it’s all a way of dealing with the anxiety of entering for the first time.  Introverts like me likely want to be relatively invisible until they can get their bearings.

If the initial experience is successful, newcomers may become regulars looking for connections with whom to share a little about their expectations and needs in companionable fellowship.  Through it they may develop a greater knowledge of God as revealed in Christ Jesus, deepen their faith in God’s goodness, and grow in confidence as Christians.  The simple acts of attending and participating in fellowship establish the foundation for long term commitments, and sometimes that’s as far as it goes.  Is it enough?  I think it is.  

Others, who have gained confidence that their basic needs are met, will be attracted to more active involvement if avenues for it are made available.  It’s the usual menu of choir, church school, altar guild, lay ministry, adult Christian education and other subsets of parish life beyond attending worship and coffee hour.  Success depends in large part on whether the congregation provides open, barrier free, well marked avenues of access.  Pastors are all too familiar with established groups resistant to newcomers invading their territory.  There is nothing more common than open doors and closed circles.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

In time there will be some who recognize that, working together, the congregation can do good things  for those in need in the community.  They are the ones who respond to the call to be missional.  They retain their needs for personal nourishment, fellowship, and small group involvement, but they have a sense that the gifts and resources of the congregation need to be made available to those in need elsewhere.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and other ways of taking the good news of God in Christ Jesus out into the world is the work God has given them to do.  They may find it hard to understand why everyone can’t see what they see and do what they do.  In their enthusiasm to recruit others, they may put too much pressure on those not yet ready or have other interests.

Some, not many, will become more aware of how much it costs to do all that needs to be done, more aware of the blessings that have come their way, and more committed to underwriting the church budget.  Sacrificial tithers can be tempted to assume a proprietary interest in church affairs, which is never a healthy thing, but it happens.  They have a hard time understanding why others don’t do as they do.  Those whose generosity is founded on sacred gratitude are the true financial pillars of the church, and more likely to honor the abundance of gifts distributed in different ways among the congregation.

A few will have the skills and abilities to lend their talents to overseeing the organization itself.  With luck, they will be selected to serve on the parish council or vestry, providing wisdom needed to make sound policy decisions for today and tomorrow.  It doesn’t always work out that way in practice.  Too often the qualified few are outnumbered by those who have been arm twisted to serve, or who delight in being on boards for personal reasons with personal agendas.  It’s a reality to be managed.  The truth is volunteer leaders need to be led, and that’s the pastor’s job.  

Does this sound a little like a Maslow pyramid?  There are similarities.  The point is that every congregation of any size has members in each group.  Their needs must be recognized and met with none assuming priority over the others.  The boundaries between groups are not just permeable, they’re vaguely drawn.  Moreover, the ebb and flow of daily life means even established members can suddenly find themselves feeling like strangers, newcomers, wondering if the congregation will be a safe place of sanctuary for them.

It’s a balancing act.  Each contingent within the congregation has needs and interests that must be met.  Focussing in on one to the exclusion of the others will cause disruption and unhappiness among those whose needs are not being addressed.  Focussing on a high priority for a season, while maintaining comfortable adequacy in the others, is more likely to encourage healthy congregational life.    

It's all a Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories with political consequences swirl through the public arena, as they always have.  In decades past they were the fodder of gossipy tabloids sold at super market checkouts, and followed by small posses of the easily deceived who rarely admitted it.  The internet and social media changed all that.  Together with talk radio and hyper-partisan “news” media, they’ve provided undeserved credibility for conspiracy theories that influence a large, publicly vocal audience.  

It’s hard to know how to respond to conspiracy believers because rational appeals to facts simply reinforce their conviction that fact mongers are a part of the conspiracy.  Just the same, I was reminded by a helpful comment I read not long ago that conspiracy theories are not theories at all; they’re just stories, conspiracy stories, and it might help all of us to review what conspiracy theories really are, and how they differ from real theories. 

Conspiracy theories, stories actually, are based on unlikely strings of events believed to be coordinated through complicated mechanisms controlled by cabals operating behind veils of secrecy.  No decent conspiracy story is complete without the secret cabal being revealed, yet the mystery is always deepened and the secrecy remains.  Only the enlightened who have been able to peek behind the veil know the truth.  Those who spread the story invite their hearers to be among the enlightened, urging them to participate in spreading it to as many others as possible.  Incredibly, the more publicity it gets, the more secrecy the conspiracy is able to maintain.  It’s like everybody knows George Soros is the secret financier manipulating all things liberal, yet for as public as it is, he can still be secretly doing it.  The schtick is loosely related to: cable tv commercials promising exclusive offers on secret new products available in limited supply to those who call in the next five minutes; penny stocks letting only the few in on the ground floor of extravagant riches; and the amazing way to lose weight and build muscle, all without exercise.  

Theories on the other hand, have a different definition.  Theories are evidence based proposals of truths shown to be consistent with all available observations.  They begin with hypotheses: educated intuitions about how something works based on limited examinations of evidence that bear promise and need a closer look.  As with Einstein’s work on relativity, they can shake the very foundations of received knowledge, and be subject to harsh examination.  Which is exactly the point.  Nascent theories are subject to public review, not hidden behind veils of secrecy.  When hypotheses have been tested against enough verifiable evidence, they form a theory subject to further public examination, and always amenable to modification by new knowledge.  Their validity is judged by how well they explain observed behaviors in the world about us.  

Moreover, the public examination to which they’re subject is not a matter for opinion polling.  It’s a matter for those who have competency in the field.  The lack of competency has never stopped us from having opinions about various theories, the theory of evolution being a big one, but opinions of those with little or no competency in the field, no matter how strongly held, are not valid arguments in the examination of any theory.

We are a little too free with our collective use of the word theory.  Announcing that one has a theory about this or that is often no more than a way of offering an opinion about what is true based on one’s prejudices and whatever casual information one has chosen to pick up.  It may not even measure up to a decent hypothesis.  If the so called theory is firmly attached to core social or religious values, it may be emotionally well defended against any serious examination.  Or it may be just a flippant comment thrown out over coffee or cocktails.  “I have a theory about that,” is something I’ve been know to say when what I really meant was, “I have an idea about something, and you should know about it because it’s really great.”

The frivolous freedom with which we use the word is a big part of what allows conspiracy theories to gain traction.  We attach it to all kinds of ideas, opinions, guesses, and things we were superficially taught in school.  It’s so loosey-goosey that when a juicy conspiracy theory comes along, it can look a lot like a real theory by the way it’s presented, seducing us down a rabbit hole of non sequiturs.  The right wing seems to be most susceptible to falling for them, and that could be due to several decades of right wing talk radio broadcasting them day and night.  Yet, just the other day one of my more leftish friends had a “theory” about the five corporate masters of all mainline media conspiring to manipulate polling data in Trump’s favor.  I wondered.  Are there really only five?  Do they form a cabal of tightly coordinated control?  Can they really keep a secret?  Since polling organizations are abundant, mostly independent, often associated with universities or nonpartisan think tanks, each accessible by anyone who wants to look at their data, is it possible to manipulate them all?  Conspiracy stories can be made up to say so, but they’re not theories because they fall apart under any serious examination.  

Be careful my friends.  Sometime there really is a conspiracy.  But there has never been one kept secret for long, nor one able to control the targets of its own conspiracy.