Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Living under empire

Greetings again from Cairo, Egypt. We have been reviewing the characteristics of the Roman Empire at the time of the birth of Jesus in our class on church history. The economic situation was that about 90% of the people were poor, and lived on and depended upon the produce of the land for their sustenance. These people were subject to high taxes from the wealthy landowners and often were at the mercy of the extremes in weather which could wipe out all their work for the year, leaving them hungry and often in deeper debt. It was not uncommon in these times that the only answer was to sell themselves into slavery, at least for a while, in order to secure the basic needs for living.

I was think about how this same economic situation is very much a part of our world today. Many, many people live off the land and have to hope that all conditions are right to bring about an abundant harvest. Sadly, with our neglect and abuse of the creation, times of drought in some places and of too much rain in others are more and more been the norm rather than the exception. And the ability of poor countries to respond to their people in need are more and more limited because of the downturn in the global economic picture, a condition which is now forecast to continue for many year. Here in Egypt the people are feeling the ill effects of this global problem.

I meet weekly with a divinity student who wishes to improve his ability to read, speak and understand English. One of his classes has been studying the Book of Proverbs and so we start our sessions by having him read a passage out loud, and then we discuss what it means, and how it applies to his congregation in Minia, Upper Egypt. This past week we came upon these verses in chapter 13.

...v. 21 = Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the
...v. 23 = A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away

As we talked about these we realized how the first is consistent with the main trust of the Book of Proverbs, that hard work and clean living produce blessings which God confers upon the "good" people, and that the lazy and the evil person will suffer dire consequences. However, the second verse attributes "bad" things to unseen forces outside of our control which are present in the world.

We decided that this later verse is a much more accurate and complete picture of the way things often are. It certainly stops us from "blaming" the poor for their plight. A postcolonial biblical scholar from South African points out that many times the missionaries from the west sought to reenforce certain "middle class" stereotypes of the poor through the use of the Book of Proverbs in their introduction of the Bible to "distant" places in the world.

The painting above is by a 19th cenury French artist named Jean-Francois Millet, entitled "L'homme a la houe", and so affected an America poet, Edwin Markham, that in 1863 he began his verses about it with these words:

The Man with a Hoe

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground.
The emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back, the burden of the world.

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave to have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power; to feel the passion of eternity?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, is this the handiwork you give to God?
Give back the upward looking and the light; rebuild in it the music and the dream.

May these images serve to remind us of the plight of so many in this world, and as we join together to plan for a better future that it will include all who now suffer severe hardships.

In Christ, peace, hope, and a sufficient and sustainable income for all. Roger R.

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