As the Black Lives Matter protests unfold, let us remember an ancient life-giving story, given to a people who were also invaded, removed from their land, forced into slavery and subject to state sanctioned violence. (Listen.)
Explanatory note: Many scholars agree that the sea is an ancient symbol of chaos, and that Genesis was written during the Babylonian exile.
Imagine: Your country is invaded. An army rampages through the landscape, killing men, women, children, even babies: Their heads are dashed against the rocks. Barns are burned; homes flattened; towns looted; cities destroyed.
Corpses lie out in the open: there is no one left to bury them: the streets are awash with blood. Those unlucky enough to survive the massacre are herded up like animals, chained together, and marched into a foreign land. There, they serve as slaves to the elite, tending their farms, cleaning their houses, cooking their dinners, servicing their menfolk, raising their children, and all the while shattered by trauma and longing for home.
It could be the country we now know as Australia; it could be the west coast of Africa during the slave trading years: but it is ancient Israel, invaded by Babylon then marched into exile. There, they are immersed in powerful stories of foreign gods, who rage and kill and dominate and subdue: and the world is created in their image. Marduk shoots an arrow down the throat of Tiamat, goddess of the sea and primordial chaos. Then he slices open her womb with a sword so the seas flow forth; humans are created from her blood. For this act, Marduk becomes top god; and violence and domination flow through the society.
And so status is equated with power over others: one race over another; men over women and children; some men over other men; humans over the earth. People without status are removed from their country, removed from their families, and forced into unstable work. Some are slaves; others have their wages stolen by employer and by the state; still others are paid a minimum wage which doesn’t even cover the basics.
And if ever they raise their heads, and even when they don’t, they are subject to brutality. Raped, beaten, whipped, lynched. Tripped and smashed face first into concrete; knelt on; locked into a baking hot paddy wagon; given the means to hang themselves if they aren’t already dead. The most incarcerated people on the planet are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and, since 1991, over 400 have died in police custody. We pause here to remember just a few of those black lives and deaths which matter: Cameron Doomadgee. David Dungay. Joyce Clarke. Kumanjayi Walker. Veronica Walker. Ms Dhu. Tanya Day. Rebecca Maher. And sliding across to the United States, most recently, of course, George Floyd.
From time to time, tensions reach a peak. In Australia, we see, for the most part, diminishment and scolding, then silence until the next ‘regrettable’ death; in the US, the violence of the state is made manifest. Marches are described as riots. Powerful men call up vigilantes and vicious dogs; some police target peaceful protesters and journalists; and the king orders crowds dispersed with force and teargas, so he can pose in front of a temple waving a sacred text.
It’s a shame he doesn’t read that text. Because, long ago, a people devastated by the brutality of invasion, removed from their land, forced into slavery and subject to state sanctioned violence told a new story: and that story begins on page one of the book.
In the beginning, God: and God’s spirit hovered intimately over the face of chaos and breathed words of life. No arrows, no swords, no wombs sliced open: just intimacy, imagination, a gentle word, and love. And these simple tender qualities brought forth life in all its multiplicity and beauty: and God saw that it was good, and blessed it.
On the sixth day, God made the earth creatures: livestock, reptiles, wild animals, and finally humans. The humans were made in God’s own image: male and female they created them. So this new story says that humans have the capacity to act like God. As creatures made in God’s image, they, too, can look into the face of the other, of chaos, of brutality, of violence, and they, too, can imagine life.
The gods of Babylon, colonialism and capitalism dominate, subdue, and destroy; and when their stories colonise our hearts and minds, we are formed in their image and become forces for destruction, whether actively or through our passivity.
But when we reject these gods and turn away from the endless output of the entertainment industry and close the history books written with white blindness and take the words of our leaders and pundits with a big grain of Babylonian salt, and when we instead immerse ourselves in the ancient story of Genesis and let this story be written on our bones, then we are formed in the image of a different god. This god gazes lovingly into the face of chaos, and doesn’t try to dominate. Instead, this god imagines something new, and speaks words which enable life to emerge and goodness to flourish: and as creatures made in this god’s image, this work is also our own.
So our call is this: To gaze into the face of trauma, intergenerational or recent: and to imagine new possibilities of Makaratta, that is, truth telling, listening, peacemaking, justice, treaty. It is to find words which show that people’s stories have been heard, which take proper responsibility, which neutralise shame, which construct justice, and which describe a generous future where healing can happen and goodness can flourish.
Our call is to gaze into the face of state violence and peace by domination: and to imagine a different peace, a peace founded on social justice, care for the vulnerable, and love of the other, and to speak words such that this peace, this shalom, might transform hearts, minds and relationships and lead to a new common life; a life where justice is not just the province of the privileged, but a reality for all people.
Our call is to gaze into the turmoil of our own hearts: to recognise how the stories of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and white privilege powerfully shape us, and to immerse ourselves instead in our ancient sacred texts; to let those stories subvert the dominant narratives; challenge, change and heal us; and fill us with new and generative words which in themselves give life to others.
In the beginning: God; God, and a different story. A story not of violence, not of domination, not of death: but of breath, word, life, and blessing. A story which invites us to participate as co-creators, and gives us words for every circumstance which enable life to emerge and goodness to flourish.
This is our story; and this, our calling. God’s will be done on earth, as in heaven. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 1:1-2:4 given to Sanctuary on 7 June 2020 (Trinity Year A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash (detail).
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