A provocative retelling of 2 Kings 17 for NAIDOC Week. (Listen.)
Once upon a time, there was a cruel empire, formed in the image of its gods. Its navy patrolled the seven seas; its armies marched through foreign lands; its merchants controlled entire regions through trade monopolies and taxes. The empire grabbed and sold slaves and spices, sapphires and silks; it grew rich on stolen people, stolen wealth, stolen land. Gradually, it spread across the globe. One day it reached a strange new land, where mammals hop and giant birds run and bright birds screech and even the stones hum.
There, the king’s envoys waded onshore. They planted a scrap of flag, and claimed the land for their own. Then they killed many locals with bullets and smallpox; others, they enslaved or drove away. They established outposts at ports around the coastline. They sent armed thugs through the hinterlands who killed storytellers and farmers and fisherfolk.
They flattened villages and destroyed food stores; they seized women and stole goods; they smashed sacred sites; they cut down birthing trees. They rounded up survivors and placed them on this Mish and that, and put them to hard labour. The forced diaspora scrambled kinship networks, muddied marriage lines, and silenced language, compelling all peoples to learn the words of empire. Children were separated from their mothers, further disrupting kin and culture.
Meanwhile, the king emptied his prisons at home and shipped inmates to this land. He sent Methodist ministers and tin mine tunnellers and famine survivors and ragged landless serfs; he sent storytellers and farmers and fisherfolk. He encouraged migration by peoples from neighbouring countries, lovers of bratwurst and beer. These people were placed all over: on Peek Wurrung country, and Djargurd Wurrung country, and Wurundjeri country; he sent the lovers of bratwurst to the lands of the Ngadjuri and Wotjobaluk. Everywhere they went, the people took possession of the land, and settled it.
When they first settled there, they did not worship the spirit of the land; therefore, the spirit of the land sent poisonous snakes among them, which killed some of them. So the king was told, ‘The nations that you have carried away and placed in Peek Wurrung country and Wotjobaluk country and every other country do not know the lore of the god of the land; therefore, he has sent snakes among them; the snakes are killing them, because they do not know the lore of the god of the land.’
Then the king commanded, ‘Send there one of the elders whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the lore of the god of the land.’ So one of the elders whom they had carried away came and lived in Bethel, which means ‘the house of God’; he taught them how they should worship the spirit of the land.
He told them stories of the deep love between the earth mother and the sky father; and how this love gave birth to all life, all landscape.
He taught how the humans were the last of the creatures to be made: and how they are intimately connected with all creation: the land, the animals, the stars.
He taught how their bodies are made from earth and return to earth, even as their spirit lives on.
He taught how the land is a living gift, to be taken care of in loving relationship.
He taught them the way not of buying and selling, nor even giving and taking, but of sharing: a way where everyone has what they need, because nobody takes too much.
He set out extended kinship networks, and the responsibilities of all people to children.
He taught them limitations on violence; he taught them the web of shalom; he taught them the reality of love. He sang songs which told of how we live in love’s presence; that it cannot be earned or grabbed or taken or stolen; that it fills us and surrounds us and guides us and heals us; that everyone can dwell in love.
The elder taught these things in simple words, using the stories he usually told to children. And some of them sounded a bit like stories the newcomers had brought with them, written down in a leatherbound book.
So the newcomers paid lip service to the spirit of the land, but continued to serve their self-made gods: the gods of money and acquisition; the spirit of domination; the spirit of lovelessness and violence. They didn’t understand the lore of the land; they didn’t understand their own leatherbound book; they didn’t understand how their self-made gods were incompatible with both.
Yet no matter how hard they tried, they could not simultaneously hoard and share, or tend and destroy; they could not dwell in love when their words spewed condemnation and their actions poured out hate.
To this day, the newcomers continue to practice their former customs. They constantly cry out ‘Lord, Lord’ and wave their leatherbound book, while taking too much, and condemning others, and harming the land. Even now, they turn from love and serve their self-made gods. There is no justice; there is no shalom; and the land? It weeps and groans.
This is a sad story, a lonely story, a story of rupture and fracture. But it’s just the middle of the story. This story is still unfolding; and it isn’t over yet. We’re dancing on the page; we’re living the next chapter; we’re finding the words as we go. So as for what happens next—who knows? It all depends on how we choose to live the next lines of our common story. Ω
Reflect: What signs of hope do you see? What is one thing you have learned from the land? Where is the spirit leading you/us now?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on 2 Kings 17 given to Sanctuary on 3 July 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (off lectionary). The teachings of the elder were drawn from The Dreaming Path. Indigenous Thinking to Change Your Life, by Paul Callaghan with Uncle Paul Gordon. (Neutral Bay, NSW: Pantera, 2022). Photo by Tim Davies on Unsplash. It shows Middle & Merri Islands and Stingray Bay, which are a gentle stroll from Sanctuary. We are based on Peek Wurrung country. Read our acknowledgement of country here.
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