By the waters

It being the first day of the month, it was time for Pray In The Sea. Inspired by Ourvoices.net, this was something we did in Brighton in 2014 and 2015, and we have revived it this year – after all, climate change has not gone away and the average sea level continues to rise. We meet just after low tide and stand in or near the sea, edging back as the tide rises. We keep silence for about 20 minutes, which means that it’s open to anyone of any or no religious practice or affiliation, and then there’s the opportunity to share any thoughts with the others, and that’s it.

2015.10.01 Praying for planet. Brighton beach 2This picture shows the time, in October 2015, when we were joined by Maina Taila from Tuvalu and Rev. Maleta Tenten from Kiribati. This was especially poignant, as the Pacific islands had been a particular focus for us, as they are so vulnerable to the rising sea. Also in this picture are a couple who were just walking along the beach, saw our banner and joined in.

Today, even though it was May Day, the sea was grey and wild, with dark threatening clouds scudding across in a cold easterly wind. I was thinking about Maina and Maleta and their island communities, where people are already leaving their ancestral homes for the safety of places like New Zealand. I thought about the people who are still, daily, crossing the Mediterranean to escape famine, drought, war, poverty or whatever other reason is so great as to force someone to leave their home and spend everything and risk everything to seek a different life in a new land. In a new land, their accent and perhaps skin colour will always mark them out as a foreigner. They will have to work hard to learn a new language and learn the unspoken rules of a new culture; they will have to work hard just to survive. As the West becomes increasingly hostile to migrants and refugees, they may never feel welcome and may never feel truly at home again. How does it feel to look out on an angry sea, across which a new but hard life may await, knowing that you can’t go back to an old life that civil war or climate change has destroyed?

Mucking about on my banjo yesterday, I discovered how to play Don McLean’s ‘Babylon‘ (capo at 3rd fret – seems obvious when you know). “By the waters, the waters of Babylon / We laid down and wept, and wept, for thee, Zion / We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion.” The Jewish exiles in Babylon, as described in Psalm 137, felt very homesick, to the point where they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land and hung up their harps on the willows. There is some linguistic fluidity in the psalm between the words Jerusalem and Zion. In verses 5-6, which perhaps express most deeply how far from home the exiles felt, it is Jerusalem that they vow never to forget. But in verse 1, they remember Zion, and in verse 3, their captors ask for “One of the songs of Zion.” In the bible, Zion is often simply an alternative name for Jerusalem, perhaps referring to the hill on which Solomon built the temple. But sometimes, Zion also takes on a greater symbolism to speak in ideal terms of, say, the messianic kingdom, and this utopian sense gets reflected in later thought, for example in modern Zionism, or in the spirituals of American slaves, or in the songs of Rastafari reggae. Zion becomes a metaphor for an ideal homeland yet to come. So, going back to Psalm 137, there was a challenge to the exiles not to hang up their harps in (understandable) sadness and despair, but to learn how to sing, in a foreign land, the songs of Zion: songs of the world to come when they would be free. For the exile who has hope, home is not where you came from, or where you are, but where you’re going.

As I stood by the waters of Brighton this morning, I thought that a similar challenge presents itself to climate activists and anyone else who feels that the world is not as it should be and longs for a better world. I think it’s to do with acknowledging the sense of dissonance we feel – that sense of being out of step with a narcissistic consumer culture – and making something creative of that sense. It’s about identifying yourself as an exile, a foreigner, a migrant, whilst living in this culture and participating in it for the common good – but always with a foreign accent and always out of step, always finding the cultural norms weird and un-natural, always refusing to assimilate. It’s odd because we are exiles within the culture we have left – it’s an inner migration but with an outward effect. The challenge is about learning to sing the songs of Zion in this foreign land: imagining how a world of justice, peace and life in its fullness might look in its different aspects, and putting that vision into conversation, song, story, poetry, art and a life lived out of step with what is, but in step with what we hope for. And I wonder if standing by (or in) the waters and weeping because of the distance between Babylon and Zion is the beginning of learning the songs of Zion and the journey home.

My feet in the sea

The future’s not what it used to be

Back in the early 1970s, when I was quite young, I entered a competition to design the car of the future. I drew some sleek rocket-powered thing that hovered above the ground – very space-age. And it was the space-age. space-age-2We were still sending men to the moon. The future was going to be amazing. We would have colonies in space. Our homes would be filled with labour-saving gadgets and robots and our food would be swallowed as a pill (“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on” – David Bowie in 1969). We would be able to speak to each other via our wristbands or maybe a video-phone on the wall. In all sorts of ways, we imagined a future quite different from the present in which we were living.

In a blog post for Dark Mountain, John Michael Greer argues that over successive decades, our imaginations have narrowed and the futures now portrayed in our stories are not radically different from our real lives. He says a great deal more that is worth reading, not least about different understandings of time in the world’s great civilizations, and perhaps I’ll write about that soon. But this observation about the poverty of the modern imagination set me thinking.

Perhaps one reason why the future is much like the present these days is that we’re just pretty pleased with ourselves. We’ve done very well and our lives are pretty good and so as long as we can keep up-grading our phones, that’s as much future as we need. The sight of cathode-ray tubes and QWERTY keyboards in The Matrix or Blade Runner should give us pause for thought in our hubris: the future looks back and scoffs. But still, we have progressed nicely… as long as you don’t look too hard around the world; as long as you don’t see what it’s like when others pay the cost of the progress of the few.

Maybe that kind of denial is another possible reason for our lack of imagination. This is Greer’s argument. Our sense of progress has worn thin. We are tired of having to continually upgrade, when every upgrade costs us more and gains us less than the last one. It’s getting harder to close our eyes to the devastation brought to the earth by deforestation, by mining, by intensive farming and by just about every other feature of how we live today. The unspeakable things we’ve always feared were lurking underneath the shiny stone of progress are starting to creep out. (As Gustavo Gutierrez said in 2015, “The poor are beating on the gates of the rich in their thousands, demanding to be let in.”) The stone is getting hotter. We dare not think about climate change and rising seas and many of today’s coastal mega-cities being underwater within a generation or less. When the future is so damn scary, it is hard to look at it for long. The future won’t look back and scoff, it will scream. So we have to stop our ears and close our eyes and find some narrative fascination in a slightly improved phone and some robotic toys for the super-rich.

The future is going to be radically different from the present, whether we like it or not. Greer argues (more or less) that we have to pluck up the courage to lift our eyes from the lackluster screen of our present imagination and look the future in its unimaginable face.

To write like this feels like heresy. I am supposed to be telling people that if they make a few changes to their lifestyle (change the lightbulbs, eat less meat, fly and drive less, etc) they can help keep the world much as it is now. To say anything else feels like doom and gloom and giving up in despair. However, I wonder if the opposite is true. It may be that clinging to the idea that we can conserve the present is worse than despair, because it is a despair that denies the truth. Post-Paris and the pledges that didn’t add up (despite the laudable goodwill of COP21); post-the 2015 and 2016 elections that have driven climate change off the political agenda in UK and US; and the prospect of the south-east of England being turned into an oil-field (with the moral blessing of the Church of England, let alone the determination of the UK Government), I think the truth is that we are stuffed. At least, we are stuffed if the un-stuffed alternative is to keep things more or less as they are now.

I don’t think I want to keep things as they are now. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not least amongst people, animals and plants that are bearing the cost of oil-and-debt-fuelled free-market capitalism. We need a different world and it looks like we’re going to get one anyway. Predictions of a climate-changed world are only predictions, because the change is unprecedented in human history and we have no experience to inform us. But we can start thinking about what will help make life possible for as many life-forms as possible. One of the obvious things is to work at re-building broad-based communities rather than the like-minded bubbles encouraged by social media. Such communities will really exist – real bodies in proximity learning how people can belong to each other with grace, generosity and care, and applying those lessons in the wider world and to include all life.

The task of conventional climate campaigning remains valid (and vital), because we need to keep the temperature rise as low as possible by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. What I’m suggesting here is that this cannot be at the expense of also addressing adaptation to a changed future in which as much life as possible can thrive.

It is going to take great courage to turn away from the re-assuring lies of our present culture. It is going to take renewed imagination and love to face a frightening and uncertain future and engage with it. But I think there is hope if we do it together.

(I was planning to include some biblical reflection in this post, but I think it’s long enough already! The bible, especially in the prophetic literature, contains a lot of courageous analysis and critique of dysfunctional and unjust (and complacent) societies, alongside far-seeing imagination of how things could be different. See my article on Isaiah 11 in the ‘Bible studies’ section if you’re interested.)