Friday, April 23, 2010
The Peaceable Kingdom: a reflection on Hosea 2:14-20
Edward Hicks, a self-taughtfolk-artist and Quaker preacher from Bucks County, Pennsylvania is best known for his painting The Peaceable Kingdom. I should say "paintings" because he did over 80 versions of the picture and gave them as gifts to friends, neighbors, and relatives as a way to teach them about peace. In the foreground of the painting is a herd of diverse animals lying down under the shade of the trees. Predatory animals are resting peacefully in an Eden-like garden next to their enemies in the animal kingdom. One child stands next to a ferociously mild beast, while another child is unharmed sticking their hand in a snake's hole. The primitive style of the painting gives it an air of childlike innocence or otherworldly fantasy. What brings the painting back to earth is the scene to the left and in the background. If you don't look closely, you might miss it. Behind the gathering of peaceful animals is a gathering of humans. Quaker William Penn can be seen making the 1682 treaty with the Leni-Lenape tribe of Native Americans by the shore of the Delaware River. The ideal vision and the reality of peace stand side by side. Within the framework of a vision of nature at peace, humans are forging peace. Though Hick's vision of peace is drawn directly from the prophet Isaiah, the prophet Hosea proclaims a strikingly similar vision of a covenant God is going to make with the wild animals, a future peaceable kingdom in which nature and humanity are in harmony.
In the days of the prophet Hosea there were foreign gods which seduced Israel away from God's peace toward the value system of violence. During the eighth century, when Hosea prophesied, Israel and Judah were living in a period of increased prosperity with a sense of national security, with the superpowers of Egypt and Assyria temporarily immobilized, but not without Israel and Judah having to pay heavy tribute and exports. This relatively peaceful political and economic situation caused God's people to feel they had been blessed by God in a special way. All the while leaders were bent on protecting their own narrow self-interests by taking advantage of others. Lying, stealing, political assassination, debt foreclosures, land-grabbing, economic inequities, and court corruption were the injustices the festered beneath the outward appearance of prosperity. Doesn't it always seem to go that when there is economic prosperity, it comes with injustices and there are those who suffer under and do not share in the prosperity. Hosea describes these moral and economic injustices as ecological violence: Therefore the land mourns and all who live in it languish, together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing (Hosea 4:3).
At the heart of this ecological violence was a spiritual adultery, an unfaithfulness in Israel's relationship with God. The nation had been seduced by foreign values, with its reigning kings and elites, the building of temples, palaces, and fortified cities, and trust in armaments and military alliances. Israel and Judah had also been enticed by the foreign gods of Baal and his consort, the goddess Asherah. Baal was the god of thunder and fertility. He was believed to provide the rain and productivity of humans and land. Baal was depicted as a virile bull or warrior god with club and spears of lightning. Baal represented an ethical value system foreign to God's covenant. In Hosea's day the people had fallen into worshipping Baal and living by its ethical system, which led to violence in many different forms.
The extent of Baal worship in Israel can be seen in archeological digs. One of many cultic sites which has been unearthed is at the Israelite fortress city of Arad, similar to another cultic site found in the ancient city of Dan. A Bamah or hilltop sanctuary was found containing bowls for offerings, pottery inscribed with names of priestly families, incense burner, altars, and Holy of Holy with stones possibly representing both Yahweh and Baal (Read Hosea 4: 13- They sacrifice on tops of mountains). At the altars of Baal and Asherah fertility rites with temple prostitutes were performed, along with ritual human sacrifices (Hosea 4: 14). At the archeological site of Kuntillet Arjud an inscription from the period and location of Hosea's ministry was found which graphically depicts Yahweh, the name for Israel's God, with a consort or wife, Asherah. The inscription reads, I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah. In Hosea's time Yahweh had taken on the likeness of Baal, to the extent of having a wife. This archeological find illuminates how Hosea's broken marriage through his unfaithful wife Gomer was a fitting symbol for Israel's broken covenant with God through its relationship with Baal. It also illustrates how Israel's God had become wedded to foreign gods and their values.
Now, we know that kind of primitive stuff doesn't happen today in the United States. We live in a time of political insecurity and economic prosperity for the wealthy, which isn't shared by the middle or lowerclasses of our society. We place a lot of trust in the military and our fortified borders to protect us from foreign enemies and immigrants. We have made our share of political alliances and pay our tributes to other nations. Admittedly, even the church sees our nation as being specially blessed and favored by God. One nation under God. But, that's as far as it goes, right? Well, not quite. Have we not consorted with foreign gods and taken on their values, which lead us into various forms of violence?
Our security and prosperity comes with certain injustices, which are the seeds of violence. God's covenant tells us to welcome the foreigner and care for the poor. We fortify our borders to the South, not the North, and incarcerate those fleeing poverty. The invasion of Iraq was supposedly meant to keep us safe from our "enemies," but did extreme violence to innocent people, with some estimates being the death of 100,000 civilians. We know that our petroleum interests were also involved in this violence upon the common Iraqi people. On the home front we try to keep our cities and streets safe and secure, but the result is an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of minorities are killed by police action or end up in our prison system and on death row awaiting a kind of ritual sacrifice for our racism.
At least we don't serve Baal. You don't have to do an archaeological dig to find an inscription depicting our god. You can find it on any dollar bill: In god we trust. Altars to Baal have been uncovered throughout the land of Israel. If future archaeologists were able to dig up our civilization, what might the altars look like? Shopping malls? Big, macho petroleum-burning automobiles? Houses built on hills? Churches that resemble shrines to Mammon? I wonder. Thank God, we don't have anything remotely resembling the cultic prostitution of Baal and Asherah. Oh, I almost forgot about that old TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, where 50 women lined up to get a chance at marrying into big money before a worshipping, I mean a viewing audience of millions. We love the vicarious thrill of these kinds of get rich shows. Is possible that these shows are sad but graphic symbols of the depth of our own infidelity toward God by consorting with foreign gods and their value systems?
Serving these foreign gods and their values disrupts the harmony between humanity and nature. The worship of security and prosperity often lead to various forms of violence. Our national security is built upon feeding a bloated military industrial complex that sucks the marrow out of our education and human welfare programs. Our political alliances, such as we once had with Iraq when in conflict with Iran, can sour and turn into conflict and war. Our prosperity often comes with a price tag of exploitation of foreign workers. Remember Kathy Lee Gifford’s clothing line? Unregulated industries that produce our never-ending demand for goods pour pollutants into our rivers and air killing wild life. Rain forests are raped depleting vegetation which supplies our earth's with oxygen. Our gods and their value systems cause us to commit ecological violence. The words of Hosea are timely: Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.
Our God ultimately seeks to restore peace between humanity and nature. Hosea's vision of this restoration is one of a peaceable kingdom. God's faithful love will never give up on the covenant relationship. God is going to woo his bride, God's people, back to the wilderness, symbolic of the place where the covenant and its values were given, but this wilderness will literally become the desert of Babylonian captivity. There is judgment with hope. On that day Israel will call God, "My husband" and no longer "My Baal." God will make a covenant with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground and will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land. And God will cause the people to lie down in safety and security. God seeks to put an end to violence, which bleeds from human life to animal and natural life. Hosea envisions a day when peace comes to the people and to the earth, symbolized in harmony between humans and nature; a covenant with the wild animals.
Edward Hick's painting of The Peaceable Kingdom resembles the lost world of Eden, to which we can never return. It has the air of a utopian fantasy or childish fairy tale. That is, until you look in the distant background at the real life treaty being made by William Penn with the Leni-Lenape Native Americans. Penn's peaceable vision was only a glimmer of light in our dark relations with the indigenous peoples of America. And yet, it was a real, though small ray of hope emerging from a man with a relationship to God, who had dreams of a peaceable kingdom on earth as in heaven.
We who share Hick’s vision may work creating our own concrete rays of hope that reflect the vision of the peaceable kingdom. We may serve as a small background within the framework of this larger vision of God's peaceable reign. We can be brush into the painting of the larger world our Christian values of peacemaking. Supporting the antiracism work of organizations like Mennonite Central Committee’s Damascus Road Antiracism Training can help to dismantle racial injustices which are a form of violence. Mennonite churches can seek to preserve our peace heritage in the face of attempts to wed our churches to foreign values, which would have us downplay or deny God's peaceable vision for the earth. In our communities we can engage in ministries that care for the vulnerable or follow agricultural practices that care about the earth. We can teach our children the biblical vision of peace not as a Dr. Doolittle fantasy, but in concrete forms of cooperation and cross-cultural awareness in Sunday School or like the Kids for Peace Club my wife Iris and her friend started in Houston, Texas. We can use our own particular gifts to promote and teach peace principles, like I have tried to do with my Drumming for Peace programs. In our lifestyles we can respect animal life and care for the environment as a gift God has given us.
We can draw the outlines of a picture of life in which humanity and nature are less exploited and in conflict and are more harmonious in their relationships. We can be small rays of light, figures in the background of God's peaceable kingdom until that day when from out of faithful love for all peoples and the earth God will make a covenant with the wild animals and finally abolish violence, in all its forms, from the land. Then Hick's painting of the peaceable kingdom will become a political, social, economic, and environmental reality. I can't express it any better than the words of the old Christian Rock group East to West:
Joy will abound and every heart will soar
A light’s gonna shine we’ve never seen before
Armies will lay down their weapons of war
And no one’s gonna fight anymore
When the lion lays down with the lamb
Brothers and sisters walk hand in hand
Love goes blind and madness will cease
And every knee bows to the Prince of Peace