Frontier places 3 - The dispossessed at the frontiers

John@johndavies.org By John@johndavies.org, 22nd Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/3k10111i/
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Healing Places retreat material 3 - The dispossessed at the frontiers.

The dispossessed at the frontiers

In this darkness
I do not ask to walk by light;
but to feel the touch of your hand
and understand that sight is not seeing.

In this silence
I do not ask to hear your voice;
but to sense your Spirit breathe
and so bequeath my care to your keeping.

In unknowing
I do not ask for fearless space;
but for grace to comprehend
that neither you nor I are diminished.

In this death
I do not ask to forfeit pain,
but to gain the strength to love
through loss, and cross the bridge of waiting.


That is a song of someone feeling deep loss; perhaps the loss of homelessness, or dispossession. Our theme this morning is The dispossessed at the frontiers, and we are going to ask scripture to help us identify who the dispossessed are, and what it means to be dispossessed today.

Again, we are greatly helped by Walter Brueggemann, whose writings on this subject are deeply insightful . He sees in the Hebrew scriptures three great stories of God's people in different states of homelessness, or dispossession. He sees them as:

Sojourners: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - faithful folk on the way to a land whose name they didn¹t know;
Wanderers in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron where they are at their most volatile and vulnerable; and as
Exiles, displaced in Babylon, alienated from the place which gave them identity and security;

Just as each has a story in scripture, so each of those stories are mirrored in our world, our places, today. We will look at each in turn and try to make connections.

And just as each has a story in scripture, so each also has a song. I shall begin by sharing with you a Song of the sojourners ...

Song of the sojourners

Now the Lord said to Abram,
Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father's house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you will be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Genesis 12.1-3

Sojourners: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - faithful folk on the way to a land whose name they didn¹t know:

- en-route in response to call of a God who tells them very little of himself and asks for blind trust;
- leaving a land and accepting landlessness because their faith requires them to;
- a choice made by those who could have chosen not to leave - a choice to throw themselves onto Yahweh trusting him to lead them to a better place.

sojourner = resident alien, in a place, taking some roots, but always an outsider, never belonging, always without rights, title, or a voice in the decisions that matter.

The theme of resident alien is not remote from contemporary experience. People in our time know what it means to live waiting always for the notice of transfer, or for notice of "urban redevelopment", or for any of the irresistible and unidentified forces of urban life devoted to displacement.

Sometimes translated 'pilgrimage', which may make it sound more noble or heroic - but the image does not change. It is being where one does not belong and cannot settle in and having to survive there, all because of promise. To an observer, the sojourner-pilgrim is just there, coping and surviving. Perhaps only the insider can know that he is not just "being there", but is on his way toward a promise. He can be observed as placeless, but he knows of a promised place, and that changes his sojourn.

Where do we find sojourners today? I found one - among many - in a book called Leadville, about the A40 - Western Avenue, and the people who live on it, many just passing-through, like the traffic which moves along it endlessly, some waiting on their notice to quit from the Department of Transport, aiming to clear space for road improvements, and some a bit stuck, but still positive and hopeful, like this young woman called Anna-Marie, described by the writer Edward Platt as 'an attractive woman, with red hair cut short and a wide, full mouth.'

Her father is British, and her mother Croatian; she grew up in Sibelic, a town on the Dalmatian coast. She came to England in 1983. Unprompted, she tells me that it 'was not a case of economic migration': she's British, and she came back because she was feeling independent; she just wanted to. Her accent is fading but still distinct: it thickens her words, so that each one carries a faint echo of a central European childhood.
She moved to Wendover Court in 1986 - 'just before Thatcher's boom'. True to the spirit of the time, she bought the flat, although she was only twenty-one. Property values were reasonable then, she recalls, but a year after she moved in, they went sky-high. 'I mean, when you buy your first property, you just want to buy, but now you can't sell it for the life of you - you just can't sell it, because nobody wants to live here.'

Anna-Marie talks at length about the difficulties of living between a freight train line on one side and Western Avenue traffic on the other. About how the huge lorries make the whole house shake... but, surprisingly, she ends this litany by saying, 'But it's not so bad.' Edward Platt continues:

There is a map of the Dalmatian coast pinned to the door behind me. It must be beautiful there, I say, innocently. 'Yes, and then to come here and live on the main road! Oh my God, don't tell me, I do regret it a lot, I just think - "What have I done?"' she wails, extravagantly, and then lights another cigarette. 'But people live in worst circumstances than this - I mean, really, if people want to classify people by where they live than it's the wrong idea, I think, because you can be intelligent, you can be articulate, and you can live in a downright dump ... So where you are does not necessarily mean what you are...'


Seems that the Western Avenue is a frontier of sorts. And it seems that Anna-Marie has found ways to cope with the tension of being a sojourner - drawn to West London in a time of promise, taking some roots, but never quite belonging. Seems that in a very secular sort of way she has found some healing in her place.

Song of the wanderers

Would that we had died by the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt,
when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full;
for you have brought us out into this wilderness
to kill this whole assembly with hunger. Exodus 16.3

We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt,
the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,
but now our appetite has gone.
There is nothing at all to look at except this manna. Numbers 11.5-6

When the promise of the promised land was delayed, by forty years, God's people lost their faith, and from expectant sojourners they became wanderers in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron.

- in the wilderness traditions (Exodus 16-18, Numbers 10.10ff), the buoyant faith of their fathers was much less in evidence;
- now the stress is on being without resources and at the disposal of the elements, of drought or hunger, or of the Amalekites.
- Although the scriptures affirm that God still leads the people through this time, in these forty years the people seemed to be just there, not noticeably on the way, without much vigour or hope towards a promise.

Among the various words used for this experience, a negative term characterises this dimension of landlessness. The very word wander (nual) suggests precariousness (Ps 107.27). He made them to wander in the wilderness forty years (Num 32.13). The wanderer is different from the sojourner-pilgrim because he is not on the way anywhere. He is in a situation in which survival is the key question. Israel experienced the bitterness of landlessness, being totally exposed and helpless, victimised by anything that happened to be threatening. Israel was dimly on the way in the wilderness period, but this way was mostly forgotten in the press of the moment for survival.

In the wilderness, bereft of resources, faith is not easy (Deut 1.32). And when faithlessness is linked to landlessness, Israel is lost. It is destined to die the long death of the desert, on the way to nowhere.

In today's world we are aware of many wanderers, those thousands who move across borders seeking refuge or asylum from desperate situations. I could have chosen one of their stories to tell from the many currently on record, and we must hold them dear especially at this election-time when talk of asylum is so often overheated and lacking humanity. But I've chosen a wanderer whose story is closer to home - beginning close to here, in Glasgow, Erica's wanderings were caused by running away from abuse at home, moving in and out of the care system and later the precarious end of public housing provision. She told her story to the Glasgow-based Christian community worker Bob Holman and with her permission he published it in a book called Faith in the Poor. In it, she kept a diary giving details of her determined struggle to make ends meet, to maintain her self-respect, and provide for her family. This is how Erica's diary ends:

I am not rich and I am not angry about it. I am the worst off in this street. Next door has some beautiful things. I don't hold a grudge against them, I'm glad they have got it. But I don't like it to be rubbed in like when other people's kids boast to my kids, 'We've got this, you haven't.' It does make me jealous at times. I don't want to be stinking rich. I just want to be comfortable so that when my kids want a new pair of shoes, I can buy a pair. i had to go to a secondhand shop to get Gilbert a pair so he could get back to school. I've got central heating but I can't afford to turn it on. I am still in debt paying for last Christmas. I am still paying for the kids' clothes. Sometimes you have to borrow to eat. Once I lent from a man and put down my child benefit book, I worked out that he took £450 to lend me £220 for Christmas. It was robbery but I had no other option. I don't have much time for politics, I've got my kids to look after. But I do think everyone should be equal. I hope my children have a better future. I would not part with my kids or with my husband. But if I had my time again I would not have so many kids. I don't like the kids coming home and asking for something and I can't give it to them.


Erica's story tells us that the wilderness is in a place not far from our homes. She and many like her are at the frontier of subsistence every day. The wilderness tradition is one of the hardest to grapple with, but scripture gives us something towards healing - the words of the wanderers for us to listen to, seek to understand, take to heart.

Song of the exiles

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How can we sing the Lord's song
In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cleavþe to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, "Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation."
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock. Psalm 137


What passionate anger, from the exiles displaced in Babylon six centuries BC.

- The exiled Jews were not oppressed, abused or imprisoned.
- but they were displaced, alienated from the place which gave them identity and security;
- alienated from all the shapes and forms that gave power to faith and life.

For the Bible, the exile is the sharpest point of discontinuity when none of the old traditions or conventional institutions any longer seem valid or trustworthy. Exile without land or even prospect of land was indeed Israel's null point when every promise seemed void. This event of landlessness evoked rage and anger (Psalm 137, as we have heard) but also yearning pathos (Lamentations 1). Exile is being cut off with no way back.

You don't need to go very far from this door to find a place of exile.

Behind Clachanach croft, the mossy surface of the Lochan Mor - which served as a mill pond for the monks - is etched today with deep straight lines, the drainage ditches which John MacArthur dug during the potato famine years. He left another legacy of that time when, on a June day in 1847, he was at Port Ronain to see ninety-eight people leave Iona for a new life overseas. Ever since, his descendants have passed on that very precise, very stark statistic. Today it would mean that almost the entire population was to gather on the jetty, with a trunk or a few boxes of belongings. A century and a half ago it represented about one-fifth of the inhabitants but it was none the less traumatic for that. It was the biggest single exodus within memory, possibly the only one of such a size that the close-knit community had ever experienced.

The reason for this exodus was economic - a consequence of the 1846 potato famine and massively inflated land rents imposed by the Duke of Argyll's estate. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw Iona's population dwindle as boats took people away to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the growing cities of Britain. This seems the closest Iona got to the Highland clearances - the often brutal removal of islanders to free up land, which made exiles of half a million Scottish Highlanders between 1746 and the dawn of the twentieth century.

Writing of the consequences of this exile Alastair McIntosh points out that,

Many of the Highlanders' descendants live in poverty in British cities to this day; only the memory of more dignified origins remains. The poet Duncan MacLaren writes of such 'intergenerational poverty' in his hometown near Glasgow, where unemployment in the 1980s reached 30 per cent after the shipyards closed:

... Clydebank ... I sometimes dream that you are an island afloat between Barra Head and the end of Heaven and that the only speech on the tongue is the language of the Hebrides and the mists would put a poultice on your stinking houses and it wouldn't be vomit in the street but bog-cotton and your rusty river would be a dark-green sea. And, in the faces of your people, the wrinkles of their misery would only be the lash of wind and waves and your grinding poverty would somehow be diminished ...


Returning to scripture, where strangely, the exiles in Babylon found a new song to sing. Israel's most remarkable expression of faith, the lyrical celebration of God's faithfulness to exiles, in the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Landlessness, dispossession, become the setting for what Brueggemann calls the boldest gospel of newness...

An exiles song of faith

' ... I will restore you to health
And I will heal you of your wounds, declares the Lord.
Because they have called you an outcast, saying:
"It is Zion; no-one cares for her."'

Thus says the Lord,
'Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob
And have compassion on his dwelling places;
And the city shall be rebuilt on its ruin,
And the palace shall stand on its rightful place.

'And from them shall proceed thanksgiving
And the voice of those who make merry;
And I will multiply them, and they shall not be diminished;
I will also honour them, and they shall not be insignificant.' Jeremiah 30.17-19


It seems astonishing that it is when the people are at their lowest ebb, exposed and without resources, that they receive promises which empower them, enable to take new risks of faith, be energised with hope. Brueggemann:

Yahweh's strange promise is either especially directed toward or peculiarly discerned among the landless. Faith is precisely for exiles who remember the land but see no way to it.

Sheila Cassidy - contemporary exile with a song of faith

My particular encounter with God happened in the context of solitary confinement in prison - but it could just as well have been after a major accident, an illness or bereavement. The essence of the situation was that it was an experience of stripping and of powerlessness, which made me more aware, more open to the presence of God.
It happened like this. After I had been arrested and interrogated by the secret police for treating a wounded revolutionary, I was moved from the torture centre to another prison and placed in solitary confinement. Here, left to my own devices and with the constant harassment of the interrogation behind me I found that, for the first time since my arrest, I had sufficient emotional and intellectual space to manoeuvre, to choose what to do. My immediate inclination was to scream out to God for help, to batter spiritually on the bars of my cage, begging to be released. Surely I who was planning to devote my life to him as a nun, must be specially loved and able to ask his favour? Then a very curious thing suggested itself to me: while I knew that it was quite right and proper that I should besiege heaven with my prayers to be released, an even better way would be to hold out my empty hands to God, not in supplication but in offering. I would say, not 'Please let me out' but, 'Here I am, Lord, take me. I trust you. Do with me what you will.' In my powerlessness and captivity there remained for me one freedom: I could abandon myself into the hands of God.


It is a peculiar aspect of our faith - a healing aspect - that those who feel imprisoned can find release by abandoning themselves to God;
It is a peculiar aspect of our faith that those who feel exiled can find security in the hope of God's promise to them;
It is a peculiar aspect of our faith that those in deep darkness can find in God a strange, hard, hope for healing.....

NOTES

In this darkness, John L. Bell, based on original poem by Pat Bennett, from I Will Not Sing Alone
Walter Brueggemann: The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
Edward Platt: Leadville: A Biography of the A40, p.197ff
Bob Holman: Faith in the Poor reproduced in Duncan B. Forrester: On Human Worth, pp.56-78
E. Mairi MacArthur: Columba's Island, p.71
Alastair McIntosh: Soil and Soul, p.91
Sheila Cassidy: Sharing the Darkness, the spirituality of caring, p.92

Tags

Healing, Land, Place, Psychogeography, Urban Theology, Walking

Meet the author

author avatar John@johndavies.org
An Anglican vicar originally from Liverpool, and now living and working in Somerset UK. Offering an open Christian angle on current affairs, arts, media etc.

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