Healing Places 4 - The possessors at the frontiers

John@johndavies.org By John@johndavies.org, 22nd Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Culture

Session 4 in the Healing Places series is the possessors at the frontiers. Having reflected previously on the dispossessed, now we turn to the possessors - those to whom much has been given. who have taken possession, taken ownership, taken power - have they used their power and resources well, or badly?

The possessors at the frontiers in scripture

I make no apology for referring again to the writings of Walter Brueggemann as a means of helping us into what the scriptures say about the possessors at the frontiers. He writes about Israel as God¹s landed people - as embodied in two different types and eras: first at the time of Joseph, where Israel settled in the land of Egypt - a complex story where security and prosperity gave way to oppression and slavery; and secondly as embodied in the monarchy which ran its course from Solomon to Jehoiachin, where kings behaved as kings do and had their way in the land.

The settlers

In Genesis 47 Israel reached a very significant frontier. Pharaoh gave Joseph's family the best of the land and left them to live there in security and prosperity. Exodus 1 we read,

... Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them. Exodus 1.6-7

For a time, these previously dispossessed people had become the possessors. But only for a time, for, as Exodus continues,

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and in the event of war, they also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us, and depart from the land." So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labour. Exodus 1.6-7

From then on, the Exodus story is about the people of Israel being in Egypt as slaves. The host nation came to feel threatened by these successful, resourceful incomers, and so imposed hard labour on them to keep them, we may say, in their place. As Brueggemann puts it, land had become a locus of slavery and this posed for Israel an enormous choice, which it had to make again and again, between expulsion to the desert or continuation in slavery.

Clearly the glorious promise of land, made to the fathers but then to the immediate family of Joseph, ... had become a problem. Israel was left to wonder if land always led to slavery. And the question remained and remains unanswered. The promise quickly became problem.

I wonder if this carries an eternal truth - that possessors always face the possibility, the probability of the problem of slavery. I wonder if we might consider those in places we know who are in the position these Israelites were in - people today who are possessors enslaved.

- We might see this happening to all those caught up in the spiralling property market in our wealthy places, their lives tied into hefty mortgages;
- We might see this in connection with those, in my housing estate parish and many like it, who in times of promise bought their council homes - and now that regeneration projects have reduced their neighbourhood to rubble, find they cannot sell them.
- I wonder if it is correct to see it in the lives of those former East Germans for whom the wall coming down has only increased their relative poverty,
- and in the successful asylum claimants who find that this country's promised hospitality leaves a lot to be desired.

We might also see possessors enslaved in the lives of those obsessive about obtaining material possessions;
We might also see possessors enslaved in converts who have become wrapped up in narrow, deadening dogmas;
We might see possessors enslaved in churches which cannot see beyond the need to maintain their crumbling heritage buildings....

Each of these, we might say, in their own way, are possessors who have become enslaved. People who have been disappointed at the frontiers of hope. This, we might say, is a discomfiting reality about our world. But it is not beyond healing. And if that is true for possessors enslaved then it must be true for the presence of kings, and monarchs, and what they do to our places.

The monarchs

In the history of Israel the kings were the greatest possessors of land, manipulators of place. Israel's monarchy began not out of a sense of the people's devotion or theological conviction, but out of political necessity - the people wanted to ensure that Israel would run like any other nation. When the elders asked him to appoint a king, to judge them like any other nation, Samuel warned them what would happen:

a king will take your sons and put them in his army;
he will employ others to work his land and manufacture arms;
he will take your daughters as perfumers and cooks and bakers;
he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves, and give them to his servants;
he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give them to his officers and to his servants;
he will take your servants and your best young men and your donkeys to use for his work;
he will take a tenth of your flock, and you yourselves will become his servants.

Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to Samuel and they said,
"No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may like all the nations,
that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles." 1 Samuel 8.11-20

All Israel's kings followed Solomon's lead, and Solomon personified all that Samuel had warned the people about. As Brueggemann writes,

During his forty years of security and prosperity in the land, he managed to devise a bureaucratic state built upon coercion in which free citizens were enslaved for state goals. Remarkably, in one generation he managed to confiscate Israel's freedom and reduce social order to the very situation of Egyptian slavery. The king, manager of the land, made it possible to believe that the Exodus had never happened. And if the Exodus never happened history had not begun, and the promise was not visible. Could the king, manager of the land, be so effective as to remove the promise from the consciousness of Israel? And if Israel had no consciousness of promise, what could it possibly mean to be Israel? That is the question that Solomonic pretensions posed to Israel.

Eventually, and inevitably, through mismanagement the monarchs lost the land. Their tenuous hold on power eventually and inevitably lost to the greater powers of the Babylonian kings (2 Kings 25). Jeremiah mourned the loss of the promise, in words which spoke of the grief of the people - and of the land which equally felt the loss:

How long will the land mourn,
and the grass of every field wither?
For the wickedness of those who dwell in it
the beasts and the birds are swept away ... Jeremiah 12.4

Consider who are today's equivalents of the kings of Israel;

- are they the corporations whose power often exceeds the nation-states whose places they use to expand their business reach?
- are they the major political forces in the world, the G8 and their allies?
- on a more local level, who are the people who influence the shape of your place, who make the decisions about the use of the land, the changes in housing or transport or employment?
- monarchs aside, these are today's 'kings', who are as likely as Solomon and his successors to lead people in and out of land, offering possession and causing dispossession as their power and influence ebbs and flows.

And consider how and where we see the land mourn. Another translation of that verse from Jeremiah is,

How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished. Jeremiah 12.4 NIV

So a land in mourning appears to be a ruined land, a wasteland - wasted by people's abuse of it. Isaiah speaks of places where overfarming and property expansion lead to ruin:

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing: Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants.
A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed only an ephah of grain. Isaiah 5:8-10

- and I imagine we can all picture fields in our own country, housing estates in our own towns, where quality of life - or crop - has been diminished by overfarming or overdevelopment.

Russ Parker suggests that places are also hurt by the things which people do to each other there:

There are ... places where the land is hurting and this is invariably because of the effect of our wounded stories being sown into the ground and into the community that goes on living there. Often these stories are very old but their potency to affect the living is remarkable. Some years ago I was given a guided tour around the walls of Derry in Northern Ireland. I came to a certain place where i could look down and across the steep valley to the largely Catholic Bogside estates. As I did so I suddenly felt I could hear the sounds of angry screaming. When I mentioned this to my guide, who was a Presbyterian minister, he said that I was not the first to comment on this. He said it was as if the anger of the Catholic population was crying out in protest over years of oppression, crowded and badly built housing and high unemployment.

I wonder if this suggests things to you about places you know where injustices have been done - perhaps repeatedly done; it may be a new way of thinking and talking about them, but perhaps these are places where the land is hurting, and in need of healing.

Finding healing in frontier places

This brings us towards a summary, and the question, how we can find healing in frontier places. So at this point we might consider Israel's scriptural relationship with the land, and in the light of that, our own.

Brueggemann writes about the inevitability of the people's movement in and out of land, of possession and dispossession, of standing at a never-ending series of frontiers.

Israel's destiny vis-à-vis the land is always on the move toward fulfilment: from promise to the security of slavery, desert to the destructive power of kingship, from exile to the weariness of moral management.
But the relation to the land changes. It is also, in reverse order, from fulfilment to emptiness, from fleshpots to wilderness, from control in the land to weeping in Babylon, from moral passion to dislocation. Israel is always on the move from land to landlessness, from landlessness to land, from life to death, from death to life. Its historical character derives from its questing for promises so seemingly so rich and fulsome, but so burdened with ambiguity and loss.

And if we see the condition of scripture's Israel mirrored in our own stories, then we see that we too are likely caught in the same repeating patterns. Throughout life we move between frontier places - where we encounter change, sometimes moving to possession, growth, health, vigorous life, at other times moving the opposite way into dispossession, diminishment, illness, death.

We all inhabit these frontier places, and as people of faith we are conscious of the promises which God holds out to us, and to anyone who will come to him. It is in the promises that we find hope for healing - healing our places, whatever their condition.

Here is a poem written by Carol Bialock, an American missionary sister working in Chile which is given in a book by Sheila Cassidy:

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you, not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences,
respectful keeping our distance
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
always the sand between.
Then one day
(and I still don't know how it happened)
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from distance neighbours,
and you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sheila Cassidy says,

Now the curious thing is that all the time I was in Chile I understood the sea in this poem as an image of the presence of God - the way he takes over our lives. When I showed it to a monk friend, however, he saw the slow advance of the sea as the gradual encroachment of the agony of the world upon one's consciousness. It is only now, ten years on, that I begin to understand what he meant when he said that the great mystery is that the two are really the same.

The presence of God, taking over our lives - and the agony of the world in our consciousness. The two things, mysteriously inseparable. It seems to me that this mystery describes well the mystery of Israel, caught in the same repeating patterns, always on the move between frontier places. And this is the mystery of our own lives, constantly encountering change, moving between places of possession and places of dispossession, between places of growth and diminishment, of health and illness, of vigorous life and timorous death, or in the opposite directions.

In this I think is a clue for how we can find healing in frontier places. It is to do with embracing the discomfiting realities of the world without drowning in the terrors they hold for us. We can't ignore these realities. They are the atmosphere we live and breathe in, they are the flow between the places we inhabit. But if at the same time as embracing these realities we also breathe in God, then we are breathing creative energy into these situations; if we breathe in Christ we are breathing in new life to these frontier places; if we breate in the Spirit we inhale healing here.

In the next, and final session, we shall look in some depth at how we might find healing in frontier places, look at some ways of trying to heal wounded places, to offer healing to people in frontier situations.

I suggest you might spend time revisiting all that we have shared so far, and consider particularly what are the places most on your heart, those frontiers where you most7 desire healing to come. They may be situations in our world which especially grieve you - places where people suffer through war or injustice. They may be places very close to home - perhaps even at home; or places in your area you have perhaps been sensitised to in your reflections this week. Maybe you're thinking about the church less as a bringer of healing and more as a body in need of healing itself... whatever comes to you, spend some time with it in the presence of God today. Maybe journal it, write a poem about it, draw a picture, light a candle ... experiment in prayer. These in themselves are healing acts. And for those who want it, we have time together later today to explore all this some more in conversation.


Walter Brueggemann: The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, p.8-9
Russ Parker: Healing Wounded History: Reconciling Peoples and Healing Places
Sheila Cassidy: Sharing the Darkness, the spirituality of caring


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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