By: Jim Tull
On an early May morning, 2014, I was fast asleep in a room in a house atop a mountain on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. There and then I had a dream. The otherwise busy dream featured a brief but vivid shouting match between me and Martin Luther King. No mistaking it was King. I was vaguely aware of what I was excited to share with my teacher [we never met in waking life], but the exchange did not last beyond this:
Me “I have something to tell you!” [delivered with some enthusiastic intensity]
Martin “No, you listen to me!” [with escalated intensity]
Me “No, you don’t understand!” [holding the intensity]
Martin “No, you don’t understand!” [escalating a bit]
Then Martin seamlessly vanished into the ether of the dream, which carried on with no apparent connection to this encounter (besides, stretching a lot, my brother-in-law and I noticing the high ocean tide gently lapping against the back of our beach house). It isn’t any more characteristic of me to engage in such substanceless shouting matches as it was of MLK. I recall, in the dream, wanting to sit down and have a certain dialogue, but he just let into me (of course, this is my reporting of the event!). In his response, no doubt, there is a message for me. But in the dream analysis meantime, I will settle for sharing, in a letter, the thought I was so excited to have the chance to run by Martin, but could not:
I sometimes wonder how Jesus would’ve responded if he and his disciples happened upon one of those small isolated, ungoverned, uncivilized bands of people we used to call, until very recently, ‘savages’. Are you aware of any encounter like this that actually –or might have – occurred? During his ministry, all continents were the home of tribal people of whom he could not have been aware. Nor could he have been aware that his human ancestors (at least on his mother’s side), presumably living in small band communities, roamed and settled on every continent for tens of thousands of years before his time, and before that, roamed and settled on his own side of the planet for millions of years. All struggling to meet the survival challenges of life in Earth, yet free of the oppression of empire, and finding ways to live suitably with themselves and the Earth.
“The poor will always be with us” was an impressive retort to the disciples who resisted the devoted woman anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive oils, but it would not have occurred to Jesus to substitute the more historically correct “The poor will always be with empire and civilization.” These structures were fully entrenched in his world; impossible to see beyond their historical or geo-anthropological horizons to the vast expanse of human living without the poverty known to Jesus and to us (Columbus, it has been said in many ways, did not discover poverty in the new world, he created it).
What message would he attempt to deliver to the tribespeople? Or inquiries? What observations? Would he at some early point turn to his own band and say, “Go, disciples, and live like these people after I am no longer with you. Spread the word and example that others may follow.” If he were lucky, he and his disciples would have been shown the finest hospitality (most likely from the very isolated, ‘untouched’ tribes). Or, they may have had to run for their lives (among some tribes that have had bad experience with the civilized). It has been said that Jesus disappointed the Zealots and other Hebrew liberationists by refusing to take interest in challenging Roman rule, perhaps replacing it with a (more) righteous empire. My suggestion, Martin, is that Jesus signaled something more radical, yet not otherworldly radical. To walk away from empire altogether, to live (politically) ungoverned, and, yes, uncivilized, in small, egalitarian communities of people dedicated to supporting each other, within their means, from cradle to grave, living sustainably off, by and within their local land base, with a degree of trial and error (as is the way of evolution). “We’ve lost our tribal roots, men.” ???
The New Testament Book of Acts reports the apostles of Jesus trying to find these roots and create this community. The eschatological backdrop behind this communitarian response does not diminish the significance of choosing this particular manner of waiting on their lord’s return. “All who believed were together and had all things in common and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 1:44-5;RSV) In more recent times, or perhaps ever since, Christian ministry has prioritized service – helping others, the needy, generally those outside one’s own immediate community – over community building itself. Miraculous healings notwithstanding, Jesus was a community builder, wasn’t he Martin? The potential of a church community was expressed in the power of the civil rights movement under your pastoral leadership.
There’s nothing especially perfect about the Yequana Indians of the Amazon or the San tribes of Southern Africa, the Sng'oi of Malaysia, but they don’t need Jesus, especially, do they? What the Apostles attempted to create for themselves in an instant these indigenous people cobbled together over many centuries. ‘Tribal’ refers simply to a form of social organization, no more romantic or barbaric or controversial than lions organizing themselves in ‘prides’ or whales in ‘pods’. It’s a form that has worked well for humans over hundreds of thousands of years. Each tribe features a different culture, developed over generations in response to (changing) environmental conditions – opportunities and challenges. The tribal form roughly consists of a small group of people, related more or less as equals (in contrast most clearly to our hierarchies), whose bases of support are each other’s energy and gifts, and the surrounding land base. The content of this basic form can differ dramatically between tribes. We notice these differences, many of which we find disturbing, more than we appreciate the basic tribal form. Sounds to me what Jesus lived and preached. What do you think? I’m curious to know because your thinking was so expansive, always challenging and on the move. Your “Beyond Vietnam” speech remains the most powerfully succinct critique of U.S involvement there I have read. Might something like this, some stepping out ‘beyond civilization’, be your next challenge, though many of your colleagues will reject or dissuade you, as they did over Vietnam? Is it not perhaps civilization itself, beyond the empire of the moment, that is the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence” and oppression?
The tribal way continues today, now in geographically isolated spaces, but also recessively within our own globalizing world (Alcoholics Anonymous comes to mind). The comparatively recent emergence of civilizations marked a departure from tribal living, experimental initiatives to improve life. The Mesopotamian origins and early expansion of Western Civilization are chronicled in Genesis, though the account is reported as the birth of humanity, interestingly, not of civilization. There were lots of other people living there in Eden, Martin, unnoticed or dismissed by the chroniclers. Nothing especially perfect about them or their way of life, rough and tumble, but connected to and with the rest of the community of life there. Making a living, integrated. Eating the fruit from the knowledge tree calls out a particular tribe and people, one among the thousands of Garden dwellers, who plunged into engineering their lives by a set of rules that would position them as superior to and rulers of the other earth’s creatures, including the remaining human tribes. The most you could say for the Creator’s reaction to this bold adventure is that He had mixed feelings.
This self-positioning – humans over the rest of life – not only permitted and encouraged the self-aggrandizing rape of the planet, but also the emergence over time of racism. As the conquering civilization expanded, the lighter-skinned conquerors began to distinguish themselves by this physical marker from the darker-skinned tribal people encountered along the way. The conquered were lesser both outside and then, assimilated, inside the empire. The ‘power over’ structure of empire makes racism essentially systemic, not, essentially, personal or even institutional. Within the domain of our civilization’s culture, prejudice, bigotry, even discrimination can go both ways, are reversible, but racism cannot and is not. Consequently, the effects of racism can be cushioned, but racism can never be substantially removed from the systemic core of civilizational culture.
Jesus called on his people to abandon this project, not to replace the Roman Empire, but empire itself, civilization itself. There’s nothing more antithetical to Jesus’ life and message than an Egyptian pyramid, symbol of our civilization (featured even today on the U.S. dollar bill). Wealthy, powerful, lighter-skinned men at the top sucking power and wealth and status from the foundational masses, and the earth itself, holding it all up.
“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” was not a suggestion to pay taxes to the empire, but to surrender all its money. And then walk away. The command was an expression of faith. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the arc does not pass through empire, through imperial systems, structures, institutions, through civilization itself, no. At least not ours. No faith in these, Jesus.
The “birds of the air and the flowers of the field” he called us to emulate. In nature’s systems, abundance is accessible to those with limited wants. Living this way is ‘uncivilized’ indeed. ‘Civilized’ means idealizing making lots of stuff and buying lots of stuff. This ‘fever pitched’ lifestyle was rejected by your other teacher, Socrates, in the Republic (Book II, 372-4), before his sometime loyal student, Plato, coaxed him into defining ‘justice’ for humans on the terms of civilization, which features unlimited wants and regular mass warfare. Living in the wild, tribal people forage and hunt, like the birds. We civilized must find and keep a job, grovel for the pyramidal money and purchase our way to survival.
Even by “turning the other cheek and “carrying the soldier’s pack an extra mile”, disciples were urged to resist, not support, empire. Both are acts of nonviolent defiance of arbitrary authority, like the taking of blows by freedom riders and demonstrators and lunch counter customers. How could a Roman soldier handle an insistent offer to carry his pack an extra mile when the emperor’s own rule limited such conscription to a single mile?
I know I’m cherry-picking my gospel references here, Martin, and interpreting them. We all do it, though – paste together our impression of the ‘real’ Jesus. But doesn’t this resemble your Jesus? During my 40 years of activism, I have supported, participated in and occasionally led social justice efforts. I support them today. Not sure this – my, your – Jesus would, and I find that personally challenging, every day. The pyramid can soften a little toward inclusivity, to democracy, to equal opportunity and social mobility. These adjustments, having a lot to do with preserving the system (FDR insisted he ‘saved Capitalism, not destroyed it” with his progressive New Deal programs), are what we have called ‘justice’. It’s a very low bar, no?
Where and what is the promise land on this planet? Tell me it isn’t the marginalized and oppressed, the stone draggers, gaining traction in the pyramid, or even taking the pyramid over and redistributing its wealth and freedom and power. The Zealots must’ve hoped for the latter in some fashion, Jesus leading the revolution. Without replacing the cultural thinking supporting civilization, and the silent assumption that civilization is a non-negotiable, any realigned pyramid will reshape itself in short order to its preferred hierarchical form. As it has.
What does it mean to walk away, to defect, from civilization? Does it mean acknowledging its failure as an experimental alternative to the time-tested tribal way, and retribalizing (in new ways, presumably, appropriate to our current circumstances)? Like the rest of us, Jesus was taught to believe that Genesis was the story of humanity’s beginning, not our transition to civilization and empire. So perhaps, seeing into the hearts and minds and bodies of his richly diverse Eden-dwelling brothers and sisters, he might simply put it this way – cut our losses in the pyramid and retribalize. Or maybe ‘walking away’ looks very different. Some third way between or beyond both tribalism and civilization in their various shades and colors.
Where do we go, Martin, from here?
Yours in dreamland,
Falling into slumber tonight, and on successive nights, I will pray for a reply. Good night!
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