The most dangerous of our earthquakes erupted just as we began to glimpse how to create a world of love and justice, one grown like a social version of an ecosystem, one where we seek to put together the jigsaw puzzle of our lives, our cultures, our communities rather than let one or a few of the puzzle-pieces dominate and subjugate the rest.
What are those ultra-dangerous earthquakes? There are two. One is the wave of neo-fascism that has shaken not only American democracy but many other countries. A resurgent wave of using elections as mere Potemkin villages, pretenses of democracy where the real power lies in the hands of a few. Where in some countries it is Muslims who are subjugated, in others Blacks and Latinx, some where the teachings of religion are perverted to subjugate women and GLBTQ people, where artists and intellectuals are jailed and scientists are treated with contemptuous fury, where the poor are rendered voteless and helpless.
All this is worsened by the simultaneous earthquake of Earth in the climate crisis, the extinction crisis, and the pandemic crisis. For the poisoners of air and oceans and farmland, the modern Corporate Carbon Pharaohs who bring plagues of fire, flood, and famine, dearth and disease and death upon both adamah and adam, Earth and Human Earthlings, are stunningly wealthy and urgent to use their wealth to protect their power. The story of Pharaoh and Plagues becomes planetary, not just restricted to one Tight and Narrow Land, fertile like a narrow furrow, both sides of the River Nile.
It is a surge of activist desire to enact and embody the biblical vision of a society seeded and sprouted and harvested through love and justice that has called forth its opposite – a movement to systematically encourage greed, bury justice, and mobilize hate. The Bible warns us of this pattern. Its great story, probably a weave of factual history and powerful myth, centers on Egypt —in Hebrew, Mitzrayyim, which means the Tight and Narrow Land.
When in the past we humans have faced such a crisis – whether to choose the society of Love and Justice, or the one built by subjugation and hate -- there was always time to renew and repair. There was always time to struggle for change – time to wait out plagues before crossing the Reed Sea to freedom and the Unknown. Time to abolish slavery. Time to end racial segregation, time to expand the vote to women and the right to marry to gays and lesbians. Time even to move away from exhausted farmland or struggle for a “Sabbatical Year” to let the farmland rest and renew itself, to annul debts so extremes of poverty and wealth could be redressed.
Not every Earthquake has the same effect on the people who live through it. As I said when I first started writing Dancing in God’s Earthquake, the Year 1968, half a century before, was my first Earthquake. It taught me to live – and learn to dance – in an Earthquake. I did learn to dance, because others were dancing too. We brought the fresh air, lively breath, to religious and cultural and even political life that had become Ezekiel’s dry bones.
But the Earthquake of two years of pandemic – and still counting -- dried many of us out again. Back to bones with no breath. Very few of us are immune to the contagion of sadness, depression, despair. Reasonable people begin to talk of civil war, of dictatorship, of billions dead when civilization collapses.
The great Biblical story of liberation knew this would happen. It describes Pharaoh contemptuously responding to Moses, Aaron, and Miryam when they demand a holy pause for their people to celebrate the Interbreath of Life. “Sez who?” snarls Pharaoh. Moses just breathes, “YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.” What kind of god is that?” sneers Pharaoh.
“Bricks without straw!“ orders Pharaoh. “Rigor more bitter!”
And the nascent Brickmakers Union, Local 1 collapses. It turns against its own leaders: “It is you who made even our smell stink in the eyes of Pharaoh and his counselors. You who gave him a sword to kill us!”
At this most hopeless moment, YHWH says to Moses: “You have waffled in soft-heartedness when you should have emboldened your people, My people! You began by telling them My Name, the way they most understand the world, was “Breath of Life.” You told them I interbreathe all life and so when Pharaoh sows seeds of tyranny against humans, there grow sprouts of rebellion from frogs and locusts and hailstones.
But the people -- they wobbled and waffled: ‘We grew up with a God Who nursed and nurtured us,” they said, “Our forebears for all the centuries that we remember, grew up and taught us. They said that our God was nurturing like a many-breasted Mother. So we learned, and so we speak. Nothing about locusts in rebellion against our masters. Instead we had onions, garlic, meat – even as slaves. Do not make us suffer worse!”
“And you, Moses and your family followers, you were so soft-hearted that you too wobbled and waffled! ‘All right,’ you said, ‘Worship the God you know!’ ”
“But that understanding of the world, that ‘Name of God,’ no longer tells the truth. Of course you failed, of course the Pharaoh sneered. Tell them the truth, Moses! Tell them ‘It is YHWH, the Breath of Life, Who Calls you!’ Insist, and they will shatter Pharaoh’s power.” [This midrashic conversation is based on the episode in Exodus 5:1 to 6: 9]
And they did.
The one best cure for what the Bible calls the Breath cut short, for what we call depression, is a new understanding of the world, encoded in Action.
That is why we today are coming together as #ExodusAlliance, drawing on our diversity – not a chain of command but a web of agreement to make up an effective challenge to Greed and Domination. (See ExodusAlliance.org )That is why some of us insist on “pronouncing” the Name of God by not-pronouncing -– by breathing as it’s written (YHWH with no vowels) -- rather than substituting “Lord” or “King,” “Adonai” or “Melekh.”
And it is still why I wrote the book, Dancing in God's Earthquake. When I wrote, in 2018 and 2019, you could taste and smell the surge of resistance. In the summer of 2020, there was a multi-racial surge of 20-20 vision about the pervasiveness of American racism. It was still there in November, giving birth to seven million more votes for democracy rather than fascism.
But the pandemic and the Big Lie did not wear out. Indeed, each strengthened the other. The depressing, disappointing, demoralizing effect of Covid made it easier for millions of Americans to believe in a stolen election. And belief in a stolen election fed distrust in all normal wisdom, and fed the anti-vaccination conviction that lengthened and grew the pandemic.
And even those of us who did not fall into the Great Bitterness wore down. With a government paralyzed by deadly deadlock, it became harder to work for a new society rooted in ecological intertwining instead of hierarchical subjugation precisely when that work was most needed.
But it still is most needed. We still, and most urgently, need the vision of Psalm 101 – “Of love and justice I will sing; to You, Breath of Life, I’ll sing praises!” We still, and most urgently, need to rethink the Bible as the record of an ancient struggle to walk that path and a teaching to us to keep pursuing that struggle.
“Faith” is not a soapy comfort that it will all turn out all right. It is a commitment to keep struggling against our own despair and the organized destructive despair of others, opening our eyes to the hidden teachings of our ancestors. When Hagar watched her son dying of thirst in the wilderness, she opened her eyes by sobbing, and her own tears became the wellspring that saved them both.
So I offer you once more Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. (What connects the parable of Eden, the parable of Manna-that-comes-with-Shabbat, and the poetry of Song of Songs? What is the deeper meaning of “God’s Image,” and how do the Talmud, Jesus in the Gospels, and an eight-year-old child in 21st-century America all grow new meaning in it? What would it mean to listen to a Tree breathe its own prayer?}
Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! -- Arthur
You can order Dancing in three ways:
- By calling Orbis Books at 1-800-258-5838 to buy at $25 each one book, or perhaps a few for presents to strengthen your beloved friends who sing and want to dance for love and justice;
- Or to buy for your congregation or book club a minimum of ten copies at a huge discount -- $12.50 each;
- Or to do the communal buy plus arranging with The Shalom Center an evening of conversation with me about the book, by writing Office@theshalomcenter.org .