Joining, waiting for, and building the kingdom of God means a fundamental change in our natures, and it becomes visible in what we consume and produce.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
Isn’t this a kind of ridiculous image? Doesn’t it kind of make you want to laugh? I’ve seen paintings of it so many times, and to me they’re always just so cheesy. The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks – an American Quaker – is maybe the most famous. He painted dozens of versions of it.
It’s got all these animals and little kids on a hill by a river and everyone’s just so serene. Like they’re just so relaxed and almost tired and vaguely happy and everyone looks just a little out of it. And off in the corner, you can see some British colonists exchanging textiles and a treaty with some Native men which… sure.
Hicks had clearly never seen a lion before judging by its face, and he was clearly misinformed about the nature of the relationship between America’s first peoples and his own.
Further, has the prophet seen a lion?
Lions don’t have the teeth to grind straw! No, their molars just slice off chunks of meat which they swallow un”chewed”; they don’t have anything to grind plants like the ox does or like us. Imagine swallowing unchewed straw!
Further, their digestive tract lacks the enzymes to extract energy from cellulose, which is basically all straw is, and straw has almost no available sugars for them, so basically, in the Messiah’s new reign, lions are all gonna be either very different or very hungry.
I’m being facetious, of course. I like the prophet’s imagery; it’s hopeful and insistent, but there really is something comical about bears and lions joining up with cattle herds to graze and sleep, children playing with venomous snakes without any worry, and so on.
The whole thing’s just wrong; it’s not factual; a National Geographic editor would throw it out.
I was, like Heidi, asked to speak on the theme of “what are we waiting for” – where am I seeing or looking for the Incarnation in my life – and I think today’s readings imply that we’re waiting for something pretty dramatic.
A huge, earth-shattering change to our own natures.
A lot of commentators, anxious to view the entire Bible as a document to be interpreted as literally as possible, view this passage about animals as a description of animals in the Messiah’s coming kingdom. Basically, no more carnivores, and also lots of cross-species fraternity, what with all of these predators not only behaving like their prey but like *domesticated herd prey*! But the thing is, I don’t think this is even the most impressive implication of this passage because immediately thereafter the prophet says
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
and translators believe that “they” here is an ambiguous pronoun, not referring specifically to the animals he just mentioned.
Basically no one will hurt anyone anymore.
It’s impressive because, as violent and kind of terrifying a wild lion might seem, they don’t really hunt people very often. Cattle yes, but not people. Bears can leave you alone if they’re not hungry, threatened, or angry. But people? By some measures, the most violent multicellular organism in the world is homo sapiens sapiens, us the human beings, both in the way we treat each other and the way we treat creation.
Even among primates, who are themselves among the most violent, we stand out and take the prize, hands down. We get organized about it. We even have bureaucracies for it. Sometimes, we even do it in the name of Jesus himself and totally fail to catch the irony.
As mind-bending as it would be to see lions going herbivore and joining cattle herds with bears, it would be even more shocking to see a humanity who does not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain: which is to say the earth, Zion, or both.
I’m in a public policy program at Simon Fraser University. My capstone project is on the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh. I would estimate that about 40% of the clothes we’re all wearing originated in Bangladesh.
As you are probably aware, in 2013 over 1100 people, mostly factory workers, were killed when a multi-factory building collapsed. The factory made clothes to be sold in the West.
It had been built on a former marshy wetland. It had permits for five storeys but they had built nine. The managers had placed a generator on the top floor, which is probably why it collapsed.
The day before the collapse, an engineer had warned that the building might be structurally unsound, but managers strongly encouraged their workers – most of whom were women – to return to work despite the concerns they had voiced.
The corruption, negligence, and I would argue sheer violence built into these factories and the clothes they produced is just staggering.
Western fashion retailers responded by joining together and inspecting all of the factories which sell to them. The organizations they created to do this have thus far inspected all of the exporting factories in the country: a quarter to a third of the factories in the country, and the most regulated.
A recent report from the organization says, simply, that by global standards every single one of the 1,800 inspected factories is still classified as “high risk”. Yet they continue to run. They must! These people make the clothes on the West’s backs and it’s one of the most promising jobs to find in Bangladesh!
John the Baptist is here, shouting in the wilderness (as opposed to the city of which all prophets are suspicious), saying that we must repent.
In Greek the word is pretty all-encompassing: metanoia: change your mind, or your spirit, or the very breath you breathe. Every single bit of you.
This is what I am waiting for this Advent I’m waiting for peace, yes. I’m waiting for the Peaceable Kingdom, where the clothes I wear are not embedded with risk of loss of life and limb, with unpaid overtime, sexual harassment and gender-based violence as they are now.
I don’t think I would hurt another human being with my own hands, but somehow I still feel like a predator in this world, maybe just because of a system, an empire that just doesn’t know how to eat straw, that isn’t built for doing so.
Apocalyptic writers often tell us that peace will follow a period of great tension. This is how I see the Incarnation in the world, the coming of the Kingdom.
For as the tensions, the injustices, the alienation, and the violence build up around us, so too does the call to make straight the way of the Lord, to prepare God’s world and the people around us for the Kingdom.
And I believe the best way for us to do that is to become creatures of that Kingdom ourselves.
And when we’re not surrounded by “obvious” violence as some are, then it is time to look at what we consume and produce: our clothes, our food, our media, our words, and even our hearts and ask ourselves if violence is hiding there.
This is my Advent invitation.
We consume a lot of wonderful things during Christmastime. This is not necessarily bad; it’s good to celebrate! But, with some of those things, I think we are cleverly made blind to violence hiding in them.
I don’t think there’s many good hard-and-fast rules for how to identify it, which things are okay and which aren’t. I don’t really have some new Kosher law because it’s actually a pretty complicated question, “Is this violence?.”
But please consider how in our consumption we can also be peacemakers, how we can choose straw instead.