Saturday, January 5, 2008

Twelfth Day of Christmas: Latin American reflection and appeal

TOMORROW IS THE VERY LAST DAY YOU CAN MAKE A GIFT to the congregation of Cristo Rei (Christ the King) in Cidade de Deus (the City of God), one of the poorest neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Our friend Luiz writes of Cristo Rei parish:

We intend to be a place where all are welcome to be free, especially in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) neighborhood, where poverty, violence and hunger are so well-known. And in order to live this Gospel of liberation and reconciliation of the entire world through Christ Jesus, we also seek to integrate the Church with society, through several social projects. Our mission is bold: to say that Christ is the King is to say that love has the last word in the midst of this world of calamities.

Details here. One last push for Epiphany! And for the children.

Tonight's reflection is from Elsa Tamez's book When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes (1998, English translation 2000).

The publisher of this book, Orbis Books, writes on the back cover:

On its surface the Book of Ecclesiastes appears to offer a type of "wisdom" that bears little reference to social or historical issues. But from her own perspective in Central America Elsa Tamez finds in this ancient book a surprisingly current message. Ecclesiastes reflects a time when utopian hopes have been crushed, when the prospects for change seem remote, and the challenge is how to live faithfully in the present while maintaining some openness to a different future. Because that describes the situation of many people today, especially in the third world, the Book of Ecclesiastes bears a message of unusual relevance.

From the beginning of the book:

An insistent concern with the theme of hope, now at the end of the millennium, reveals a crisis of hope and a need to rebuild utopia in our time. [Tamez then speaks of the "culture of despair" and the role of the ideology of capitalism in the present loss of hope.]...

A reason for living, or the meaning of life, is one of the most profound and universal questions that human beings have asked through the centuries. It entails an effort, often in vain, to understand future events in history and even beyond earthly existence. To seek the reason for living is not just a philosophical concern; it comes from our desire to live with dignity in the face of conflicts and challenges, whether these are economic, cultural, social, or political.

It would seem that when the future becomes so terribly inscrutable, utopia hides itself; it is nowhere to be found. When utopia cannot be created, human fulfillment is also impossible. And when human fulfillment is impossible, so is the society we seek to create.

The book called Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, written around the second half of the third century B.C.E., during the Ptolemaic empire, raises this problem. The narrator experiences reality as a great emptiness, masked by the change and agitation around him; he is anguished by his inability to envision a liberating future; and amid this crisis of meaning he reflects on the inevitability of death and the impossibility of effectively challenging God's intentions. He exhorts the people at that crossroad to enjoy the happy moments of the present: to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This approach to history is an anomaly in the biblical history of salvation, which usually overflows with messianic promises and hopes.. What is the meaning of Qoheleth's unusual way of confronting uncertainty? Can this proposal be valid for our time? How should be interpret his approach and the reasons for it? These are some of the questions we shall ask...

Perhaps we shall find in this canonical book some critical word to give us a better understanding of certain modern-day situations and attitudes that occur when horizons are closing. It would seem that this is the only book of the Bible that "abandons the biblical vision of history understood as a divine project in progressive linear, 'messianic' development."

Tamez notes that the Hebrew word hebel is usually translated as "vanity" but, she says, that word does not fully translate what Qoheleth is trying to say nor the malaise which is reflected in the opening verses of the book. In modern slang perhaps, less abstract words than vanity or absurdity --such as "worthless," or "rubbish," or "shit" -- would better express his frustration with what goes on under the sun.

She adds:
We might read the repetitive superlative in 1:2 as follows: "A big mess, says the Teacher, a big mess! Everything is messed up." Gianfranco Ravasi prefers to translate the Hebrew superlative as "an immense emptiness." In a way, that feeling --like "an emptiness in the stomach"-- is what comes when reality is perceived as a mess, when apparently there is no way to change the course of history and there are no visible signs that human fulfillment is possible.

And from the end of the book:

Obviously the reading of Qoheleth presented here has been done in the context of our present reality, with the globalization of the free market. But there is an extraordinary similarity between those Hellenistic times and our own. Therefore there is no need to draw a separate application for our own times. ...

... Qoheleth recommends four ways of resisting frustration in a present whose horizons are closed. First, by affirming the faith that there is a time and a season for everything; that is, at some point the horizons will have to open up. Second, by affirming real life, now, as a rhythm of life in opposition to the rhythm of a society that has no interest in human beings. Third, the fear of God as a recognition of the human condition, finite and limited in what it can do. And fourth, the attitude of discernment and wisdom in the everyday tasks of the "meanwhile," in a society whose ideology seems to be "save your own skin!" Thus it offers plenty of advice for surviving and avoiding premature death. It also recommends solidarity: "two are better than one," because "a threefold cord does not break."

The question remains: Is embracing the present sufficient for human fulfillment in our world today? Doesn't it lead to the trap of postmodern sentiment? But in spite of the issues it raises, for example, its lack of praxis, we cannot deny the importance of discussing Qoheleth's proposal in depth.

Before closing I would like to reflect briefly on the relationship between wisdom literature and apocalyptic literature. They both deal with similar situations, although there is a great difference between them: in the apocalyptic literature, the horizons remains open.

... Apocalypticism arose in the popular sectors and was widely accepted there. The vision of Qoheleth... comes through the eyes of a renegade aristocrat under foreign domination. But both offer an important word of resistance to the situation.

Our present life seems different, however. The cry of suffering --"How long, O Lord?"-- which is characteristic of apocalypticism, has taken precedence over the imperative, "Let us eat and drink joyfully in the midst of hard labor, for there is a time and a season for everything!"

In order to build liberating utopian horizons and live the first fruits now, with dignity, it seems important to keep both literary genres in mind. The wisdom literature is not enough to help us see the world from a structural perspective. But the apocalyptic vision, which takes in all of history at a glance, does not help us to live life from day to day, night to night, moment to moment, in the midst of enslaving labor and sorrow.

Elsa Tamez is a Mexican theologian known equally for her work in women's theology and scripture study. She is professor of Biblical Studies and President of the Latin American Biblical University (Seminario Biblico Latinamericano) in Costa Rica. Her other books include The Bible of the Oppressed, Against Machismo, The Amnesty of Grace, and The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead.

I've read the works from which I posted the last 12 days, but this one is new to me. I've had it on my shelf for at least a year and hadn't cracked it open. It seems good. Interesting to have both Tamez and Gutiérrez reflecting on books from the wisdom tradition (from the Writings, as opposed to the Torah and the Prophets) which, as Tamez notes, are not the ones with a focus on what we've come to call the history of salvation (salvation broadly speaking and including or equated with liberation and communal salvation, salvation of the world). Earlier in liberation theology the big texts were the Exodus and the Magnificat.

THANKS, friends!


more cows than people said...

hey, thanks for your comment and compliment on my sermon and blog!

i only have a quick second now, but it looks like there is a lot to explore here. i hope to be back.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jane, you've done a lovely job of calling attention to the City of God and in giving me a mini-education. Thank you.