Land of hope and glory?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 May 2008

The notion and shape of 'the land' means many things to many people, as the contradictory responses to this 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel are showing. For some it looks like triumph, for others it betokens tragedy.

To people who are languishing in squatter camps or who are forbidden access to home, land is the life source denied to them. For traders and dealers, it is a commodity to be bought and sold on local and international markets.

Travellers eye the lie of the land for guidance or feel a sense of security when the plane touches the earth again. City dwellers think of gardens or allotments. Rural communities tend and sell the fruits of the soil. Animals roam and reproduce on it. Aboriginal communities feel the land as a deep source of connectedness between the past and the present. Artists gain inspiration through landscape.

Even in a cyber age, land remains basic to every aspect of human being and becoming. Cultures build on it. Architects and designers reshape it. Workmen and women dig it. Golfers and footballers play on it. Nations and peoples go to war over it. Each of the four elements of life produces it. We are born, we live and we die on the land.

"Dust to dust, ashes to ashes", says the opening rubric of the Christian funeral service, before adding "in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ." But is this how Christians live? Or are we mostly grounded in our capacity to envisage the true scope of life's giftedness?

Confronted with the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many feel bemused by the role played by 'landedness' and the exclusively proprietorial claims sometimes made, in God's name, by zealous sections of the major monotheistic faiths.

There is a savage passion here which disturbs and bemuses us. Being an increasingly urban-focused culture, we routinely lose touch with life-or-death struggle and the incredibly strong feelings that arise from it.

Urban children can grow up with little idea of how the food they eat is produced, or the role of the land in that. Countryside becomes mere 'scenery' for the tourist. The struggles for life and liberty taking place in 'foreign lands' are reduced to fleeting images on myriad TV and computer screens, competing for the attention of an entertainment and advertising driven society.

Even refugees, asylum seekers and the homeless fail to remind the secure and the prosperous that the basics of life (food, shelter, water, work - all utterly dependent on the land) still cannot be taken for granted by the great majority of the world's population. And when such things are taken for granted, it frequently results in the exploitation of the earth and its creatures. Caring mindfulness is a tough art.

For many Eastern and Southern cultures land is traditionally the basis of memory, identity and community - the things that unite us to each other and (in most religious traditions) to God, the source and giver of life. In the modern historical era driven by Western and Northern cultures that subdued the land, however, these same characteristics have become a source of division and alienation.

It isn't that one culture is hugely more virtuous than another. It's more a question of our modern technological capacity to reproduce and expand what we have, without regard to its larger impact.

So instead of giving there is expropriation. In place of enduring memory there is the triumph of the ephemeral and the fleeting. And instead of social and inter-personal relations we have commodity exchange and contract.

Christianity, too, has been in danger of losing its historic roots in the story of deliverance from a land of oppression (Exodus), of sojourning (Diaspora) of healing journeys (mission, pilgrimage), of re-settling ('church planting') and of moving on again - being prepared to be 'resident aliens' as Stanley Hauerwas puts it; those constnantly in search of 'another country' where all may prosper.

A Cross marks the place where this loss of purposeful provisionality, for the human community as well as the Christian one, is at its most deadly and tragic.

In an age where the shopping mall is increasingly our ‘defining territory’ we need to reflect critically on such concerns. To whom and what do we really belong?

Artists, writers, poets, theologians, environmentalists, philosophers, planners and plotters are capable - given the chance - of challenging the material and spiritual contours of our temporary alienation.

From the landless movements in Brazil and the protests against dispossession wreaked by a one-sided globalization, right through to the architects of liturgy celebrating the 'red, wide earth' (as a collection from Australia calls it), the strains of empire - Land of Hope and Glory - are being disturbed by an imagination which relates these three in gentler, more peaceable, more earth-friendly ways.

Wherever you are, there is change afoot in the land. But there is still a very, very long way to travel - and time is short. Till wisely.

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This article is a revised version of one that appeared a number of years ago in Christian magazine.

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to the Guardian's Comment-is-Free and other media outlets. See also http://www.simonbarrow.net

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