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Cry Justice
 
l Kings 21: 1-21a
 
Let me tell you the story once again.  Once upon a time there was a king called Ahab.  He had extensive royal lands, more than anyone else in the kingdom. Next to his property lay the small vineyard of a relatively unimportant man. His name was Naboth.
 
His vineyard was a nuisance because it split up the King’s lands.  The King was a reasonable man.  He went to Naboth with a proposal: “Look here, Naboth, I want to consolidate my property and your vinyard is in the way.  Look, I want to buy your vineyard. I will give you a good price for it, or I will exchange it for another of equal value elsewhere as long as I can get to put my land into one piece.
 Naboth replied, “Haikona, oh no, sorry, Your Majesty.  You see, this is my ancestral home.  It is not just any old property.  My family spirits are here.  My ancestors have been buried here.  God has given us this property for the care of all my generations.  I am part of this property and it is part of me.  It is part of my children’s life and they are part of it.  I can’t help you”
 
The King did not like the answer.  He acted like King baby sulking in his room because he could not get his way, taking out his rage on everyone around him, turning his face to the wall, refusing to eat.  (Talk about passive aggressive adult child behaviour). Queen Jezebel came along and asked “What is the matter King Ahab?  Why are you sulking and refusing to eat the good food I have placed before you?” The King told his Queen that Naboth had blocked his plans. 
 
The Queen was flabbergasted.  She came from a different country where kings really were kings, They did whatever they wanted.  She also knew that underneath it all,  he was asking her to do what he could not do himself.  So she said to him. “Get up and eat.  Don’t worry, I will fix up everything so that you will get Naboth’s vineyard.  You are king in this country and we won’t stand for any nonsense from any unimportant person like Naboth.  So she fixed up everything.  She arranged a false trial for  Naboth; two scoundrels were found to testify. Naboth was dragged from the town and stoned to death.
 
The Queen went back to her husband, and said “King Ahab, get up, go, take Naboth’s vineyard.  He is dead and nobody will stop you doing what you wanted to do, and nobody will worry about what happened to Naboth at all, after all, he was just a nobody himself”.
 
The king got up smiling, pleased that his wife Jezebel, had intuited his will, and acted so energetically and effectively.  But then an extraordinary thing happened.
 
Elijah, the prophet,  God’s messenger, met the King as he was going to Naboth’s vineyard.  God, said the prophet, had seen what Ahab and Jezebel had done to Naboth, and  God was angry and would take the side of this unimportant man, Naboth, in this cruel act of injustice.  God would punish those who had done this evil thing.
 
This is the story as it was told by Bishop Desmond Tutu to the people of Duncan village in East London South AFrica in July l981 before the area was annexed by the then Apartheid government.  He told them that they were considered to be nobody’s like Naboth, who could be moved about at will by the powerful government, but that God cared about injustice, God cared about oppression, God cared about the nobodies of this world and was on their side against the powerful when they were behaving unjustly.  Those with power were accountable for their use of power and for their actions.
 
Notice how the murder of Naboth is told to us.   Queen Jezebel seeing the distress of her husband Ahab, does the dirty work and orders the elders to have a couple of “scoundrels” accuse Naboth.  The elders knew who to call on. I was raised in a small community, and you can’t tell me the elders were the only ones who knew these guys were scoundrels.   Surely everybody present must have smelled a rather large rat!  Why, then, did the entire community (or at least a majority — no dissent is recorded) cooperate in the stoning? This is not something that can be done by one or two away in a corner. It is a public event?
 
They must have also known what had precipitated this kangaroo court.  Naboth’s action could well have been public knowledge. And one would expect that the community would tend to support Naboth: Land and kinship are powerful, deeply held values; and it would be in the community’s interest to support each other in resisting royal expropriations. What would have  allowed the community to participate in such flagrant injustice? Did they go along with the dirty deal and stone Naboth out of a sense of cynical helplessness?  out of fear of getting involved?  Was it the kind of scapegoating in the service of community cohesion that sometimes happens?  Maybe it was related to the phenomenon of willful ignorance, which Alice Miller, writes about in “For Your Own Good”,  We tend to be more comfortable with sins of ignorance than of awareness she says.   If we can pretend that we don’t know what something is about, then we can wash our hands of it, we don’t have to decide if it’s right or wrong  how we should respond.
 
What is so contemporary about Naboth’s death is that he just disappears.  He is “taken care of”.  The arrogance of power is such that there is no attempt to hide the body.  In fact one could suggest that the murder was used to communicate the message that it was safer to cooperate with the ruling power. Around this violence is a conspiracy of frozen silence; denial of community reponsibility. How horrifyingly contemporary this all sounds!
 
Sooner or later though tyranny crosses the line.   Something so obviously unjust, so cruel, is done that a hitherto docile accepting, “non boat-rocking” people begin to react. It happened in South Africa.  It happened in the former Soviet Empire.  It happened in Argentina, and in Central America. Sometimes there are just too many“Naboths” for the society to stomach any more. 
 
In the Bible story a figure emerges out of the society, the prophet Elijah, who comes from the edge of the culture.  He risks angrily confronting Ahab out of his religious conviction that God is calling him to speak out against the king’s actions.  His act of truthtelling, of naming the dirty business for what it was, is profoundly subversive of the coercive, manipulative misuse of power.  He risks naming  the injustice in strong words, words that match the level of violence that has been done.
 
There are many Naboths and Ahabs in our so-called progressive 21st century.  People put off the land in the name of progress, and big business.
 
The Central American peasant “asked” to sell his plot of land to the landowner who owns the valley; the tribal people of Nigeria whose land is confiscated for oil exploration; aboriginal people in Guatemala put off their land for a Canadian run gold mine;  the subsistance farmer in the Khulna region of Bangladesh, being asked to get out of the way so the fields from which he has been eaking out a living for himself and his family can be flooded to grow tiger prawn shrimps by a large multinational for the wealthy markets of North America and Europe.  To stand up and say no in such situations, to refuse to comply with injustice has its price.  In November, l990 a young woman named Karuma Moyee Sardar was killed and forty people injured for demonstrating against the flooding of land.  It was an act of resistance in the face of unbridled power.  Yet this woman has now become a national symbol of the anti-shrimp movement and farmer’s groups have erected a monument in her honour on the spot where she was killed.  Since l990 meetings and seminars have been organized where local people have come together to talk about the social, economic and environmental impact of the shrimp industry, and to develop common strategies.  As a result, some communities have been successsfully declared “shrimp free” zones.
 
We do not have to look so far afield to find the situation of the arrogance of power that “takes care of” those who get in the way of what they deem to be progress. I  remember personally the Oka crisis 20 years ago. I was behind the lines in the community hall for a week.  Mohowk people in Kahnesetake,  resisted the construction of a  golf course extension that would destroy century old pine trees  and  have  people  playing golf over the bones of ancestors in the burial ground.  The people of Kahnesetake had a way of thinking about land  as ancestral inheritance, entrusted by the Creator. God owned the land. They cried over the rape of the land as over the rape of their mother, the earth.  They were on a collision course with a capitalist system that thinks of land in terms of private ownership, in terms of being able to do whatever one likes with the earth in order to get wealth and economic gain.  The Mohawks resisted. A good man was killed, the government sent in the army and an army of negotiators who bought the wrong piece of land in an effort to resolve the situation. The issue still is not solved. The Pines, are still slotted for development and the issue may erupt again very soon. Our church and aboriginal justice groups may indeed find ourselves again having to be  Elijah  crying out justice, reminding the powers and the victims that God cares about injustice, God cares about oppression, and God sides with those who are abused.  And that those with power are accountable for their actions and for the way they use or abuse power.
 
Just this week on National Public Radio from the USA comes another Naboth/Ahab story. Josh Fox lives on the Pennsylvania. New York State border.  In May 2008, he received a letter from a natural gas mining company wanting to lease 19.5 acres of land—for$100,000. They said ‘We might not even drill,’ ‘We don’t even know if there’s gas here. It’s going to be a fire hydrant in the middle of a field — very little impact to your land. You won’t hardly know we’re here.’ Instead of saying yes right away, as his father wanted to, Fox decided to look into it more. He visited other communities and homeowners to see how it affected them. The result, his documentary Gasland, which will be shown on HBO on June 21.
 
Fox discovered the way companies were extracting gas was by hydraulic fracturing a process of injecting, at an incredibly high pressure, a huge volume of water, chemicals and sand—to fracture underground rock formation. millions of gallons of water and chemicals.
As he traveled he found homeowners who noticed that their water had discolored or was starting to bubble. And in some communities, people were able to light the water coming out of their faucets on fire — because chemicals from the natural gas drilling process had seeped into the water table and aquifers, contaminating them.

He says ” It just turns your whole world upside down when you can turn the faucet on and stick a cigarette lighter under it and you get this explosion of flame.  People were showering with their light bulbs off because of fear of a spark setting off a huge fire.  He says”The first thing that I heard about was a woman [whose] water well exploded on New Years Day of 2009. And it sent a concrete casing soaring up into the air and scattered debris all over her yard. And then other people started to notice that their water was bubbling and fizzing, that their water had been discolored. By the time I got there a month later, there were children who were getting sick [and] animals who were getting sick and the whole place was pretty much laid to waste. There were gas well pads everywhere. There was incredibly heavy truck traffic. It seemed like normal life had just been turned completely upside down.”
But surely people can make a choice of whether they have this on their land you might think. Like Nabboth, they can say, “No this is my ancestral land. I will not sell it out.”

Not so simple. Though he and his family have decided not to lease the land, some of his neighbours have.  In many states there is forced pooling.  If 60% of a community have signed, you are forced to lease whether you sign or not. People said that the first time the gas people came they were friendly showing how much money a farmer could get.  Next time they put on stronger, nastier pressure. The third time they say, well, we’re taking your gas anyway, so you might as well make some money out of it. He says we are talking about 65% of Pennsylvania and 50% of New York.

But surely there are regulations to protect the environment and the people you say….”The gas industry were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the 2005 Energy bill. The Safe Drinking Water Act monitors underground injection of toxin. They were also exempted in previous years from the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law. … It’s an unregulated industry.”
Josh Fox, this very ordinary farmer from Pennsylvania is becoming a modern Elijah, pointing out injustice; naming the dirty business of manipulative abuse of power. And as he points out in his film, this is also happening in Alberta.

We still live in Naboth’s world. Some questions this passage forces me to reflect on- Where have we experienced ourselves in conflict between values of justice and concern for the powerless?  Where are we seduced by the notion that progress and getting ahead, requires its victims? How do you feel when little people make life inconvenient for you, stand in the way of something you want to accomplish and feel you have the right to do?   Where do we experience ourselves being seduced by the divine right of privilege?  Have you ever, like Jezebel, felt that you had to do someone else’s dirty work in order to stay on the right side of the power game? in order to keep your job?  Have you ever found yourself justifying the means by the end result?  Have you ever been in Naboth’s position where you have had to withhold something that another with more power wanted, even at personal risk?   Have you ever thought about land or possessions in terms of their relationship to God  as a trust for future generations?  Have you ever been in the Elijah position, where you have had to stand up and cry out injustice, where you have had to name the oppression, make judgement, refuse to pretend that  no one is being hurt, that everything is fine and proceding as it should?  Have you ever had to break the silence about abuse, violation, injustice?
 
There will be a need for a great many more Elijahs in these times as a leaner, meaner, more selfish spirit invades our world. He refused to be silent in the face of injustice.  He recognized  that God cares about the way power in used, the way land is used, the way people are treated, the way people are governed, the way a society treats those who are less powerful.  God cares profoundly, and invites us to care as well, and to risk breaking out of the complicity of denial, and to speak our truth, even into the places of power.
 
There are too many Naboths in the world.  God cares.

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