28 November 2011

21st Century Third World Gehenna

"Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna? Because of this, lo, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes, and of them ye will kill and crucify, and of them ye will scourge in your synagogues, and will pursue from city to city; that on you may come all the righteous blood being poured out on the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous, unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar: verily I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation." Matthew 23:33-36 (Young's Literal Translation)

Gehenna is a real place that exists in our world. It's a valley located south of old Jerusalem's walls. This, "the valley of the son of Hinnom," was where Israelite children were sacrificed to the god Moloch. That was centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In the days of Jesus it was a garbage dump. It seems dead animals and even the corpses of disreputable criminals were thrown there, where smoke was constantly rising and worms devoured corrupt things.

Throughout his life, Jesus warned those in power and all who failed to embrace his way of peace that their end would be Gehenna. In the nearly two millennia since those days his words have been reinterpreted to be speaking of another place, a "hell" in the afterlife. Although certainly the Bible does teach consequences and judgment beyond death, as well as speaking of an end of this present age and the inauguration of a new one, this was not the point of what Jesus had to say.

Gehenna, first a place of cruel sacrifice and then a fetid, smoky dump, was to be the resting place for the cadavers of those who rejected the way of non-violent resistance. Those in power who stirred up the masses against not only the Roman oppressors but also any who refused to go down their bloody path could expect, according to Jesus, only to be consigned to the shameful landfill of history.

There are still Gehennas in our days. In more affluent countries, like the United States, it is practically unheard of for people to find their way into landfills to make a living. In other countries, particularly those of the Third World, one can go to virtually any dump and find people eking out a living. They search the garbage for recyclable materials to sell and anything of value that may have been tossed out carelessly. Yes, they even look for food.

One year while I lived in Brazil I read about a teenager who got up every morning well before sunrise to meet the trash trucks as they arrived at the landfill. He would search the garbage for food and take what he found back home to his mother. He didn't want his younger siblings to find out where their food came from. If you watched the video above, you know that this is an experience shared by others throughout the world. In the movie Slumdog Millionaire there is a scene in a dump in India that bears further testimony to this sad international reality.

People around the world are surviving, barely, on the margins. A naive North American might suggest that the solution would be a big fence, sort of like the one they are trying to build to keep people from crossing the northern Mexican border into the United States. The thinking would be that if people were kept out of the dumps, the problem would be solved. Actually, a lot of people would die. As the video above points out, a sweatshop would be a definite step up from a filthy hell. Think about how unimaginably bad a step down would be!

In the eyes of the rest of society, those scraping bottom to survive appear damned, but they are not the truly accursed. The wicked are those in power who are complicit with systemic evil. Corrupt systems and complicit powers put the poor and weak in the garbage and Jesus on the cross. This latter was to their own undoing:

"And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross; having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." Colossians 2:13-15 (American Standard Version)

Through his death and resurrection Jesus exposed the powers for what they really were (and are) and overcame them. The ultimate tool of the tyrant is death, and once Jesus faced that and came out the other side into new life, there was no more cause for fear.

"Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh, he also, in like manner, took part in the same, that through death he might annul him who has the might of death, that is, the devil; and might set free all those who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage." Hebrews 2:14-15 (Darby Translation)

In his appearing at the conclusion of this present age, the New Testament Scriptures testify that tables will be turned. Those who have engaged in persecution and oppression will be thrown to the bottom, overturned and obliterated by fire from the presence of God:

"...if so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed) in that day." 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 (American Standard Version)

The task of followers of Jesus in our times is one that has never gained wide acceptance, even though it is found throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. We are called seek out the marginalized and stand with them. A sweatshop may be better than a garbage dump, and a garbage dump preferred over death, but disciples must not, cannot, leave human beings in those conditions without help and without hope. Acrid smoke and bitter anguish is better suited to the corrupt powers than the world's poor and weak.

"Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." Ephesians 6:11-12 (American Standard Version)