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Politics of Scripture

Right Nightmares

Those who commit dehumanizing acts of violence—whether through physical harm, abusive exploitation, or benign neglect—themselves become debased and subhuman, even as they sit in positions of power. Indeed, Micah puts this in sharp relief … where he depicts the corrupt “leaders and rulers” as ravenous animals who cannibalize those who the Lord has placed in their care.

5 Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. 6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7 the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. 8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. 9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! 11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, “Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” 12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Micah 3:5-12 (NRSV)

Micah’s words in chapter 3 raise a fundamental question about the possibility of peace without justice. His indictment of the (false) prophets and acquisitive teachers who assuage the guilt of the political leaders turns on a simple claim, that they have “abhorred justice” and “perverted equity.” 

The prophet claims that the nation has built its wealth on the backs of the poor and with the blood of the vulnerable (Micah 3:9, 12), and so that which has been accumulated through exploitation and oppression will ultimately be judged unrighteous by the Lord, and thus plowed under and returned to ruin.

On the question of whether there can be peace in a land apart from justice for the poor, the prophet’s answer is clear: no, it isn’t possible for the former to reign without the latter, because the latter is the condition of the possibility of the former. As Article 22 of the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective succinctly puts it: “Although God created a peaceable world, humanity chose the way of unrighteousness and violence. The spirit of revenge increased, and violence multiplied, yet the original vision of peace and justice did not die. Prophets and other messengers of God continued to point the people of Israel toward trust in God rather than in weapons and military force.” 

Those who amass their fortunes and sense of material security by harming the poor are what we might call de-creators because they build through brutality. With the absence of political structures that seek the more just distribution of wealth for common flourishing, social disintegration takes root. In the midst of this de-creative process, the profiteering class operates at a level of bare carnality, preying upon others such that the humanity of all is effaced. Thus, as Micah declares, a society whose prosperity depends on the violent wringing out of the poor is no society at all and is only fit to be reduced to dust.

There is a way of reading this passage, I think, that says those who commit dehumanizing acts of violence against the vulnerable—whether through physical harm, abusive exploitation, or benign neglect—themselves become debased and subhuman, even as they sit in positions of power. Indeed, Micah puts this in sharp relief in the opening verses of chapter 3, where he depicts the corrupt “leaders and rulers” as ravenous animals who cannibalize those who the Lord has placed in their care.

As the prophet presents his case, a politics that fails to embrace justice (that is, a politics that “hates the good and loves that which is evil,” as Micah 3:2 says) is a politics of torn skin, shredded flesh, broken bones, and butchered human meat. Examples can be multiplied many times over of what such injustice looks like across the contemporary socio-political landscape.

At risk of oversimplifying a complex economic situation, we should be reminded that in the United States, nearly 38 million people live in poverty (or 11.5%), even as unemployment has remained consistent around 6.4 million people (or 3.8%). These troubling numbers stand alongside the now disturbingly familiar statistic that the US incarcerates nearly 2 million members of its population—ten times the prison population of fifty years ago.

These numbers translate into the hollowing out of segments of our society. Profound, sustained experiences of suffering in the form of infant mortality and higher rates of preventable death among adults are then hidden in plain sight. This is the case, for example, in rural southeastern North Carolina, where in some counties around 25% of their residents and 35% of their children live in poverty, the criteria for which is a family of four surviving on less than $24,000 a year (Mitchell, “North Carolina’s Greatest Challenge”).

It is striking that while leaders in Washington DC have recently bragged about the country’s ability to fund military operations in two different regions due to “being the most powerful nation in the history of the world,” they do not make the same claims when it comes to dealing with the economic and social systems that sustain indigence and underwrite local and international wealth inequality.

As Micah would encourage us to ask, who profits from a violent economic arrangement where over ten percent of a population lives in poverty? Who are the cruel actors who have benefitted from the shredded flesh and broken bones of the poor and vulnerable? Who is “winning” in a society with 2 million people imprisoned?

Does this ancient oracle have anything to say about our impoverished economic and socio-political circumstances? It seems to me at least two possible readings present themselves, one cynical and the other realist and hopeful.

To move in a somewhat pessimistic direction first, I want to briefly consider the relevance of a proverb that arose in medieval political philosophy. It stated that “nothing violent can last” or, in a slightly different register, that “nothing violent is durable.” The basic idea was that a government established on tyrannical violence would eventually fall victim to its own brutality. That which ascends by violence will inevitably be undone by it.

The prophet’s warning is the same. Those who rule through coercion are no rulers at all, and a society that builds its wealth through exploitative violence is an ersatz society, and both will be judged by the Lord accordingly. They are not durable.

A more hopeful reading might suggest that what Micah envisions is a scenario where the Lord gives a violent, unjust nation the “right nightmares,” to borrow a phrase from Douglas Ottati’s Hopeful Realism.

While Micah envisages the judgment of the unequivocally wicked, “right nightmares” are visions of pending destruction that are granted to the morally ambiguous: the greedy, the self-assured, and the apathetic. These are the ones who have shut themselves off from others but are given a “full imaginative sense of their own mortality” as ones “bound towards death” that produces a felt sense of solidarity with those who they have injured that, in turn, leads to repentance (Ottati, 14).

The nightmare scenario that Micah presents is one where an invading nation plows Zion like a field, captures the priests and servants of the temple, leaving it vacant, and reduces Jerusalem to “a heap of rubble” (Micah 3:12). The nightmare that Micah illumines and unveils is one where the rulers and all that they hold dear are diminished, destroyed, or occupied.

However, as Ottati puts it, right nightmares will produce “a humane and realistic sensibility … that is not too busy or too occupied with goals, plans, and objectives to apprehend and to feel the grossly destructive violations” (Ottati, 15). I wonder, then, what “right nightmares” we need to provoke in us the revulsions necessary to organize against garish wealth that feeds on the marginalized and that kills children and destroys lives.

Perhaps the right nightmares won’t come, and we’ll be confronted with a species of Micah’s oracle of judgment: extreme weather events, for example, that result in costly destruction in places where capital has been concentrated as part of our collective devotion to extreme wealth.

Or it could be that there will be smaller vignettes of the powerful being humbled, when those who have carried themselves as existing above a legal system that incarcerates millions finally ensnares them in its net. And maybe by witnessing the impermanence of the violent and proud, we will recognize our own vulnerability, a recognition that will then move our hearts towards deeper social and political concord with those most harmed by unjust legal systems.

Or perhaps it’s the case that the right nightmares are unfolding before us, if we have the eyes to see that our lives are inextricably enmeshed with the life of a world and its creatures convulsing in agony due to extractive economies that tear at the fabric of our communities.

It is hard to say what “right nightmares” we will need to help us see that another world is possible, but I’m inclined to think that these nightmares are before us even though we refuse to see them for what they are. Regardless, the hope at the heart of Micah’s oracle is that, while peace cannot exist apart from justice, the Lord can still give the gift of night terrors of unrest that might shake us from our collective complacency, producing in us a sense of solidarity with the oppressed that otherwise would not be.

One thought on “Right Nightmares

  1. I want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to ponder about the state of the world at this precarious time in our history. However, the complex situation that affects our humanity at the present time, with all the injustices you mentioned, might not be the by product of our insensitivity or negligence, but simply our lack of clarity about who the enemy is. Therefore, we need to be careful about extrapolating circumstances from past centuries and applying them to the present time, because the social, political, and religious circumstances were totally different. But most importantly, human beings were at a different stage in their development. Lastly, the world is not going to evolve at the same pace simultaneously. Consequently, the norms and principles may come from different roots. Then ,good and evil might be perceive differently and who can be the arbiter of that.

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