Friday, March 2, 2018

Power and Protest:
Zephaniah

     As I entered a retirement center reception not long after my mother's funeral, I was buttonholed by a stranger, a smartly groomed youngish man in a monocolor blazer and power tie with an American flag button prominently displayed in his lapel. On my good days, with mom's lessons in polite behavior in mind, I usually find a relatively neutral way to disguise my reactions to such characters. This was not a good day. I had just dealt with my dad, who like mom had been, was well along in the awful grip of Alzheimer's. Before I could recollect myself, I reverted to what is sometimes one of my default, but authentic personae—salty, profane, blunt professional sailor. The stranger bounced off me like a green-as-grass Ensign shopping yet another “really great idea, Chief!”
     What the unwelcome visitor represented was a movement that has been a bullying undertone in Washington state politics for a good bit of my adult life: an active, doctrinaire, well-organized religious right. It's a movement that in our northern neighbor has managed to control Republican caucuses and place a varying number of legislators in national offices, mostly from rural, agricultural counties. (In my current home to the south, Oregon, political parties are so disliked that few candidates advertise their affiliations outside the official ballot. I, born in Los Angeles, am growing to like—gulp—the Beaver State.)
      Divisions, controversy and the like seem to be universals among societies. Just as I find many of the actions of the religious right in the USA to be distasteful, so too do many of their followers dislike (I imagine) this blog, smacking as it does of “liberal” (I prefer “mainstream”) ideas and agendas.
     Apostolic Christianity, for example, moving from an occasionally oppressed minority to a decidedly favored status under Constantine, swiftly and happily did what all revolutionaries aspire to do, become the bosses that then replace the old status quo with a new one, preferably without the presence of significant opposition. That Constantinian mainstream, of course, had its critics, some of whom ended up repressed, often violently1, and others of whom ended up splitting into the Protestant version of Constantinianism2 (though not without several violent episodes over what form the Reformation would take).
     A critical turn for the future Christian church, especially for their Old Testament scripture, occurred in the period between the accession of Hezekiah to the Judean throne in 715 BCE and the death of King Josiah at Meddigo in 609. This was the period of Judean prosperity and importance.    Following its successful defense against the Assyrian siege, Judah welcomed a flood of Israeli refugees, many of them from the professional, priestly and merchant classes of their wealthy northern neighbor, following the collapse of the urban center of Samaria. Jerusalem, the country-cousin counterpart of Samaria, grew quickly into an urban center, its suburbs drawing the pastoral and agricultural people in for both protection and access to the Jerusalem marketplace. Scribes were needed for government, trade and the new suburban records center, and priests to administer the Temple and other religious activities, and to use their scribal training to build the new libraries.3
     Both Hezekiah and Josiah stood out as religious reformers against a background of Hezekiah's worldly sons. Yet, reform means change, and the transition from a relatively second-rate kingdom to a rich, urban one means even more change. Behind the scene, and at times in the foreground, lurks conflict—rural values against urban, one set of priests against another, natives against newcomers—and with the conflict comes that traditional voice of change, the prophet.
     Hebrew prophets, whose voices make up much of the Old Testament material, exist within a complicated position centuries in the making. It is marked first of all by alienation. Prophets are not comfortable doing business as usual. The everyday routine of society, the accepted values and ideas, the procession of events that casts its participants as actors with lines and speeches written by all that has gone before, seems foreign to prophets. Their attention is fixed outside the walls of the city or the confines of the village.
     Because the everyday is the everyday, it is powerful. Language itself is made possible because people agree to common signifiers, with accepted, common signification. To convince people to even consider sharply different, even alien ideas, let alone grow to accept them, requires prophets to become powerful presenters of those ideas. Their tools for doing so, on the one hand, are traditional and familiar to their audience, but on the other hand, involve using the kind of language that will kickstart their audience's attention. That is, in order to challenge power, one must first sneak in, and then explode.
     Zephaniah occupies an intriguing position among the latter prophets—we don't know whether he precedes or follows the emergence of Deuteronomy at Josiah's court—but he certainly is a voice of reform, of a return to the days of Hezekiah.4 To accomplish his mission, he asserts himself in a position that is familiar—recalling the fearsome power of the one god—and popular—criticizing the accumulation of wealth by the new plutocrats and predicting the fall of Judah's rivals and old enemies.
     To someone seeking a “literal” reading of Zephaniah, his predictions of the utter destruction of Judah, and indeed the entire world,

     I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord...
     I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth. (2-3; NRSV)

seem a bit far-fetched, even for the times. Still, to people whose vulnerability to famine and the bloody conquests of neighboring kingdoms and empires is ever close to mind, despite their recent prosperity, such metaphors have a powerful impact.
     I remember standing in the playground outside North Queen Anne elementary school, watching huge new Boeing 707 jets fly low from the south Seattle factory, engines whining, and the occasional four-engine prop airliner doing the same, wondering if this was the day when an atomic bomb would suddenly drop from a similar plane. Inside the school, we had monthly drills involving drawing thick black window blinds against nuclear flash and huddling under our desks.
     Later, I understood how suddenly and unpityingly a force, whether made up of former neighbors or big, fiercely armed strangers could visit sudden death, starvation and dislocation on humble villagers and city dwellers alike in a place whose name, “the Nam,” became a synonym for horror for my generation. Only in a country whose memories of local strife are generations removed do such images slide by with little impact.
     We must also notice that these are not the words of a 21st-century heir of two or three centuries of modernist thought, to whom the notion of a one-to-one correspondence between words and things, the absolute, literal truth of language, is second nature. Like a Chris Rock or a Richard Pryor, the prophet uses “unreal” and “distorted” language to penetrate everyday, surface patterns of discourse and expose raw, hidden nerves of fear, discomfort and unease. (It is perhaps no accident that English poets at the outset of the Enlightenment turned to satire.)
     Having gotten his audience's attention, Zephaniah returns to the local. Identifying the officials, merchants and powerful who have turned away from Hebrew tradition and begun to accumulate wealth and assume “foreign” customs. He uses the homely metaphors of sacrifice, lamps, even the fortifications that saved Jerusalem from capture to illustrate his call.
     It is not simply the new urbanites and backsliding tribal members who come in for condemnation. The five cities of Philistia, prosperous from their positions near the seacoast and the trading roads, the traditional enemies of Moab and Amon to the east, and even the people of Cush and Nubia who must join the “Great Satan” of Assyria in falling under the sword of the Lord. Interestingly, the desirable seacoast will not be destroyed, but become the possession of Hebrew shepherds, no longer forced near the city for protection.
     In the end, says Zephaniah, everyone will once again adopt the “true speech” (perhaps a reference to Genesis 11?) and live without shame in the Lord's world.
     The protest and promise of Zephaniah resembles something that those of us of a certain age experienced hearing from the more radical 60s and 70s activists, from the Weather Underground to Baader-Meinhof: the promise of violent protest leading to a sort of socialist utopia. Che Guevara, of course, turned out to be an ineffectual egoist who died futilely in the backwoods of Bolivia, the Paris rioters went back to their studies and joined the French bourgeoisie, and Soviet tanks ended the Prague Spring.
     So, what is Zephaniah up to? Does he really think that Josiah's reforms will have a lasting effect on the Hebrew community, after several hundred years of failed efforts (that will soon, as we know, end up in the exile)? To reflect on Zephaniah, we should do exactly what an unceasing stream of ministers and preachers have proposed (often with no idea of how dangerous such urging could be): stop imagining that Zephaniah was schooled in a modern time, learning to write in modern genres, but consider him in terms of his own connection with God and his fellow Hebrews.
     Prophecy, to a modern, is about doing something that has value in a rational, scientistic world: prediction. We value scientific theories, for example, on whether or not they produce repeatable, predictive results. A theory, indeed any rationally developed series of actions or activities, should always produce the same results, products or answers. Take a pill, and those nasty symptoms disappear; follow a map, and arrive at Las Vegas; watch a movie, and the hero vanquishes the villain and wins the girl; petition God, and wait for the answer.
     To Zephaniah, prophecy was something like a mix of those editorials the Washington Post inflicts on me each day, and Walt Whitman scribbling the “trashy and profane” Leaves of Grass.5 Zephaniah saw around himself a world infused with meaning, and sought to capture that meaning using the tools available to him. To recapture something of his meaning is to suspend, for the moment, our expectations about text, to imagine the images and metaphors he lays out, to relax, absorb and meditate on the various meanings available to us. For Zephaniah—and the Bible—is all those, and more.

Notes
1I especially commend the digging up of Wyclif's bones so that he could be “burned” at the stake.
2I realize I'm skipping over the departure of the Alexandrian Coptic church, the splitting off of the Orthodox churches, the curious role of Armenia, etc., but I think my point is made.
3See Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2004), esp. Chs.4-7, and Friedman, Richard Eliot Who Wrote the Bible? (NY, Summit 1989), esp. Chs. 4-5.
4On the emergence of the Deuteronomic corpus—Deuteronomy through Kings—see Friedman, Ch. 5.

5John Peter Lesley-a contemporary-quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Whitman#Leaves_of_Grass.