Wednesday, July 20, 2016

life in the desert

The Taklamakan Desert may be the most hostile place on the planet to live.

By day the sun hangs overhead like a hot coal that burns the eyes and the skin, and scorches the earth below the traveler's feet. There is no water to be found, and sand dunes stretch in every direction. At the end of the desert lies another desert. The Taklamakan's name may come from the Turkish phrase “The place of ruins.” When he set a story there in 1992, Neil Gaiman offered a more picturesque name: If-You-Go-In-You-Won't-Come-Out-Again.

The worst part of the Taklamakan is its winds. During the summer temperatures pass 100 degrees, and during the winter, they can drop below zero. During the spring, as the ground begins to warm, the air begins to move and gale winds arise with the force of a hurricane. Sand and dust blow and fill the air, creating a fog of dirt that reaches heights of 13,000 feet.

In these conditions, the sky can get so dark that visibility is imaginary. Your only hope of survival is to stay together, and your only hope of staying together is to affix bells to the camels and to one another so that you can hear how close you are to one another. The sand dunes constantly rearrange themselves, so your only hope of staying on your path is to set up a sign each night before you go to sleep so you can be sure to continue in the same direction when you waken in the morning.

Try to imagine living in those conditions. Try to imagine crossing a desert like that. The Taklamakan is a no man's land. It is a nowhere that lies between two places, an empty space that no one claims for their own. If you go in, you won't come out again.

Deserts come in all degrees and varieties. Far to the north are deserts where rain never falls and plants struggle to grow, but the ground is cold and frozen year-round. There are deserts where rains come often enough for cacti to grow and to bloom, and even for trees and animals to grow that have adapted to the climate.

Other deserts used to be green and fair, until men came and felled the trees and overgrazed their flocks until there was nothing left but wasteland. These deserts may be among the worst. Their desolation bears silent witness to the violence we have done to the land and to ourselves because we refuse to see what we are doing.

And then there are the deserts we make of our own societies, spiritual wastelands where we strip away justice and allow those with power to wield it with only a pretense of accountability. Executives loot the pensions of their workers and never face jail time or admit their wrongdoing. Government officials cut support for the needy and refuse to require a living wage. Power exists to serve the powerful and not the powerless.

In this desert, the victims of police violence are legion. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The list of names is too long. It goes back too far to remember, and it joins the names of others martyred to white fears of a black country. James Byrd. Emmett Till. Greenwood, Okla.

Justice denied fuels anger, and as violence begets violence the body count begins to rise, and the voice of God rises in reprimand. “What have you done?” he asks, as he has since the first story was told. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”

In the desert we rally to support a man who ridicules the disabled while he belittles and savages women. We rush to elect a man who lies outrageously, encourages violence, and incites hatred of Muslims and Jews, Mexicans and blacks.

In this desert, our nation's most avowedly religious Christians support this man, while we make a tremendous point of displaying our piety around the flagpole and at the National Mall, and everywhere we go. We shout our faith to the heavens, but heaven is a place that demands justice first and foremost.

From the book of Amos:

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
    I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Justice. That word sounds threatening, but it doesn't need to. What is it that makes the Taklamakan so dangerous? It's not the wind, or the sand, or the soft geography. It's not even the sun. It's the lack of water.

The Taklamakan lives in the shadow of the Himalayas, mountains so tall that they block rain clouds from ever reaching the Taklamakan or the rest of the Gobi Desert region. About an inch-and-a-half of precipitation gathers in the West, and less than half an inch in the East. Even cacti find the Taklamakan too extreme. Most of the area is barren.

Most, but not all. Even that inhospitable desert comes to life where the water rolls down. Around the edges of the desert region are river valleys and deltas, and places where the groundwater comes close enough to the surface to ease the oppression of the desert sun. Herds of gazelles run free through these open spaces, and wild boars live among the river valleys, where even wolves and foxes hunt.

Justice is not a force of destruction. It is an agent of renewal. Where the river flows through the desert, trees put down roots. They grow fruit when it's the season, and even in the summer heat their leaves do not wither. The trees that line the river provide shade for the weary, the grass along the river is easy on the feet, and there is food to eat.

In the desert, an oasis like this is a place to rest, to recover, to heal and to stay a while, perhaps even to put down roots of our own. The justice of God is a shelter in our society, a place where black lives matter as much as white lives, where everyone is welcome to be themselves, and where no one is viewed with suspicion because of race or color.

Here in our desert, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Perhaps we don't know the burdens people of color face in our society because too often we still haven't taken the time to let them share, nor believed them when they've told us.

Hate evil, and love good; establish justice in the gate.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Let it begin with me.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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