Justice Suncay: Writing the Eden Story in Reverse
by Jeremy Nickel, UUSC
Long ago, in a time lost to all knowing, lived the first two people, our ancestors. These two people were not necessarily our ancestors in terms of the physical evolution of our bodies; they are the ancestors of the stories that some people tell each other as they try to understand who and what we are. Many cultures have stories like this, and one is about a woman named Eve and a man named Adam. This particular first couple lived in a place called Eden. The most important thing to know about Eden was… that it was, in every way possible, as different from where you live now… as a place could be.
Eden had no shopping malls, no stops signs, and no fast-food joints. The ever-present sounds of other people didn’t exist there either. Eden was populated by lush tropical plants and animals of all kinds; wide-trunked trees and dark green plants full of ripe, delicious fruit, and the cleanest and purest water. Eve and Adam had no concept of good or evil, because all was good. Eve and Adam innocently passed their days warmed by the sun, sleeping safely at night, free from worry and full of the joy.
One of the reasons that we tell the Eden story is to explain to ourselves why we are no longer carefree and innocent, why we no longer live in such perfect and loving relation with each other and the earth, why we hurt each other, and compete for the resources we need to live. Because one of the messages of this story is that when Eve and Adam left the perfect goodness of Eden behind, left their lush garden, life became too complicated, and evil entered the world. It became so complicated that one could no longer enjoy right relations with the rest of creation. This too is part of the Eden myth: that every step away from that golden age is a step towards ever more complicated and bad relations.
If only we could return to Eden, this myth says to us, then everyone would be happy and at peace once again. For in Eden, everything is easy and everyone is good. Our time is certainly not like that. But does that mean that we are doomed? What if the Eden myth were not true? What if instead of seeing this world as the inevitable result of an unstoppable move away from simple goodness, we instead began writing a new story about who we are and where we are going? What if we wrote the Eden story in reverse? If we did, our new story might start… with a fruit seller… in Kenya… named Francis.
Unlike Adam, Francis was born into a family. Francis had not only a mother and a father, but sisters and brothers in his home as well. And also unlike Adam, Francis had to work to feed not only himself, but all the members of his family. Francis did not have a lot of choice in his occupation, but he had access to some of the same delicious fruit that grew in Eden, and he had a loud, clear voice. So Francis spent his days in the orchard and his evenings pushing his modest wooden wheelbarrow from market to market, calling – or hawking, as it is also known – that he had the most wonderful mangoes, the freshest pineapples, the sweetest oranges and the ripest bananas. Francis is an informal worker, like Mariz in our story for all ages.
It was hard work, but it was honest work, and Francis could arrive home proudly each night with enough money to help support his family… his wheelbarrow ready for another day of selling. It all sounds so simple, but this is not Eden. And so it is anything but easy for Francis. In Kenya, times are tough. You see, the government has been unstable. In January of 2008, after an election that ended with both sides feeling wronged and plenty of violence, the economy was deeply wounded, and those informal workers felt the strain the hardest. Literally overnight, there was more competition for the fruit that Francis harvested to sell in the markets. As a result, he was able to get less fruit to market.
And the sellers with stalls in the market, who were also feeling the strain, had begun to look at him and the other cart sellers with anger and even to turn a blind eye to the bullying that Francis received from the local police, that seemed to come more and more every day. Recently, the bullying and mistreatment had reached a new level: the police took his wheelbarrow away from him one day, with no reason ever given. When a person is an informal worker and not earning a lot of money, it is very difficult to save up for an emergency. Luckily, Francis and his family had some savings and Francis was able to buy a new wheelbarrow. But this meant the savings were very low and his work was even more necessary to the family. The next day, Francis was pulling his new wheelbarrow into town, when he stopped for just an instant to catch his breath. Such a moment was all it took to give some crooked police an excuse to take advantage. Francis was arrested and thrown in a local jail, charged with blocking traffic and all kinds of other false charges, such as resisting arrest and selling his goods without a license.
When Francis was brought in front of a judge, he was not allowed to defend himself, not allowed to speak… and the judge gave a very strict punisment. We don’t know why this judge treated his fellow man like this. Perhaps the judge assumed that Francis was on the other side of the recent political dispute, or was drawn into the distrust among ethnic groups, which was sparked by those political clashes. I bet that if we asked the judge he might tell us that he was just doing his job. He might tell us that the punishment of a big fine is what the system demands.
But this is not justice or fairness, no, this is Eden in reverse. This is not the carefree human relations of our first ancestors, but rather a complicated network of people carrying on the worst of who we are and what we can be. This injustice or unfairness done to Francis was done to him by the hands of one judge and a few crooked police officers, and yet, it is also the result of an entire system of injustice. And when it appeared that this system would swallow Francis whole and finally and completely destroy everything he had been working so hard for, someone came to the rescue.
Over the past several years informal vendors like Francis had been organizing amongst themselves. Slowly they had been able to meet and build alliances – which is kind of like a special friendship for a purpose – with other traders, hawkers, and vendors and even to get trained by a national alliance of street vendors called KENASVIT. And it was exactly this training that Francis’s fellow vendors used to get him released, get his fine cut in half, and, most importantly, get his wheelbarrow and fruit returned. His life had been badly interrupted, but thanks to the quick thinking and action of his fellow vendors in the alliance, this would not be the catastrophe that it had first appeared to be. From the brink of destruction Francis was led back to wholeness by regular people who had learned how to take a complicated and broken moment … and calm it down and heal it.
Liberal Religion rejects the idea that evil comes from a supernatural being, or even that a person can be defined as being evil. But this does not mean that we reject the concept of the existence of evil. Quite the opposite; we see evil in the structures and systems that prevent people from actualizing their best selves, that keep people from getting the rewards of their hard work, that communicate to people that they are of less value and insult their dignity, that keep us out of right relation with all of creation. Thus, our call as a Liberal Religious community is to work to change and even dismantle these structures, to help people free themselves from these systems that keep them from meeting their highest goals and knowing their best selves.
And it is organizations like KENASVIT, which trained the vendors that came to Francis’s aid in his moment of need, that are doing the hard work of changing or dismantling these structures and systems. And it is with pride that I tell you that KENASVIT, which stands for the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders, is strongly supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. UUSC doesn’t work like so many international development organizations and other human rights groups. Rather than taking western ideas and solutions and forcing them upon people deemed in need, UUSC forms partnerships with local groups like KENASVIT in order to empower people to free themselves the oppressive systems.
Currently KENASVIT is organizing the vendors so that they can speak with a united voice as they do this difficult work. One way they are tackling the issue of harassment at the local level is a national bill – a proposed law – called the MSME bill, or Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise Bill, which would help build support at higher levels of government to protect the vendors from the harm done to them at the local city, town, and village level, where the system shows more abuse. KENASVIT has also created a revolving loan fund, which supplies money at extremely low interest rates, unlike the for-profit micro-finance institutions, which have gained popularity, but charge much higher interest rates. The revolving loan fund will pay to train the vendors so they will be better able to run their businesses and more likely to pay back the loans, which in turn get re-distributed to other members of KENASVIT in need. And KENASVIT is just one example of the amazing partners that UUSC is working with across the globe and here in the United States … to walk the walk of our Liberal Religious talk.
I urge you to learn more about the Service Committee and the amazing work they are doing. I have no doubt that as you become educated you will feel moved to support UUSC. There are many ways to get involved. A financial contribution, whether through membership or as a gift, is always appreciated, but UUSC is also always looking for excellent volunteers to help keep connected to the local congregations. And UUSC is not part of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations – it is a separate organization, so it is possible to be a member of UUSC without being a member of a UU congregation.
Not every story has a happy ending like Francis’s, but if we don’t give in to the belief that the world is simply too complicated, and if we don’t give in to the belief that the systems and structures that keep people in from being free are simply too strong to be overcome by the hard work of good people … then we can write whatever ending we want.
More About the Path Back to Eden
by Dana Ashrawi
It is a complicated world. The changes to the two tier wage system, rising insurance premiums, defaulted pension funds, bailouts for banks and tax breaks for corporations while people lose their homes and their health, the rising cost of higher education, all paint a sad outlook for our young people as well as their parents. It is indeed a complicated world full of evil structures and situations, but we can learn more about how to make a difference.
We can study economic justice issues on our own or in groups. We can read The Big Squeeze, a book about the worsening situation of the American working people and suggestions for reforms. We can study the book Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, and read the author’s suggestions for supporting alternative think tanks and changing unfair systems, such as mandating Head Start for all families under a certain income level, as research shows that early education is a predictor of future success in school and likelihood of staying out of jail and of the quality of jobs obtained in adulthood. We can consider gathering the UU congregations in the Houston area together and officially supporting legislation that brings greater fairness to people in our area. And we can pray. We can meditate. We can try to be the change we seek. We can have faith in the power of love to overcome the love of power. We can be committed to seeking an existence closer to Paradise while we are here on this earth, whether or not we are expecting a heavenly Paradise at the end of our days.
The UUSC and many groups here in the U.S. – in Texas – in West Houston – are busy writing the Eden story in reverse, walking a walk back to fairness and right relations. Texas Impact, the interfaith social justice group, works on legislators in Austin for laws that help people to have more freedom and opportunity. People in our church make sandwiches for the homeless and are trying to build alliances with similar groups to change the situation of the homeless. Our individual members are involved in many efforts to make a difference. We have members who vote, who attend their precinct conventions, who serve as precinct election officials, and who contact their representatives to influence how laws are written and debated. Unitarians, Universalists, and today’s UUs have been active in many movements for positive change. The freedom of slaves, women’s right to vote, the end of child factory work, the eight hour day, minimum wage, school sports for girls…all this was brought to you by those who have gone before us, labor unions and other groups that banded together to change the structures and the system and bring about laws for the good…sometimes against all odds, and sometimes after many failed attempts to make the change happen.
Right here in our congregation, the shared ministry that we try to perform for one another and the surrounding community is a big part of that return to Eden. Without that mutual support based on love and service, what is the point of being together, and what is the point of being together as a faith community if we are not together for others as well as ourselves? We are more than a social club. We have the nominating committee to be tasked with the mission of finding volunteers to become trained advisors for our youth, a very important part of writing the Eden story in reverse – the future needs people growing up with leadership experiences and knowledge of how to build community, things that the Young Religious UU program excels at. We are striving to learn what it means to be in covenant with one another, to stay in covenant, to work toward getting back in covenant when we stray, to cherish the inherent worth of all of us, as our principles state. Striving for the UU principles is a lens through which we can envision Paradise on earth and work to make it so.
The complications have been heating up. We could say that there have been several attempts to write the Eden story in reverse through recent history, the worker rights and civil rights movements, for example. Martin Luther King Junior was one religious figure who advocated for fairness and the necessary laws to make it so, and called upon people of religion to feel their spiritual imperative to enact kindness for all people. Many gains were obtained over the last half of the 20th century, but at the latter part may reversals occurred. And now, Glenn Beck and other conservative religious media figures are mounting an attack on the concept of social justice as a church program. That is an even more compelling reason to be even more involved in social justice as a religion and as a member of any house of worship.
Our ancestors left Eden, but that doesn’t mean that we can not find our way back. And the current economic and political conditions, the polarization that exists, could spell out that there is a moral imperative to write the Eden story in reverse. Let’s renew and deepen our commitment to set a course for Paradise, here and now.
May it be so.