Children of Men: We Are Cut Off

Part 3 of the series “A Dystopian Lent
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18; Luke 13:31–35

Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18 • After these events, the LORD’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”

But Abram said, “LORD God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.”He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”

The LORD’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” Abram trusted the LORD, and the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character.

He said to Abram, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”

But Abram said, “LORD God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.

After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. That day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates,

Luke 13:31–35 • At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”

 

I. BEGINNING

No one ever worries about the past. Oh, they might worry about things they have done in the past being found out about in the future, but they don’t worry about the past, per se. No one frets over whether the Continental Army will win the battle of Saratoga. No one has anxiety wondering whether the price of bread will increase ten years ago. No college student worries about how they did on their SATs.

We might regret the past. We might be troubled by the things that did happen. But we don’t worry about the past. We worry about the future. Even when we think we’re worrying about the present, we’re often really worrying about the future. If you’re in a troubled relationship, you worry not about what is happening, but what you fear will imminently happen. When you’re unsure as to whether your boss intends to fire you or not, you’re not worried about what your boss is thinking now, you’re worried about what she’ll do with whatever she’s thinking now. Curiosly, when the crisis actually arrives, we’re often calmer in facing the crisis than we are in the dread and anxiety leading up to the crisis. What happens may be heartbreaking, it may be disappointing and hurtful, but we are rarely anxious about it.

It is the future that is uncertain and the future that we worry about the most. That’s why Jesus’ injunction not to worry about tomorrow is so hard: well, what else am I supposed to worry about if not the future?

We don’t know what lies around the corner. We can’t see into the future to know whether we’ll land that job, get admitted into that grad school, find the person of our dreams, have a successful career, have healthy children, or anything else. And we want to know those things. And the distance between what what to know and what we can know creates anxiety.

What tends to ease our anxiety is our ability to make plans for the future. We talk all the time about living into the future; living now how we hope to see the world in the future. Living into justice, living into peacemaking, living into hope. Doing these things is a powerful way of claiming a stake in the future. And it can be empowering.

Indeed, making preparations and coming up with plans and checklists and strategies can be a wonderful coping mechanism for those of us who suffer from anxiety. It gives us a measure of control, a measure of feeling that the future is not entirely outside our grasp. Indeed, it’s part of a balanced approach to not knowing. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus advised that we understand that the future is not ours, but also “not entirely not ours.” That is, we are not in control of what will happen totally, but we are not without our ability to shape what will happen. Happiness, for Epicurus, lay in accepting this ambiguous tension and proceeding calmly and prudently ahead.

II. CUT OFF

But what if your ability to plan for the future altogether was removed? What if you could make no plans for the future, because there was no hope that you would even have a future? What would such a world be like?

The world of the novel and film Children of Men is such a world. Set in the year 2027, it has been over 18 years since anyone on the planet has been able to conceive a child. As the film opens, the world is greeted with the news that “Baby Diego” the youngest person on earth, has died after being stabbed in an altercation with an admirer. The news is devastating to the world’s population, who is watching their future as a species wither away.

Without a future, the world itself has been plunged into chaos. The United States seems to have collapsed. A nuclear device was detonated in New York. Europe is in chaos. “Only Britain Soldiers On,” we are told. The British Isles are deluged with refugees seeking somewhere to live that has any kind of social order, even if it is a near police state.

Most have become deadened and despondent. Even the protagonist of the story, Theo (played in the movie by Clive Owen), is so deadened to the world that he drinks frequently, and survives a bomb attack on the coffee shop he was in with almost disinterested worldweariness. He has a cousin who is responsible for storing the world’s treasures in a great storehouse, a cultural ark, a task that Theo sees as futile since in a hundred years there will be no one to see these treasures.

It is only when he is invited to help ferry a young woman out of the country by his ex that he even shows anything like involvement in the world. When he discovers that the woman he is supposed to help out of the country is an undocumented refugee and pregnant, his world begins to change. For the child that this woman is carrying will be sought after by all kinds of groups—the government, the anti-government resistance, various criminal interests—and Theo now has a mission to help her out of the country, to meet up with a group called “the Human Project” who are supposedly working on a cure, trying to save the human race, though no one is sure they really exist.

It is a powerful tale, full of religious imagery and symbolism, and the film, at least, full of some spectacular set-pieces and cinematography. But the world it envisions is terrifying only because it is too easy to see ourselves in it. It is a word with all of the struggles we face—economic displacement, failed states, refugees, terrorism, police states, corrupt governments, militant activists— all against a backdrop of utter hopelessness for us as a species. The despair is real: we are cut off and there is no hope.

III.  THE TEXT

It is a theme frequently explored in the scriptures. Most prominently in the story of Abraham. When Abraham sets out from Haran for the promised land, he is 75 years old; his wife Sarah, 70. They have a large household, but no children. And yet they set out from Haran for the Promised Land because God has promised Abraham that he will show him a land, and there he will make of him a great nation and he shall be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.

It’s not as obvious to us today because we confuse the word nation with the concept of the nation-state, but implicit in the concept of a nation is a sense of relatedness, and concepts of birth. The word nation is related to nativenatalnativity—all words that relate to birth. The Hebrew term goy is probably built on a root that means something like “massing.” Both suggest that it will be an extremely difficult thing for Abraham to become a nation without children. And given Abraham and Sarah’s advanced years, that’s going to be a problem.

It’s what leads Abraham later to try to come up with some kind of solution to the problem of his legacy and future. Since he has not had a child, he will name the head of his household as his heir:

But Abram said, “LORD God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.”He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”

Let’s be honest; this is an entirely reasonable thing to do. God has promised him children, but Abraham is not unreasonable in considering his old age and that of his wife, and trying to make some reasonable provision for the future. After all, unless something happens soon, his line will end. The house of Abraham will fall. He will be cut off.

Let’s not underestimate the drive to propogate ourselves through our children. We are shaped by millions of years of evolution in which our genes seek to perpetuate themselves, something that can only happen if we reproduce. Our sex drive, attraction to potential partners, the rush of hormones and pheromones, and that raw animal magnetism, are all manifestation of the mechanisms of our genes’ programming to self-perpetuate. Thus, having children is not just a nice thing, it’s not just an accessory to a couple’s lifestyle, it is a way of perpetuating one’s own existence. In many ways, the only lasting one. Nothing we do will last forever: we can build all the buildings we want to and put our names on them, but they will eventually crumble and fall. But we continue to live on in our children, and in our children’s children, and in our children’s children’s children, and so on. That drive for immortality is not an insignificant thing. It may not be consciously perceived, but it is there lurking under the aeons of our humanity.

And so, Abraham’s concern about a legacy is not an abstract one: without descendents, adopted or otherwise, he will not have a future. He will be cut off.

This creates anxiety for him. And not even God’s promise resolves his anxiety about the future:

The LORD’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” Abram trusted the LORD, and the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character.

He said to Abram, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”

God declares that Abraham will indeed father a child, of his own flesh, and promises that their number will be like the stars of the heavens. And even uses a divine, royal formula to stamp the promise—I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession—as a way of God swearing on God’s own name. And still Abraham is unsure:

But Abram said, “LORD God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”

“How do I know that I will actually possess it?”

IV. THE FUTURE

The reality is that he can’t. Lacking the ability to see into the future, we cannot know anything about the future. All we can do is have faith and trust. Even God’s elaborate covenant ceremony that he engages in after this cannot make him know; he still has to trust.

The reason that stories like Children of Men are so haunting to us is that once we accept the conceit of the story—people can no longer conceive children—then we readily accept what happens to the world as a result. It is easy for us to believe that the political systems would collapse, that people would begin to act for their own short-term advantage, and that people would quickly become nihilist and lose hope.

Because it’s hard to see our hope. Even for Abraham with God performing miracles and signs right in front of him. Three chapters later, Sarah laughs when she hears God say that she’ll have a son. Was Abraham not able to convince her after his convenant ceremony with God, or did he, too, retain doubts? Our hope can feel as distant and as legendary as the Human Project in Children of Men—a group somewhere on an island somewhere in the Atlantic somehow working to save the human race? Sure. That’ll happen. Almost as likely as a couple of nonagenerians having a baby.

V. END

Stories like Children of Men speak to our deep anxieties about the future and our fear that we may have no place in the future.  It doesn’t take much to see that fear at loose upon our world today.

The world is undergoing great change. Technological advances, economic reorganization, globalization, immigration, cultural contact on a scale unprecedented in human history, demographic shifts. All of these things create anxiety because people wonder what place they will have in the future.

People see multinational corporations shift their manufacturing bases to countries with lower wages and they become anxious about finding high paying jobs at home. People look at their neighborhoods and see differently colored faces and hear different voices and languages and worry that they no longer have a place in the place they always called home. People see technology connecting people in extraordinary ways, but also providing the conduit for dangerous and violent extremism, and worry that they do not understand this brave new world that is taking shape around them. People whose families farmed the land for generations see their farms failing in the face of giant agricultural businesses and rising property taxes and worry about how they’re going to make it in the future. People who were comfortable in associating their culture with their religion now find other religions claiming an equal place at the table, diminishing the cultural privilege once held, and that can feel like a loss to those who once had an unquestioned place. There are so many people out there angry and hurting, feeling lost, feeling bereft of hope. Feeling cut off.

There are two ways to respond to this feeling. One is to clamor for security and control, to circle the wagons, to fight to bring things back to the way they used to be—a fight that in human history has never been successful, to focus blame on others, on outsiders, to exploit rage for cynical political gain.

The other is to work to give people hope. To help them to see a world in which they have a share in the future, even if the world is different from the one they knew. To help people to see the possibilities of a life of faith, of real faith, not of belief or creed, but of trusting in God’s promises, and following that promise even when it leads us to a land we have not yet seen and a land in which we will be aliens and strangers. And most of all, to help people to see the possibilities for hope in the midst of hopelessness. The possibility of a child born to the barren—whether to a ninety-five year old woman, or to a refugee in the midst of a world-wide fertility crisis. With God, we are never cut off from the future if we are willing to proceed in faith.

This is not an easy task. It wasn’t for Theo; it wasn’t for Abraham. There are many obstacles in the way, and people are certain to laugh at us, like Sarah, for even daring to hope. But it is in living into hope, in the midst of a broken world, that allows faith to be born inside of us, unexpected and seemingly impossible though that may seem. And in so doing, we help to see a new world born into our midst.