Jeff and Janet Savage are two of the most beautiful, gracious, hospitable people I know. Last summer, one of the highlights of our sabbatical as a family was to spend time in their retreat space in the hills of Oregon. For two weeks, we rested and relaxed in the separate apartment attached to their home, drank coffee on the back porch, watched the doe and her fawns bound through the yard, slept in the playhouse, and ran down to the McKenzie River just down the slope. Jeff recently retired from congregational ministry in order to do spiritual direction full time, using this space. Our family has amazing memories of that time and that space together.
Today, it is all gone.
This week, the Holiday Farm Fire, specifically a localized section called the McKenzie Fire, destroyed the Savages’ home. The retreat space. The playhouse. All gone. Our family, and so many other family and friends, are heartbroken for them, as we grieve what they have lost and remember the beauty and serenity of that space.
I couldn’t help but think of them as I read today’s Scripture passage. I saw both connections and contrasts with Genesis 3. As I read of the Savage’s evacuation away from the fire, I couldn’t help but think of Adam and Eve, leaving the paradise of Eden, never to return. The passage became real to me in new ways, as I imagined the grief and the pain that that first couple must have felt. For all of those in the Pacific Northwest suffering a similar grief, I pray today.
What must have been going through the minds of Adam and Eve as they left that paradise? Grief? Anger? Guilt? Shattered pride? Our interpretation of this passage has been largely handed down to us from a certain set of theologians. These theologians, largely European, mostly male, beginning a few hundred years after the life of Christ, have actually placed great import on this passage, using it as a lens through which to view the rest of the Bible. They have created a theological story that suggests that Sin entered the world at this point in history…a Sin that then was physically and genetically transmitted to every single person throughout history. They actually went to great lengths to describe the anatomical detail required for this Sin to be transmitted to each generation through the act of sex. The short version of this theology was that Adam and Eve’s pride—their attempt to be like God—made God so angry at Adam and Eve and all humanity that he seethed in that anger for all generations, until Christ was able to quench that anger as a blood sacrifice. It is all rather hierarchical and mechanical and individual. At the heart of it all is this idea that pride—Adam’s pride and Eve’s pride, to be specific—is to blame.
That is one way to look at the story of Genesis 3. There is a lot of benefit to seeing the story in this way. But, we have to realize that it is a rather late theological conception. It was not the story that the early Hebrew teachers would have taught. So, it was not the story that Jesus would have learned. It is not even what the early church would have taught. But it was the story taught by these Western male theologians, from a place of power and privilege in the world and in the Church. And it has largely been the only story that has been used to explain what happened in Eden.
Miguel de la Torre suggests that it is a really helpful way to look at Genesis 3, for those who are like those theologians: also Western and male and have this position of power and privilege. It is absolutely valid to read the story as one of humility and lowering of pride. But for those who are already lowered, already humbled and humiliated, already on the margins, the story is about something else.
This is also the perspective of Howard Thurman. Thurman was a black man, born in the Jim Crow South of Florida in 1899. He was an author, a Baptist pastor, a social activist, and by many accounts, a mystic. He married social action and spirituality in significant ways, and his work had an influence on many during his long career. Thurman was a contemporary of Martin Luther King, Sr., and both were at Morehouse College at the same time. Thurman is often considered a spiritual mentor of the Civil Rights movement, and according to stories, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a copy of Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited with him as he traveled throughout his civil rights work. Thurman wrote Jesus and the Disinherited in 1949, and in it he often refers to those whose “backs are against the wall.” He speaks specifically of people of color, but also the poor, or others on the margins. He means to look at the world and at Jesus through their eyes, and ask what the Christian faith means to these children of God. He suggests that it is important to see the story through another set of eyes, specifically those whose backs are against the wall.
Thurman suggests that Genesis 3 is a story of innocence and knowledge. At the beginning of the story, Adam and Eve are naked and unashamed. They are innocent in their trust of God and each other and creation. But then the serpent, and the fruit, and all of a sudden, that innocence is lost. Thurman suggests that Adam and Eve got exactly what they asked for: knowledge. But the problem with knowledge is that it turns the world upside down. With knowledge comes restlessness and unanswered questions and struggle and self-judgment. While there is a lot to be valued about knowledge, it also brings a host of trouble with it: chaos and disruption and blame and distrust, which is exactly what we see in Genesis 3.
Walter Brueggemann sees the passage along these same lines. He goes back to Genesis 2 and what he names as a “second creation.” God creates, but then proclaims, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and so God creates again: Eve. And with her, God creates community, family, relationship, are all created. And for a split second, all is well! But then, Genesis 3 sees the unraveling of that community. The distortion of relationship…between God and humanity, humanity with itself, and between humanity and the rest of creation. It is a story of broken trust and unraveled community. Innocence lost. Chaos replacing it.
So there is innocence…and there is knowledge…and then what? If not simply this Western theology of pride and humility, what is the good news in this hard story? Perhaps there is a lot of good news. As I read and listened to a lot of voices, it became clear that there were more ways to look at the story than this one posited by Western theologians.
I was blessed once again by the thoughtfulness of the Two-Way. They saw in the story something more than simply Original Sin. What they saw was a story of Original Forgiveness. Original Salvation. Original Blessing. This is a story of innocence lost. But then, there is a return to innocence. Now, it is not the same innocence as before; Thurman suggests the same thing: there is a mixture of innocence and knowledge together. A new relationship. A new forgiveness. A new blessing. A new trust. To trust God AFTER the storm, after the chaos. There is innocence, and then knowledge, and then there is blessing. They saw the story as one of God’s grace, to restore Adam and Eve. Brueggemann says it this way: “The Gardener will always take care of his garden.”
Another voice. I was also blessed this week to experience the vision and story of Sharon Koh. Many of you will know that Koh is the executive minister of International Ministries, head of the organization that sends all of our [American Baptist] missionaries around the world. Koh is of Chinese descent, and the other night, she shared this beautiful interpretation of Genesis. I was on a call with her and several other persons of color on a panel discussing race and racism. The panelists shared painful stories of how they have been treated due to the color of their skin. How often they are pulled over. Their fear for their children. Most of the panelists were pastors in our region, but Koh provided another perspective, and a beautiful view of Genesis 3. She reminded us that humans were created in God’s image, and invited us to imagine God looking in a mirror. But then, that mirror was broken into millions of pieces. And yet, each of us are a piece…you are a piece and you are a piece and you are a piece. And when these pieces come together, we see again the image of God. A beautiful picture of community, of diversity. There is innocence, and then there is the complexity and chaos of knowledge. But then there is a re-integration into holy community. Genesis chapters 2–3 are about the creation of community, the disruption of that community, and the holy reintegration of that community, once again.
Some see this as a story of pride and humility. Others see it as a restoration of relationship. Others might call it community. They would all be right. But Howard Thurman uses a different word: Love. The final chapter in his book Jesus and the Disinherited is simply titled Love. It comes after chapters titled Fear, Deception, and Hate. In the end…Love. In this last chapter, Thurman speaks of the 1948 flood of Vanport, Oregon. Oregon has a deep history of racism, not even allowing blacks to move to the state until 1926. But in need of workers, the state saw an influx of black women and men in the 1940s. But those racial lines were still hard and fast. In Portland, whites made it clear that blacks could only live in certain parts of town. Vanport was built quickly as a way to house families. But during a wet spring of 1948, a hole burst in the railroad dike that blocked the Columbia River and flooded many of those homes, largely those of African-Americans. Within a day, 18,500 families were displaced. What would happen when whites with a history of racism saw this immense need? According to Thurman, a picture of relationship and community and love:
During the great Vanport, Oregon, disaster, when rising waters left thousands homeless, many people of Portland who, prior to that time were sure of their ‘white supremacy,’ opened their homes to Negroes, Mexicans, and Japanese. The result was that they were all confronted with the experience of universality. They were no longer white, black, and brown. They were men, women, and children in the presence of the operation of impersonal Nature. Under the pressure they were the human family, and each stood in immediate candidacy for the profoundest fellowship, understanding and love.
Restored community. Clear wisdom. Humble hearts. Love.
Not unlike what the Savages have seen this week. They were evacuated early in the week, but by the end, the community raised its arms in love. Friends let them stay in a borrowed RV. People reached out to them with words of encouragement. And even in their exile, they felt the loving, caring hands of God. Jeff posted a video a couple of days ago. After the news of their home lost in the fires, he could have struck out in anger and frustration. But his story was one of love. He told of the community that had come together to support each other. He told of the hope after the storm. He did not despair the ending of his spiritual direction ministry, but simply began to ask aloud, “after the storm, what next?” In the midst of such pain, he told us he was holding grief in one hand, and gratitude in the other.
Janet and Jeff are still two of the most beautiful, gracious, hospitable people I know. I hurt for them, and I am in awe of them. For even in the midst of this tremendous pain and grief, theirs is a story of grace. Of forgiveness. Of community. Of love. Today, may we learn to tell that story anew. Amen.