Archaeology of Hope

Diocese of Easton Convention
February 26, 2011

The “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition opens today in the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. It was scheduled to show mummies and grave goods from interments in western China. At the last minute the Chinese government withdrew permission to show any of the items in the exhibit, and then relented just a bit to permit the display of photographs and a recreation of the excavation[1].

The reasons for the controversy have not been made public, but they appear to have something to do with the identity of the mummies. Most of the ones that have been excavated were buried two to four millennia ago, and have Caucasoid features and light-colored hair. Official Chinese history says that this region has been the home of the Han Chinese forever. The discrepancy gives hope to the Uighur peoples, historical residents of the area, who are beginning to agitate for self-determination. Some of the grave goods even have similarities to Celtic textiles – clearly, travelers from all over the known world took this road into the heart of China.

Archaeology has all sorts of outcomes.

Something similar is going on in Nehemiah. In the part we heard, he tells about being appointed as governor of Judea, and returning to Jerusalem. After he takes a tour of the city, he decides to rebuild its wall. That wall eventually becomes a symbol and a means of separating the religiously observant Jewish population from foreign and presumably polluting influences. The Jewish population has returned from exile in Babylon, with some memory of better times. Part of what helped them survive their exile was the hope that they would return and once again worship in their former way in the temple.

This convention is focused on the art of digging into memory, and how that kind of archaeological work can bring new energy, life, hope, and even experience of resurrection. There is abundant opportunity here to go sifting through the layers of accumulated life and experience, searching for fragments that will bring that old history to mind. What we discover has something to do with how we search – whether we admit only our own well-remembered experience, whether we’re willing to deeply listen to our neighbors’ yearnings, and maybe even discover the deeper dreams of an entire people.

Sometimes the memory is only present in the community’s history – for the remembered hope is a thing long past. A Native American man in Oregon, who has been working to return the buffalo hunt to his people, knew that his great-grandfather was among the last of the Cayuse tribe to hunt buffalo, in the late 1800s. Some of the tribes around what is now Yellowstone Park have treaty rights that permit hunting on former native homelands that are now national forest. Jim Marsh recognized that restoring this ability to his people would heal a lot of old wounds. He got himself elected to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, and worked for several years to get those hunting rights expanded and restored to the tribes of Eastern Oregon. The participation of Cayuse and Nez Perce in a recent hunt brought home at least two buffalo to be shared among their people, and the beginning of some spiritual and cultural healing[2]. It was that dream, buried in the history of a people, which ultimately made such healing possible.

Sometimes the historical deposit is rooted in an ancient dream that hasn’t yet been experienced – like the ancient prophetic dream of shalom – a healed world where nobody goes hungry or dies too young or lives in fear. That dream is behind the prayer we pray so often, “your kingdom come, O lord, on earth as in heaven.”

I hear stories about those dreams all the time. Those dreams are what motivate people to change the world around them into something that gets closer to that dream of healed relationships with God, other human beings, and the rest of creation. When Liberians talk about the civil wars there that killed so many people they will tell you in general terms about the suffering and the murder and destruction, but more often they tell the story of how the peace finally came about. Even when peace talks got started, they never seemed to get anywhere. The warlords refused to make any concessions in the cause of peace – and over and over again, the talks failed. Finally, a large group of market women went to the site of the next round of peace talks, walked in and said, “we’re tired of this. We can’t make a living, we can’t feed our children, and we’re staying here until you figure this out – and you’re not leaving.” They surrounded the building, they sat down in the hallways and outside the meeting rooms, and slowly the fighters began to open up.

Just telling the stories brings healing, even in the face of appallingly violent acts. That’s the genius behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Desmond Tutu started in South Africa. When human beings come face to face and let that story come to light, the power of its evil begins to fail. Forgiveness becomes possible, even if it will be years and years in the accomplishing.

We are a people of story. The most essential skill of discipleship may be the ability to connect our own stories with the big story of how God continues to walk alongside us – from the garden of Eden to the garden of Gethsemane to the hoped for garden of peace. There is something creative in putting thoughts into speech that reflects God’s own creativity – in the beginning, God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light. The entire first story of creation is about God speaking, God telling the story of how things are to be. In that understanding, all that is comes out of God’s memory, God’s dream. When we tell our own stories, we are co-creating, we are sharing in God’s creative work, speaking that dream into reality.

Yet we’re also sharing God’s image with the person who listens. The listener also participates in the archaeological work. A long time ago, Nelle Morton gave us an image of friendship or companionship as “hearing another into speech.”[3] The ability to provide that kind of listening space is also a creative act. Is that not what God does for us in prayer? The listener helps create a sacred space in which another’s dream or memory is created anew.

Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem can be understood in a variety of ways. The reconstruction brought a sense of safety to a people who had been wretchedly vulnerable. It also walled them off, to some extent, from those in the larger world around them. That wall also brought pride to its builders and artisans – whether too much or just enough pride, we can’t be entirely certain. The walls we’re going to build today need to be like the ones in an archaeological excavation, flimsy and replaceable markers that keep the field of investigation safe, so that its treasures can be gently released from their matrix, so they won’t be stepped on and destroyed by wandering feet. Our boundary markers of attentive and respectful listening help to shape a creative space.

As we invite each other into speech in this space, let’s build spaces of safety. And once the excavated story surfaces, surprising as it may be, let’s find ways to let it enlighten others. That story is a creative act, meant to offer the spirit room to work in the world. That’s the opportunity we have today – to discover the creative spirit of God at work. Those holy stories need to become living exhibits that tell the truth of God’s loving and creative presence to the world.

May we become living museums of the creative art of hope.

[1]New York Times, Randy Kennedy, “China Asks Penn to Remove All Artifacts From ‘Silk Road’ Exhibition.’ 22 Feb 2011, Arts Beat.
[2]AP, Shannon Dihinny, “Oregon tribes pursue first bison hunt in century. 24 Feb 2011.
[3]The Journey is Home. 1985: Beacon.