November 13, 2016
Proper 28, Year C
The Wolf and the Lamb
There’s an Episcopal priest named Eric Law who has something to say about the wolf and the lamb in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah: He says, “In order for the animals to co-exist . . . very ‘unnatural’ behaviors are required from all who are involved. How can a wolf, a leopard, or a lion not attack a lamb . . . for food? . . . How can a lamb . . . not run when it sees a lion or a leopard coming close? How can a lion eat straw like an ox when a lion is known to be a meat eater? It goes against an animal’s ‘instinct’ to be in this vision of the Peaceable Realm.
“Perhaps that is required of human beings if we are to live together peacefully.” (The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, pp. 3-4)
Law himself is Asian-American, and he uses this image of animals modifying their deeply ingrained instincts in order to help support multicultural churches. I took Law’s work to heart over several years as I prepared groups of 5-8 young adults to live together for one year. Using Law’s image, I created an exercise to help participants reflect on their personal and cultural instincts.
It all started with a trip to the zoo, which at first would seem like a fun community-building activity. The young adults would watch the giraffes eating from a tall tree, the polar bears plunging into deep water, the meerkats popping in and out of holes in the ground, the tigers pacing.
But a few hours later, we’d reflect on what made the animals at the zoo keep their peace. It was obvious: all of the animals had their own cages. Thanks to reforms in zoo-keeping, many animal “cages” are no longer unenriched environments with bars. But the animals are all still separated from each other by enclosures—especially the predators and the prey.
Cages are certainly one way to keep the peace. But there are other ways too—like reshaping our deepest instincts, or learning to share power more equally. To return to the words of Eric Law: "A lion needs to know that its predatory instinct can hurt the calf and therefore must temper it. A lion might even become a vegetarian for a while in order to live in the Peaceable Realm. A lamb needs to know that when it sees a wolf, its instinct is to run. It needs to learn to be strong and stand firm to face the wolf as an equal in the Peaceable Realm." (The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, pp. 9-10.)
I thought that by making these young adults aware of each other’s instincts, they could live together in greater peace, like a microcosm of God’s peaceable kingdom. So I made a clever worksheet for them to fill out and share with one another. The worksheet had pictures of several animals, along with four questions to answer: (1) What are my instincts? (2) What are my natural enemies? (3) What is my natural habitat? (4) What is my cage?
Members of the group were always honest and self-aware in answering these questions. They talked about their instincts to flee conflict, to disengage from relationships by using technology, to desperately find ways to be helpful. They talked about their natural fear and aversion to people who were unkind—or to people who seemed artificially peppy. They talked about their comfort in a habitat that was a little untidy rather than spotless, or that always had music playing. And they talked about the fears, the personal histories, and the hurts and injustices that kept their hearts and lives in cages.
These conversations gave us a glimpse of the kingdom proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah: the new heavens and the new earth, the home that we can inhabit securely, the mountain where none shall hurt or destroy. And I believe that if more of us knew the instincts, the natural enemies, the habitats, and the cages of ourselves and of others, the closer we would be to fulfilling God’s promise.
But on the other hand, this exercise rarely “worked” in the long term. Here are some realities from my own years working with these intentional communities: There was a person who could never, ever, ever figure out how to clean his own dishes. Another person ate all of her meals in her own room for months, no matter how people dried to draw her out. One man will never speak to two of his roommates again. And once, one woman told another that she was so angry at her she could kill her, and after this threat the two could no longer live under one roof.
It didn’t always turn out this badly. Some people who lived in these communities are life-long friends. But in spite of the positive outcomes, I sometimes think we’re better off just retreating to our cages. A wolf and a lamb side by side? A lion trying to survive on straw? The call to peace and unity in today’s first reading is impossible. Unnatural. It goes against many instincts. But. There’s something worse for us than the unnatural. The alternative—living in cages—is deeply inhumane.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see in our lifetimes much of the peace and unity envisioned by Isaiah. But the only way to get closer to that vision is by coming out of our cages and facing a world driven largely by instincts of aggression and fear. The way we often proceed is by using cages, like prisons and detainment facilities, as substitutes for education and immigration reform, or for mental health services. We also proceed by making our own cages more spacious and comfortable for us.
What if we could do this instead?: Venture out of our safe places. Lay bare the aggression and violence of the wolf. Watch out for the fear and vulnerability of the lamb. And do whatever we can to find a better solution than cages in God’s holy city, on God’s holy mountain. Because attempting the unnatural is far better than accepting the inhumane.