Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Tuesday of the Last Week of the Year (II)
One of the great works of American fiction is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells the story of the Joad family and their journey out of poverty-stricken Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, seeking a home and work in what is held out to them and the bounty promised by a life in California. Their journey is anything but uplifting, and on arrival in California, while they find great abundance of food there, they also discover that, in the midst of this plenty, people still go hungry and die of malnutrition, not because, as in Oklahoma, there was no food to be had, but rather because the large-scale farms cynically destroyed the excess and abundant produce, while also undercutting the small-scale farmers, guaranteeing that all profits went to them alone, even at the cost of countless lives.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listed to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Steinbeck has used here the image from Revelation of the grapes of wrath, those ripe grapes harvested by the angel with his sickle and thrown into the great wine press of God's fury. Steinbeck's secular deployment of this image helps to remind us of an important truth, namely that God's harvest at the end of time is not simple about peace and bounty and plenty. It is also a story about righteous anger, of a virtuous wrath in the face of abuse, of a holy fury which kindles within us a deep desire to defend and vindicate human dignity.
If we would be part of God's fruitful harvest, it is not enough that we be the rich grain. We must also be the grapes of wrath, grapes filled with indignation against the assaults made daily on human dignity, grapes ready to be crushed out in the winepress of our suffering and tribulation for the sake of righteousness, if only then to release the choice vintage of justice and rightful vengeance against those who would abuse the poor, the weak, and the hungry.
Brothers and sisters, do we let ourselves be moved, or moved enough, moved even to anger, by the suffering of the poor? Are we ripe with virtuous fury, an anger that comes not from hatred of our fellow sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but an anger that is rooted in a respect for the dignity of every human person, a yearning to see the flourishing on this earth which is meant to be enjoyed by all? Dare we let our confession of Christ's glorious return to judge the living and the dead be for us the fire that kindles our own burning desire to uphold that dignity, and so become a worthy and bountiful harvest for the day of the coming of Jesus Christ?