You may be familiar with Edward Hicks’ 1826 painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. One version of it appears as the header for this piece. Based on a passage in Isaiah 11 (“the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat … and a little child will lead them”), the painting portrays various pairs of natural enemies living together in harmony. Hicks painted more than sixty versions of this theme, many of which pictured English settlers and Native Americans also living together harmoniously.
Is such a vision “realistic”? Do we look forward to a time when lions and leopards won’t have or need sharp teeth and claws, when the formerly carnivorous will become happily herbivorous? Would a feline predator that lacked sharp teeth and claws even be a lion or a leopard anymore? Can a leopard change his spots, much less his preferred diet?
Isaiah is pointing us towards a different kingdom, a peaceable kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus announced and demonstrated and inaugurated—the kingdom of God. A non-Darwinian kingdom.
Might we agree that the one who said “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Just as you did to the least of these, to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned, you did it to me” probably does not agree with “survival of the fittest”?
By “Darwinian” I mean a perspective on and an approach to life that privileges, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, competition, survival, self-interest, and a winner-take-all/only-the-strong-survive attitude towards most everything. By “non-Darwinian” I mean an approach that is … different.
This is not a piece about evolution. I’m happy to stipulate that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” does operate according to natural selection, and that within that frame of reference, it is the case that only the “strong,” those best adapted to their environments, survive. Some might say that this is the result of the Fall, others that this is just the way things are, others that, all things considered, evolutionary mechanisms are the best way for life to advance its cause.
But—can you imagine a less evolutionary-adept creature than a lamb … than a slaughtered lamb? And yet we are told that it is a Slaughtered Lamb who is seated on the throne.
Our modern capitalistic, survival of the fittest world puts a high priority on competition, competence, efficiency, innovation, technology, all fitted within a rubric of Progress. Walmart and Amazon.com are “better” at delivering consumer goods cheaply and quickly than Macys, Sears and Roebuck, or Mom-and-Pop, so Macys, Sears and mom-and-pop disappear. In the struggle to survive there are inevitably and always winners and losers. It’s great to be the former, and sucks being the latter.
There is much good that comes from this, at least for some of us. Competition in and of itself isn’t the problem, isn’t a sin. We benefit greatly—at least some of us benefit greatly—by competition in the marketplace to deliver goods and services most cheaply and efficiently. We benefit greatly—a least some of us do—from the competition, from the battleground of ideas, that has resulted in improved healthcare, safer travel, reliable financial structures and much else that really is good.
But a Darwinian world is a world of scarcity, especially the scarcity of life and the things necessary to sustain life. A Darwinian world is ultimately ruled by death: the fundamental and irreducible reality is that we all die, and therefore the best thing, the only thing, we can really give ourselves to is surviving for as long as we can. Perhaps we can “defeat” death through our offspring, by ensuring, by any means necessary, that our DNA and not someone else’s makes it to the next generation. That our company, our tribe, our nation survives. One name for the organized crime mobs originating in Sicily was “la cosa nostra” – “our thing.” I wonder if a Darwinian world doesn’t ultimately end up turning us all into predatory gangsters.
But God raised Jesus from the dead. This means that there’s more going on, and something else going on, than surviving, surviving, surviving by outcompeting our neighbors, “crushing the opposition,” and thereby proving ourselves worthy of continuing life.
We think and move and have our being according to metaphors, word pictures, images and imaginations. The Peaceable Kingdom is one such metaphor, which frames our world, and our place in it and our roles in it, in one way. A Darwinian, only-the-strong-survive metaphor images a very different world and way within it.
Jesus sets a choice before us: “Repent, for the (peaceable, non-Darwinian) kingdom of God is at hand!” I don’t think that such repentance requires us to grind down the lions’ sharp teeth or extract their claws. I don’t think it requires us to “cancel capitalism,” despise “competence,” or outlaw “competitiveness.”
But such repentance will require us to learn how to point towards, to bear witness to, the reality that, within God’s good Creation and within God’s great salvation, there is more going on than Darwinian mechanisms. In my next post I want to explore some of the resources for this repentance and witness-bearing.