Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 62) transports me to the Midlands region of England, where riots have broken out and the authorities are bustling to restore security and order. No, I’m not talking about England’s current moment of mayhem, with the looting and violence of bored and unemployed and angry mobs that has spread from London to cities like Birmingham in the Midlands. I’m going back 500 years to the Midland Revolt that started in 1607, around the time the King James Bible was first being translated into the common tongue. The revolts were aimed at destroying the practice of enclosures, the hedging in of tracts of common property that had been available to the poor for farming and grazing their animals, and were being enclosed as the private property of the elite. The rioters were called Levellers for their practice of leveling the hedges and reclaiming the land, and their leader, John Reynolds, was known as Captain Pouch. He told the protesting poor that he was authorized from the Lord to destroy all enclosures. The Captain kept a small pouch hung around his neck or by his side, and he promised protection by the contents of the mysterious pouch. He also encouraged the rioters to practice nonviolence in their efforts to reclaim the land. The story was told that at the point of Captain Pouch’s death, one of the rioters sat by his side and questioned him, Tell me Pouch, what is it that you keep there in that bag about your neck? What is the source of power that hurls a thousand men unheeding ‘neath the horses of their foes? The protester was greatly disappointed to hear, after a few moments of silence, that it was only a piece of green cheese.
A later political movement in the English Civil Wars took inspiration from the Midland Revolt, if not from the pouch, with the members calling themselves Levellers as they tried to battle the corruption of power in both monarchy and parliament and advocate for equality and religious liberty. Still later in the 17th century wars, a group led by the Christian communist Gerard Winstanley didn’t think this group went far enough in their revolt, and called themselves the True Levellers (also known as the Diggers). Winstanley, who got his inspiration from the early church practice recorded in the book of Acts, where the members shared all things in common, wrote that in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another. Winstanley could have gone further back in the sacred text to find more inspiration for the idea of a true levelling of humanity. The poetry of today’s passage tells us: Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them. From a God’s-eye view, in the context of the universe and of eternity, there is a balancing of rich and poor, a balance of power between the elite and the oppressed. Put them both on the scale, and neither weighs more than a breath. There is no enclosure from that balancing act.
It’s a shame that the rioters of Midland today don’t seem to have much knowledge of their forebears. It’s a testament to the failure of the faith community to provide alternative strategies to deal with the frustrations of community life. I wonder how Captain Pouch’s insistence on nonviolent social change, and Gerard Winstanley’s grounding his work on the radical love of the early church, would alter the way the looters and burners channel their frustration and anger at the system. The Psalmist had something besides green cheese in his pouch to provide motivation and inspiration for transforming unjust systems: Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God; steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. The power we have in our pouch is steadfast love. It is a levelling love. It is a riotous love. It is a transforming love, powerful enough to transform even the boredom and brutality of places like Birmingham in the Midlands and bring hope for a balance of power and a level playing field for all.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.