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Numbers 21: 4-9, John 3: 14-21
Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Hells We Don't See

Hi, I’m Terri Palmer. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Your ministers suggested that I incorporate some elements of our services into today’s service, so we began with a very common symbol of our faith: the lighting of the chalice, which is one of the few “universal” things in Unitarian Universalist churches.

I can’t generalize well about Unitarian Universalists, other than saying we all agree to honour the seven principles included in your order of service, which are taken from sources ranging from Christianity to humanism, science, and personal spiritual experience. Unitarian Universalists generally don’t like the “G-word” that much — but we’re not all atheists or agnostics. We welcome people from every faith, though Unitarian Universalism comes from the Christian tradition: Christian Unitarians traditionally believe in a single God and usually not the divinity of Christ, and Universalists thought God would save everyone, though maybe it would take a while. In 1961, American Unitarians merged faiths with the Universalists. And over the years that’s turned into what we have now: a group of people who have no creed but honour the seven principles. We think these are what people of good faith generally agree are what God wants us to do — so should there be a God, then we’re doing as best we’re able as best we know.

Even if we shy away from the question of any divinity, we honour Jesus’ works and words. Many of your stories, if I may call them yours, like ours, concern seeing the light.

The Biblical text I use today is so famous that even I know the tagline, if you will: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It’s so famous people hold up signs at sports events that just say “John 3:16.” It’s cultural shorthand now. It’s taken sometimes very simply as a blanket statement of God’s acceptance of us — many people take “believe” very loosely and seem to think that so long as you believe in Jesus’ past existence and in His status as God’s son, then everything is fine — for them. Believe in Jesus, and you’ll be A-okay!  

Anyone who thinks at all about Christianity and salvation realizes that it’s not really that simple, that Jesus asked more of people than that. You see this even in the beginning of John chapter 3: a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, approaches Jesus — at night, and it’s metaphorically important that it’s at night — and says that he knows Jesus must be from God. Yet Nicodemus suddenly and stubbornly chooses to remain in the dark at this point when Jesus says that Nicodemus must be born again: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus takes this to mean a literal birth, a new birth of the body. No, Jesus says, you must be born anew in the spirit, not the flesh, to enter the kingdom of God. But Nicodemus, for now, seems unwilling to see.

Jesus expands on what he means by saying “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, ¹⁵ that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” I didn’t get the reference, and had to look it up — Jesus is referring to Numbers chapter 21. In that book, the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, ask God to help them defeat the Canaanites; God does so. But then the Israelites, despite this clear show of God’s good faith, are not satisfied and complain their journey is too difficult. God sends poisonous — or fiery — serpents to them; many Israelites die of snakebite. This, if you don’t know, is a terrible way to go: snake venom basically turns the blood to jelly, and snakebite victims often go into high fever, burning to the touch.  

So the Israelites ask Moses to convey their repentance, but instead of removing the snakes, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent on a stick. Any Israelite bitten by a serpent could look at that serpent and be healed. They could see the sign of God — and by sight of that serpent they could be healed of the fiery bite of the serpents they’d brought upon themselves by lack of faith and appreciation for God.  

Well, says the Book of John: Jesus is like that bronze serpent. He will be lifted up, which is the same word as “exalt” in John — quite possibly a reference to Jesus literally being lifted on the cross. Jesus is the light in the darkness. Those who come into the light, those who approach the Son of God, they will see and be seen. Those who prefer the dark have chosen to remain there. God offers the world light, but people might choose to remain in the dark.  

Now, I’ll leave aside the question of whether God’s response in Numbers was proportionate to the Israelites’ failing, but will say that the human failure to see what goes on around us remains. We’re our own burning serpents.  

How so? I mean we don’t accept the good that’s been given to us, we abuse the grace we’ve been given, and we bring hurts upon ourselves. One concrete consequence of that shows up in a place called Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra. Some of the locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah — not because of moral turpitude, but because of the fire and catastrophe. It is, or was, the largest known e-waste dump in the world.  

E-waste? That’s electronic waste. When we get rid of modern electronics, anything from a laptop to an old transformer, that’s called electronic waste, or e-waste. It’s hard to recycle. You can’t just melt it down like glass, because, as you know if you’ve ever seen a circuit board or even the inside of a car, it’s complicated. The very valuable things are small, like gold and copper. Everything is welded on or otherwise fused to the boards. While it’s easier to take it apart, it’s still a difficult process: there are thousands of models of everything from phones to circuit boards, and you might want to pull some elements off for reuse, some off to make it easier to get other things apart, use solvents on other parts, and melt still others, and even then you lose material. There are heavy metals, there are tiny precious things, there’s a lot of plastic. The world produces, collectively, a lot of e-waste, with estimates at 20 to 50 million pounds a year. No one knows.  

Still, we want to go through that process, right? Recycle it. It’s economically reasonable, it’s ecologically reasonable. But it’s not cheap to do it right. You can do it quickly by literally setting the boards on fire, though, because the plastic melts away, leaving the most valuable gold and copper— and that’s what they do in some parts of Agbogbloshie. There, people who work in the cottage industry of lowest-bid e-waste recycling “cook” or “fry” electronics components in fire. The workers, mostly young men, pry the components off or pull them out with their bare hands. They don’t wear masks, usually. They get gashes on their hands. They breathe in clouds of melted plastic, dark awful things — you ever smell plastic burn? They don’t wear masks for the most part.  

About 50,000 people live there. There are a lot of kids. There are families. People live there amid the burning plastic.  

Most of the young men die of cancer in their 20s. You can look this up any time — there are lots of articles on it — everything bad you expect to happen, happens. People gets sores, coughs, headaches, all the terrible things you’d expect when you live somewhere people set awful things on fire. Heavy metals get into the nervous system — lead, mercury, arsenic — and cause developmental and learning difficulties for the children who work there, because there are a lot of children living there. Oh, and when you burn plastic, you get dioxins, the same poisons we used to use in warfare. To boost the fires, people add tires, which burn well in the sense that they burn long.  

So then here’s one place you can talk about seeing into the darkness — literally, because the air around these shops is black with roiling smoke, and the awful deeds are highlighted by the fires. And it’s full of burning serpents and their stings: poisons in the blood, sore, fevers, something maybe not so far from snakebite.    

If you’re like most people of good will, you say: what an awful thing! Why doesn’t someone do something? And they did! Agbogbloshie got famous, suddenly, and that embarrassed the Ghanaian government — Accra is after all the capital, and Agbogbloshie is its suburb and no one wants this press. So the Ghanaian government simply bulldozed the offending parts of the neighbourhood.   Well. That didn’t really help. The dumps in Agbogbloshie weren’t, after all, just a set of wicked things that bad people did because they were evil. We need to look again for the burning serpents, because if you think getting rid of obvious e-waste dumps solves the problem, you haven’t looked hard enough.  

What happens when you bulldoze such an area? You have homeless people. In Agbogbloshie, there were 20,000 of them. What do they do? Where do they go? It’s not as if they can just start farming on the remains of an open-air, open-water, open-soil toxic-waste recycling facility. So what do they do? They go right back to doing what they were doing. 

And that’s because that’s their home and the plastics keep coming. When I looked closer, I learned the residents don’t all call it “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Instead, that’s the name given it by people nearby who want to reclaim valuable waterfront land near central Accra. And people who move there do so because it’s better than what else they might do. There aren’t jobs elsewhere they can do and now they have a life there. You need money for food and shelter and water, and for your kids’ school fees. E-waste is where there’s business, and there’s business because there are 20 to 50 million pounds a year of it. People will find the lowest bidder, it comes from everywhere and nowhere. It depends on whom you ask. One news crew finds western electronics, another news source says most electronics from the West are properly recycled. Some people say it comes from donations to African countries meant to help: computers sent to schools that are too broken. Maybe it comes from China. From the brand names, it seems to come from every part of the world.  

It comes from us.  

The people in Agbogbloshie don’t want to set plastic on fire for money any more than we do. There are many places in the area that put goods back together, make everything from computers to cars work again. Others are recycling better and more cleanly, like an organization called Pure Earth that helped build a partially automated facility to strip wires rather than burn them. Locals who have done well built centres for children to study in and get support.  

But as long as there’s the 20 to 50 million pounds of e-waste a year, there’s going to be a market for hell's on earth. Maybe we can clean up Agbogbloshie, but there are other places like it in South Asia, East Asia, elsewhere in Africa, South America … just not right in front of us.  

In Numbers, the Israelites didn’t see how much God had helped them in their military victories, and God punished them when they asked for more. Here, we haven’t seen — well, maybe it’s that God has helped us, or that we’re lucky, or that we have something else called grace — but we live in a beautiful world and we’ve learned to do amazing things. People in wealthy countries have literally more stuff than we know what to do with: we throw tens of millions of pounds of it away every year. Do we not see the wasted grace there?  

We even run our economy on this wasted grace. Look at our local economy. When we, one of us personally, loses her or his job, it can be a family tragedy. When a big economic shift happens, there are a lot of family tragedies. When the car plants shut down, people suddenly had bills they couldn’t pay. But are car factories a good thing, viewed from the point of view of, say, trees or squirrels or rivers? No. We know cars pollute. But shut the car factories, people are out of work. Those of us who do pretty well in the current economy look at people who want factory work and think, well, the factories had to go sometime. The world’s changed. Labour’s cheaper elsewhere and robots are cheaper still. We’re going to have to educate people to do other things. The world will be cleaner without those factories. It’s progress in the long run.  

And what are those other things? Designing, programming, and making those things that end up in e-waste dumps. Marketing them. Selling them in shops. Managing the people who make and market and sell them. Helping the people who make and sell the electronic devices with their finances, their health, their education, their children’s education, their hobbies. Our boring but clean jobs rely on factory workers making the things in dirty jobs and tearing them apart in dirtier jobs. We need our jobs just as much as the people in Agbogbloshie do. We all need to live.  

If this market even slows down, if people stop buying as much, we panic. We live according to a growth economy, where we want to make more money, sell more things, have slightly more work, every year. It’s a fine balance and if it goes off, then people lose work. Part of that growth? Selling more laptops, televisions, software, phones. It’s part of our identity to get the new things we make and sell: we don’t want to look poor.  

And the serpents bite us. We think it’s in East Asia or Africa, but that waste is part of a great change in our atmosphere. Hotter summers, wilder storms, drought or flooding, wildfires: biting and burning. It’s coming to us, too.  

We want to think it’s far away. We want to think it’s a question of cracking down on bad recycling. But it’s not. It’s us, it’s here. What do we see? We like being outraged at those people over there taking advantage of the poor of Ghana. But lift the light: John 3:20–21: For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. ²¹ But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”  

Let us be the ones who see what is done in the darkness; let us be the ones who expose our deeds to light, or to God, or to each other. We can do better. We can build a world in which we use what we have, including what we have used and no longer need. We can build a world in which we make things that can be reused; we can build a world in which we have work and living for all. It may not look quite look like this world, but then isn’t that, after all, the hope of the Kingdom of God?