Beyond Busking Beyond Busking Beyond Busking Beyond Busking Beyond Busking

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Last Sunday after church, I went to a Busker festival. It was down at Woodbine Park, near the lake in the east end. The festival was a fundraiser, for Epilepsy Toronto [1]. You paid ten bucks, went inside, and all over the park there were buskers performing to crowds. 

Buskers are street performers, the kind of people you often see in Europe in town squares, performing in front of impromptu crowds. And this festival had them all – fire eaters, acrobats, a man who could juggle five soccer balls at once. There was a man who did tricks on unicycles and pogo sticks. All of the performers were natural comedians. Many had been in the business for many years, and they travel the world performing in major cities. And for all buskers, the deal is the same. They perform whether you pay or not, but they really hope that at the end of the show you will throw some money into a hat. You don’t have to, it’s the same show if you don’t, but they hope you will, because this is how they survive. They exist to entertain us, and we get to decide how much we pay them. Pay a lot and they will keep coming back. Pay nothing, and they won’t come back to your town, and maybe, they will eventually stop performing at all.

There was a time when shows like this would have featured lots of animals. Dancing bears, clever monkeys, horses who seemed able to count with their hooves. At this show, there was only one kind of animal that did tricks – dogs. But aside from the dog show, it appeared that the animal rights movement had discouraged the use of animals in busker shows. 

But it occurred to me that as a civilization, we treat animals like buskers, like street performers. The species that we find cute or beautiful, we are willing to pay to save. When environmentalists raise money for nature, they focus on the animals we find the most attractive or fascinating. 

Pandas are the symbol of the World Wildlife Federatio

The Audubon society uses herons as its symbol

Baby seals have been used to discourage hunting in the arctic.

These organizations choose animals we find cute or beautiful to promote the protection of nature. 

But what about the animals we find ugly? Or the ones we can’t understand why they even exist? Deep sea exploration has discovered many strange-looking creatures who look like monsters to our eyes. What is the point of them? It’ll be hard to get people to give money to save a creature that looks like this:

No one will be able to raise money to save the deep seas if they use a scary image like this.

We treat animals like buskers. If they entertain us, we will throw money into the hat to protect them. But what about the animals no one likes or understands? 

That’s what today’s scripture is about. It comes from the Book of Job, a text many of us studied this summer. The story starts with a bet: God bets Satan that even if Job loses all his wealth, and his children, and his health, Job will stay loyal to God and never curse God. Satan is convinced once Job’s good fortune is taken away, he will reject God. So, Satan is allowed to kill all of Job’s flocks, his children and cover him in boils. Job ends up in pain and miserable. His friends tell him that he must have done something wrong, God would only punish the sinful. But we know from the beginning of the story that Job is a righteous, innocent man. Over the course of the poem, Job’s perspective changes. He comes to see that innocent people often suffer. But he demands the right to present his case to God, to find out why he has been made to suffer so much. Job’s friends tell him this demand is pointless, God will never just show up and give an answer, especially to someone who must have sinned but won’t admit it.

Yet, God does show up, in a whirlwind. God does give Job an answer. But it is not the answer Job is expecting. God never does tell Job about the bet. Instead, he asks Job if he was present when God created the Sun, Moon, and Stars? He berates Job for his presumption. Then God does something curious. God starts talking about animals. But God doesn’t talk about the kinds of animals that human beings at that time care about. God doesn’t talk about making beautiful songbirds, butterflies, or useful cows. There’s no mention of dogs or hummingbirds or awe-inspiring spiders with their webs. God doesn’t talk about creating beautiful animals which we admire.

Instead, God talks about animals that want nothing to do with humans. God talks about feeding ravens and hungry lions. God asks if Job is there to take care of the wild donkey who lives in the desert wastes and has no desire to ever be bridled. And what about the ostrich, God asks. Do you take care of this animal that lacks the intelligence to bury its eggs, so animals can steal or trample on them? Do you care for this strange-looking animal which God did not grant wisdom, yet which has been blessed with such speed that it can outrun a horse and its rider?

Later in the book, God takes this argument even further. He talks about the largest beasts on land and in the sea, the Behemoth, and the Leviathan. Creatures immune to arrows and spears, terrifying to behold, untameable, impervious to human weapons, creatures humans would gladly do without. Yet not only did God make them, but God loves them like pet

Why is God telling Job all of this? What does this have to do with God’s bet with Satan? What does this have to do with the fact that Job is miserable, and covered in painful boils? The answer appears to be – nothing. And everything. God is providing Job with a panoramic view of creation. Not to impress Job – Job already knows that God is all-powerful. No, God dwells on these distant wild creatures to help Job see that we are all part of a vast creation that is not actually about us. It is our tendency to worry about our own welfare which is often our downfall. As a species we are prone to self-absorption. We see all the world as our playground, to do with what we will. If we can’t use it, if it won’t entertain us like a busker, then it is irrelevant, and it can go away. That attitude is what burns down the Amazon, paves over the Greenbelt, poisons the fish, and deafens the whales. We are all Job now, asking why should we suffer, but not asking why should nature suffer. 

We tell ourselves that all of nature was made for us. We interpret the Bible that way, forgetting that our creation story says that we were made last- on the last day of creation. Had God not made us, the world would have functioned just fine without us. The Book of Job is a long rebuttal to the way we have interpreted Genesis. In Job, God makes it clear, God loves every species, even the ones we have no use for. Even the ones that terrify us, and that are still alive. If the Book of Job were to be written now, God might mention strange deep-sea creatures living near volcanic vents; deadly bacteria, and even possibly strange alien creatures on other planets. God loves and cares for them all, not just us.

God makes this speech not to intimidate Job but to invite him to rise to a higher level of understanding. One less self-centered. God grants Job a revelation out of a fearsome whirlwind. God dares Job to stop worrying about himself and to see the plight and wonder of other creatures far removed from his life. 

The Book of Job was written at a time when creatures really could escape the reach of human civilization. But that is not possible anymore. Human civilization’s carbon emissions, plastics and chemicals have reached every place on Earth. We are all in this together now. What we do decisively shapes the lives of every species on Earth. The wilderness is gone, it is a category that doesn’t make sense anymore. The wild donkey breathes our smoke, even if we cannot see her. At night, our satellites and planes light up the skies above her. There is no escaping us now.  She lives in our world. Now the question is whether we can rise above our self-interested concerns and acknowledge that the animals have a right to live, even when they are far from us, even when they will not perform for us. 

God’s message in Job is that we are all united by God’s care for us. God cares for the raven, and the monsters, just as God loves us. We are invited, always, to be more God-like, to be more compassionate. We are used to hearing that call in terms of how we treat other human beings. The time has come to apply those ethics to other species as well. Not to control them, but to let them lead the lives they were born to enjoy. This is a call to enhance our humanity, not to curtail it. God is inviting us to gain a wider vision of who we are in relation to all of creation. That is a blessing. And should we rise to the occasion, and change our ways, we are promised a richer way of being human than we experience now.