Joys of the Quaker Way—Leading Leads to Leading
October 31, 2014 § 1 Comment
The first leading spends itself
I spent several years researching and then writing my book on Christian earth stewardship, which I early on entitled How Long Will the Land Mourn, from Jeremiah 12:5. I synthesized the messages of the books I read into what I call the 9-plus principles of Christian earth stewardship *(see below). Then I analyzed the assumptions I saw at work behind the principles and their strengths and weaknesses. The final section of the book is a detailed critique of the principles, and finally, concrete calls for action for each principle based on what we would be doing as congregations if we took real responsibility for these principles and did in our practice what we said we believed in our faith.
The book is virtually complete. But I turned away from it because, near the end, when my critique was fully developed, I decided that Christian earth stewardship was a dead end as a religious ideology that could really ignite and sustain Christian earthcare. I still believe that if even a handful of congregations started living according to these principles, an ecological revolution could begin.
But they won’t. That’s the problem.
There are a number of reasons for this. But one of the most compelling is that earth stewardship as it has been articulated so far is not part of the gospel of Jesus. Ninety percent of earth stewardship theology is based on Hebrew Scripture or, to a lesser extent, the letters of Paul. Jesus barely gets mentioned.
What Christian earth stewardship does, essentially, is make ecological destruction another sin, along with all the others, but one that Jesus never talks about. Jesus has almost nothing to say about the environment and land use. And if Jesus isn’t saying anything, why should we listen? If Jesus isn’t interested, then why should we be? I think this is one of the basic problems for Christians in the pews, for ministers in the pulpits, for professors in the seminaries—the silence of Jesus on earthcare.
Meanwhile, Christian earth stewardship is a patent failure. It’s been around since just after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and in the fifty years since, it has gained almost no traction. Oh, it might find its way into a sermon around Earth Day. There are courses in some seminaries. Some denominations, including ours, have greened some buildings. But show me one congregation that has any idea where the water comes from that they pour into their babies’ eyes with their baptismal rites, or that knows the working conditions of the vineyard workers or the chemicals used in the viticulture of the wine they celebrate the eucharist with. Are they using herbicides on their church property? Are they growing gardens on their church property? And this is just the easy stuff. You get the idea.
My first leading had led to a dead end.
And yet—there had been so much joy along the way. So many openings, so much immersion in the joy of learning, so much pleasure in thinking creatively about scripture, so much joy in the writing. And I felt I stood at the threshold of something new, if only I would just turn in some other direction. So I sat with it.
The second leading arises
Eventually, it came to me. Because I felt that earth stewardship had to be an integral part of the gospel of Jesus or Christians would never pay much attention to it, I decided that I would start over and begin studying the gospel message itself, on its own terms, without an agenda. If I found something, great; if not, then I would lay the thing down.
I went back to the libraries and started reading commentaries on the gospels. I did not study Paul. I wanted the gospel of Jesus, not the gospel of Paul, and I do believe there is a huge difference. The main one being that jesus radically reformed Torah, but he didn’t throw it out. And as I would learn, this difference makes all the difference in the world, especially when it comes to earthcare. Paul Hellenized the gospel, he urbanized the gospel, and he spiritualized the gospel. What I found was deeply Jewish, grounded in the agrarian economy that Torah was designed for, and eminently concrete, the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Then I hit pay dirt! I took a year-long course in The Prophetic Tradition from the School of the Spirit, and on its reading list was a book that changed my life: The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. Yoder has a chapter on the Jubiliee in the gospel of Luke.
This was it! The gospel of Jesus was at its core economic—it was about relieving the sufferings of the poor. Jesus may have nothing to say about land use, but he was all about land tenure—who gets to own the land. This was a side door into earthcare, admittedly, but the power of the gospel’s economic message overwhelmed my initial intent.
I redoubled my study, teaching myself everything I could learn about the economics of Torah and the Jubilee in particular. Then I returned to the study of the gospels. And there it was: every where I turned in the gospels, I found what I call the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God. Virtually all the famous sayings of Jesus were about economics, in language, in legal intent, in their implications for living in the “kingdom”, if only you knew how to recognize the “technical” legal, or covenantal, language involved. Half of the parables were about economics. Half of the miracles were about economics, especially the healings.
So I started writing a second book. G*d had given me a second major leading. And this one had a much wider scope. This was virtually a new reading of the gospel of Jesus, because it touched upon every aspect of Jesus’ teachings and life. Eventually, there would be chapters on economics, community (sociology), politics, public health, spirituality, and apocalyptic. And all along the way, there were in fact, implications for earthcare. Especially in the area of spirituality, that is, how Jesus conducted his own spiritual life. But more about this in a subsequent posting.
Well, I had thought the joys of research, prayerful thought, and spirit-led writing had been deep and plentiful when studying earth stewardship! This was years of the same, but much more exciting. One near-ecstatic opening after another.
I gave a number of presentations and led some Bible studies on this material, and that, too, was not only very fulfilling for me, but never failed to excite my listeners. Because this stuff is hidden. We were never taught it. But there it is, all over the place. And once you see it, you think, Oh my God, why have we never been told this? It awakens a new respect for Jesus and his gospel in even the least interested people.
Though it does sometimes exercise folks who are very attached to the Jesus they already have. I have learned not to mess with other peoples’ Jesus, if I can help it, but to try to add a new dimension to the traditional gospel, one that I do believe, however, is integral to his teaching and mission.
So the first leading, which had yielded years of immersive, continuous, and occasionally ecstatic, religious joy, now had led me into another leading, with even more to be joyous about and grateful for.
* The Nine-plus Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship
God and creation
1. “The earth is the Lord’s”: God is the sovereign proprietor of creation, not humans.
2. “Behold, it was utterly good”: God’s creation is inherently good.
3. “They worshipped the creature rather than the Creator”: We rightly worship the transcendent Creator, not the creation.
4. “And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”: Creation glorifies God—therefore so should we in our care for creation.
Humans and creation
5. “Have dominion over every living thing—to work it and take care of it”: We are given dominion over creation, but only in trust as stewards.
5.5 “You have made them a little lower than the gods”: Among the creatures, we humans enjoy the privilege—and responsibility—of God’s special favor.
God and humans vis a vis creation
6. “I am establishing my covenant with you”: Covenant is the rightful context for our earth stewardship.
7. “…therefore the land mourns”: Responsible earth stewardship calls for social justice.
8. “Do not defile the land where you live”: Harming creation is a sin.
9. “The creation waits with eager longing”: The promise of salvation also offers the prophetic promise of a new covenant and a new creation.