Christian Earth Stewardship—Assumptions
May 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
Assumptions of Christian Earth Stewardship
The earth stewardship movement arose 1900 years after the Christian tradition began. As we step outside the shelter of the church into the Silent Spring, we naturally wear the vestments of this ancient tradition. Traditional liturgies ring in our ears, the categories of Christian theology organize our thinking, the writings of our predecessors provide us with vocabulary, and, of course, in our right hand we carry the Bible.
These assumptions, these vestments, deserve to be explored. The relative failure of earth stewardship to transform church and society so far forces us to ask if our premises are valid. The urgency of the environmental crisis emboldens us to look deeper than the stewardship message itself to the underlying principles. Let’s look at how nine of these assumptions affect our earth stewardship thinking:
- Christianity is a religion of history—of time—rather than of place.
- It is cosmic and universal, rather than particular and material, with respect to both God and land.
- It is urban rather than agrarian.
- It is salvation oriented.
- It is Christo-centric.
- It is spiritually passive.
- It is individualistic.
- It is biblio-centric.
- It is patriarchal.
In his book God Is Red, Lakota philosopher, activist, and former Baptist minister Vine Deloria, Jr. shows how Christianity is a religion bound to time rather than to space, to history rather than to place. We speak of “salvation history,” of God’s unfolding plan for God’s people, including ourselves. Story is central to the tradition, embodied especially in the gospels and Acts. Characters and events matter much more than the stage on which they play. The story has a beginning, crucial turning points in the middle, and it will have an end, which is even prophetically pre-described.
For us as believers, what matters is our part in the story. Do we subscribe to the divine plan for history? Have we a relationship with its lead character? Where will we go at its climax?
Where we are geographically right now hardly matters. Nor does our relationship to the story’s original setting, let alone our own setting. For those communities who cherish “sacred space” at all, it is almost always in a building (like the cathedral at Chartres) or a place associated with people, with characters and story (like the Vatican), rather than with the landscape as such. Our relationship to place and the ecosystems of a place are secondary, if not irrelevant. Christian worship is almost completely without consciousness of the place of the worshipers.
The consequence for earth stewardship thinking is the dis-place-ing of the discourse. The goal—eco-sustainable Christian community—is placed in history, that is, in the future, rather than here, in the lower Delaware valley (or wherever you my readers may live). If we assumed a local here-ness, it would automatically evoke a corresponding now-ness and the action that immediacy with a place demands; whereas the hereafter-ness of our goal invokes expectation more than action.
Christian universalism runs hand in hand with Christian historicism. Christianity claims to have a message that is valuable and relevant—if not necessary—to all peoples in all places in all times. Twin to this universalism is a predilection for the cosmic. These emphases tend to denigrate the particular and the material. These assumptions deeply affect our approach to our tradition and to our environmental situation.
An example: In virtually every translation of the Bible, the often-quoted Psalm 24 reads: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Yet the Hebrew word for “earth”—eretz—can also be translated “land” and often stands specifically for eretz Israel, the particular land of Israel. Listen to how the psalm sounds with this new translation:
The land (of Israel) is the Lord’s, and all its fruits.
So also with the beatitude, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. At least that’s how we always translate it. But again, besides meaning “the earth” in some larger sense, and in addition to meaning (the promised) land (of Israel), eretz also means one’s portion, one’s ancestral inheritance—your family farm. “Meek” is not better a translation. In legal terms—and all the Beatitudes are midrashim on inheritance law—“meek” means without legal status among the council of elders. If you were poor—if you did not own your own land (because your family had lost its farm to foreclosure)—you could not represent yourself in court; meaning you could not defend yourself against suit or bring a suit to recover a debt yourself; you had to find an advocate, a comforter, a paraclete, to represent you in court. Combined with the bad translation of “meek”, which today means weak and reticent, we now have a Beatitude that is an empty universalist promise to a generic, undefined class of the oppressed. But this is what Jesus’ Aramaic speaking Jewish listeners heard when he spoke that promise: blessed are they who have lost their family farms through foreclosure and therefore can no longer defend themselves against predatory lenders, for they shall re-inherit their ancient portion, their proper inheritance, as a fulfillment of the Jubilee I declared at the beginning of my ministry (Luke 4:18). How much more powerful and personal is this promise than the universalized and cosmic promise of “the earth”—whatever that might mean in any practical terms.
Earth stewardship writers have shared this tendency to think in universal terms rather than the particular, and in cosmic terms rather than the concrete. We have gravitated toward the cosmic Christ passages in Ephesians, Colossians and Revelation, in which “all things are gathered in Christ,” rather than toward the particular land reform policies of Jesus’ earthly ministry, in which dispossessed peasants were reclaiming their particular family farms. We have tended to focus on global environmental problems, rather than on local ones, even though local case studies of struggle, victory, and defeat would be more helpful to our activist readers. Like the wider tradition, we have often assumed that an ecological Christianity would be the same in any particular place, rather than imagining that a local Christian community’s intimate engagement with the Delaware River, for instance, would produce a church life specific to its eco-niche, and distinct from that of a church in Death Valley or the Yukon valley.
What happens when we are not limited by our cosmic universalist assumptions? Are there precedents in our tradition for intimate spiritual engagement with our particular landbase? What are the implications of assuming that the place we live in matters in our faith? Could Christian religious culture be place-specific, as Lakota religious culture is? How would spiritual reinhabitation of the Delaware valley—or your valley—enrich and enliven congregational life and personal devotion to God?
The third sister to historicism and universalism is urbanism. Once the Jesus movement abandoned the small rural village milieu that was home to most of Jesus’ ministry and moved to Jerusalem; and especially after the ministry of Paul and the demographic shift of Christian community to the cities of the Roman empire, the worldview of its leaders and writers changed. Beginning with Paul, the first New Testament author, the tradition has been written and dominated by city-dwellers. Today’s earth stewardship writers are no different. Wendel Berry stands out as the remarkable exception, and his intimacy with farming and rural community help make his work uncommonly insightful and practical; it also makes him both more celebratory and more apocalyptic—he experiences the joys and the devastation of his landbase first hand, even in his own body.
Our urbanism determines our interests. This urban bias has kept much of the agrarian anthropology of the Bible invisible until recently. (To us, for instance, the parable of the sower is quaint, picaresque, and ‘meaningful’; it evokes nothing of the literally life-and-death struggle to feed your family in the highlands of first-century Palestine.) Now, as ecologists and agriculture specialists begin reading these texts, revelations emerge that are directly relevant to our concern.
Urban assumptions and preoccupations with urban social issues also determine not only what we can see in the Bible, but what the Bible doesn’t say. For instance, because Paul is ministering to urban dwellers, he never has anything to say about the land. What might he have given us if even one of his surviving letters had been to a cluster of small rural hamlets peopled by cattle herders? Or if one of the evangelists had been a tenant farmer in a Judean village? Only Jesus’ own ministry arose in a small rural village environment: Do his teachings offer us insight into country-city social and political dynamics and do they present a platform for agrarian reform that could guide us today?
In earth stewardship thinking, the ‘salvation paradigm’ keeps a lower profile than in the wider tradition, but it’s there. We name irresponsible earth stewardship a sin; we call for repentance; we pray for salvation. But some of the other categories of the salvation paradigm are less at home, or missing altogether in earth stewardship thinking. By this I mean judgment, punishment and reward.
Why are we ambivalent about just those aspects of salvationism that deal with accountability and community discipline, aspects that speak directly to our need for environmental regulation? In the popular tradition, judgment and consequence are relegated to the afterlife and the endtime. Are earth stewards doing the same thing, and, if so, how does this affect our approach to here-and-now community control of environmental threat?
We need to get off the salvationist fence. Do we find the sin and salvation approach to Christian life unhelpful or unfaithful to our experience of ecological practice and its consequences? If so, then let’s develop a new approach. Alternatively, what happens if we reclaim the concrete, material dimensions of redemption as defined by Jesus, not allowing ourselves to be limited to the spiritual salvation in Christ defined by Paul? How can the apocalypticism of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the Christian Testament guide our own spirit of urgency and committed witness in ways appropriate to our crisis? For we face immanent judgment and punishment, however we define the agencies involved. The word crisis itself means judgment in Christian Testament Greek.
Christo-centrism and the Trinity.
A second element in our salvationism is our focus on Christ as savior. Earth stewardship writers have enriched our understanding of Christ by highlighting both the Christ’s role in creation, and creation’s role in Christ’s reconciliation.
Yet we have lost the intimate relationship with the Father/Creator that Yeshua enjoyed and that he taught to his disciples. As the Son has never stopped working toward our salvation, so the Father has never stopped working in creation. Earth stewardship writers and practitioners need to revitalize the spirituality of God the Creator.
Even more neglected is the Holy Spirit. Especially because the Bible provides us with so little direct guidance concerning our ecological practice, we must rely today on the Holy Spirit to teach us, to open the scriptures in new ways and to awaken in us directly a spirit of prophecy, healing, and witness. We know from scripture that Yeshua’s promise of the Spirit was fulfilled, at Pentecost, in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus… Why should he not fulfill his promise in Trenton, or Watsonville, or along the Monongahela River?
This is not to remove Christ from the center of our spiritual lives, but to open ourselves to the whole range of religious experience described in our tradition. We open to the Creator because the creation is our direct concern and the Creator never stops working there. We open to the Holy Spirit because the Christ specifically promised us revelation in the Spirit and has proved faithful to that promise in the past.
How would the search for deeper communion with the Holy Spirit and the Father affect our spirituality? How would this communion affect our earthkeeping?
Spirituality and worship.
Spirituality is the term we use for how we open ourselves to God; worship describes the spirituality of the community. Both deserve more attention from earth stewardship writers than they get. This works two ways: Our experience of God’s gifts of creation should anoint our personal and corporate spirituality with joy, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, commitment, and a sense of urgency. And we should use the spiritual disciplines to seek God’s presence in the world around us and Christ’s guidance for a life (both individual and communal) in ecological balance.
Earth stewardship has barely explored these areas. We need more personal stories, more first-hand accounts of people’s experiences of God and nature. We need more liturgies and other ceremonial forms. We need Bible study programs. We need retreats and approaches to spiritual formation and direction that include nature and the rich traditions of nature mysticism like that of Hildegard of Bingen, Jacob Boehme, John Wordsworth, and John Muir. Most of all, we need more prayer and more spiritual support of our ecological ministers, those servants whom God has raised up to guide us. We need a religious culture in which each parish waits with eager longing to recognize and support those whom God has called to act on behalf of God’s creation.
Do we as earth stewards have active personal devotional lives that are open to God’s energizing revelation regarding the land? How do we integrate communion with God into our ecological work, and vice versa? Does our earth stewardship theology come out of our heads only, or also from our hearts and “souls,” that is, directly from our experience of God? What models does our tradition offer for a land-based Christian spirituality?
The basic ‘unit’ of Christian religious life is the individual. The individual sins, and the individual is saved. Individuals are baptized and individuals receive the sacraments. Even corporate worship is little more than the worship of an aggregate of individuals in most churches.
Earth stewardship shares this individualistic assumption, not just with the wider Christian tradition, but with the culture as a whole, including secular environmentalism. However, the individual is not the basic unit of ecological impact—the household is.
Individual household consumption is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of this country’s economic activity. The other 30 percent is corporate activity and the cost of developing and maintaining our infrastructure. If we transform all of our individual ecological impact, we have solved only part of the problem; we still have to restructure community life. Moreover, even our concerted efforts to reform our individual lifestyles suffer from the almost total lack of infrastructure and community support. Rather, the economy and the infrastructure determine individual household impact—this 70%—to a very large degree. Is there good, convenient, affordable public transportation to your place of employment from your house? Can you buy your favorite cereal in bulk, and carry it home in reusable containers? On the other hand, if we transform society, much of the individual impact is already taken care of.
For instance, we pay more attention to individual recycling efforts than to corporate recycling. We allow the attitudes and values of the individual consumer to dictate the terms of goods distribution, even though these terms degrade our shared environment. If we eliminated individual product packaging and sold from bulk, for example, a large percentage of household recycling would disappear. This would require new social values and expectations about shopping and product availability and a new infrastructure in the home, on the street, in the marketplace. (Would you be willing to buy your cereal in bulk?) In this way the community and our land suffer from our individualism, while the solutions lie at the level of corporate and communal activity. Effective earth stewardship must address this disconnect.
Just as community is the basic unit of environmental impacts, so community should be much more important in our religious life. The individualist assumptions of Christian faith are largely due to Paul’s influence and the Hellenization of early Christian demographics. As Jews, Jesus and his followers looked to the community as the locus and focus of religious life much more than we do and more than Gentile Corinthians did. Not only did individuals sin, but Israel sinned also; not only were individuals saved, but Israel as a people. For Jesus, redemption was sought in community and experienced in community as an essential element of religious life—“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.”
Earth stewardship writers have begun to return to this ideal with the principle of covenant as context for earthkeeping. We need to develop this dimension of corporate religious life into a new vision of life on the land. This means a completely new identity and mission for the congregation, the basic religious community household. Out of this principle of covenant can evolve new forms of community life that directly address the problems of community environmental impact. If we remain limited by our individualist assumptions, our theologies and practical solutions will not address these deeper ecological problems arising from our collective social systems.
What are the implications for strengthened Christian community if we take our own interest in covenant more seriously? What does the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus offer us as a model for ecological Christianity? What forms would congregational life take if we took a more collective approach to religious life?
Protestant communities take the Bible for granted as the source of revelation and, to varying degrees, as the boundary of revelation. If it’s not in the Bible, it’s not likely to draw our attention. If it is in the Bible, we are reluctant, at the least, to contradict its testimony, or even to go much beyond its obvious implications.
Because environmental issues are so peripheral to the central themes of the Bible, earth stewards are forced to dig deep to find useful guidance and they are sometimes tempted to strain the meaning of the text if they want to remain centered in the scripture. The problem is exacerbated because Christian scripture has superseded Hebrew scripture to an extent, and, in doing so, we’ve relegated the richer source for environmental testimony to secondary authority.
There are churches for whom the Bible shares authority for revelation with institutions that could also provide new testimony on ecological concerns. For the Roman church, the Pontificate and the magisterium supplement the Bible as source and boundary of revelation, opening further possibilities for the church’s ecological witness. The belief of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in God’s continuing direct revelation provides opportunities for new light in the Holy Spirit. The same is true for Pentecostal communities, and through similar channels, for the Pentecostal spirit of prophecy is akin to the vocal ministry of Quaker waiting worship. These alternative channels to biblical revelation have not yet born very much fruit, though ecological ministry is growing among Friends.
For the mainstream of the tradition, however, the Bible remains determinative. Earth stewards will have to come to the Bible with renewed interest and creativity if we want to speak to the tradition from the tradition. The Christian Testament, especially, needs our best attention. We need an ecological testimony that is both deeply rooted in scripture and relevant to our present and pressing needs. And this testimony must come out of the heart of the gospel. If it is a forced overlay, or a false reading, it just won’t take root. In other words, it must be an inspired reading, guided by the Holy Spirit toward God’s revelatory truth.
How are we hampered by our dependence on the Bible? How are we liberated by new readings of the Bible that are guided by the Spirit? In particular, are seminaries and Christian scholars committed to opening the Bible for us to ecological revelation?
God is male in virtually all of his (sic) manifestations in the Bible. All of the key actors in the biblical drama are men. Virtually all the books of the Bible have male authors or they have been ascribed to male authors. The leadership of the historical church has been male from the apostolic age. The majority of earth stewardship writers are men. Both the biblical and historical traditions of Christianity have feared, blamed, constrained, silenced, and denigrated real women in their worshipping communities, though the tradition has idealized some of the female characters in the biblical story. Patriarchal attitudes toward women are deep, pervasive, and endemic to Christian tradition.
Many writers see strong connections between patriarchal oppression of women and the exploitation of nature. This eco-feminist critique has strong voices in the earth stewardship movement, but even here it is a marginal, external influence more than an internalized perspective shared by men and women alike.
The patriarchal character of the tradition goes deeper than just its direct treatment of women. At this deeper level, the dynamics that mark male domination and oppression of women color all our relationships, including those with our land. Thus patriarchy finds expression in:
- monarchical language for God and for human leadership;
- either/or thinking;
- the tendency to define God in terms of will and power, and human faithfulness in terms of submission and obedience;
- a moral paradigm made up of rules and oriented toward justice and retribution.
In earth stewardship, these values and perspectives find expression in:
- our insistence on God’s transcendence and majestic sovereignty;
- the acceptance of dominion as a human entitlement, tempered by obedient service (stewardship) to our (land) Lord;
- the legal framework of covenant as context for earth stewardship;
- a preoccupation with nature as property and with conducting our relationship with the land as paternalistic land management.
We need to open ourselves to the non-patriarchal perspectives in our tradition, many of which are manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. We need to open ourselves to the ministry of women today, who are leading the way into new experiences of God’s love and truth. We need to own our own experiences of God, allowing the Holy Spirit to shape our understanding and sharing of this experience in organic ways, ways true to the movement of the Spirit, rather than unthinkingly overlaying them with traditional patriarchal categories.
What is our experience? Is God always our king and never our guide, friend, mother, nurturer, healer? Must our own religious, political, and environmental leadership be male, or hierarchical? Do we experience ‘both/and’ as a more inclusive and gentler way to think and live than ‘either/or’? Do more flexible roles work when rules don’t? Didn’t Jesus himself offer relationship and engagement in tension with legalism and enforcement?
Let me close this section by saying that this critique has not been a call to destroy or deny our tradition. It is a call to beware of assumptions. Assumptions are limitations as well as foundations. In the face of a new and violent threat to God’s creation, we do not want to limit the possibility of fresh experience of God and creative ways of living in the world. Do we?