Christian Earth Stewardship—Strengths & Weaknesses

May 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’m still reviewing the book I almost finished on Christian earth stewardship, and have two new sections to share.

So far, I’ve posted:

  • Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship, just the briefest summary of a much more detailed treatment of the principles I culled from years of reading.
  • Christian Earth Stewardship—A Dead End, which I probably should have left to the end. This describes how I came to feel that the stewardship approach used by most Christian theologians today just isn’t enough; it may even be an obstacle to truly effective earthcare.

Now I want to post two more lengthy entries and the link to a resource:

Christian Earth Stewardship—Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths

The greatest strength of Christian earth stewardship is that it is mainstream. It speaks to many people with a fuller understanding of the gospel, it opens a way into Christian environmentalism that many people can follow. It has defined for the first time whole new questions for Christian faith and practice that are nevertheless faithful to the gospel message. It maintains a celebratory and positive spirit, as well, no easy task in the face of our environmental problems. It does this by focusing on the Creator’s power and Christ’s redeeming love.

Christian earth stewardship is also articulate. Its writers give us good reasons for being good stewards. They develop solid arguments for nature’s intrinsic worth without negating its instrumental value to human endeavor. By tying creation’s goodness to the Creator’s goodness, and by focusing on our capacity for righteousness—by prescribing a dominion tempered by obedient stewardship—they strike a pragmatic balance between human and nonhuman need, and raise a fence against human greed. Also, stewardship effectively defines human humility—knowing our true place in the scheme of things—as essential to our communal identity.

This movement genuinely strives for justice. It is very clear that social, political, and economic injustice help to cause and exacerbate our environmental problems and that environmental solutions must include progress toward peace and justice. Earth stewardship is especially sensitive to the international sphere, to the ecological dimensions of the suffering of the world’s poor, especially, and how structural economic oppression drives ecological collapse.

Weaknesses

The most obvious problem with earth stewardship theology is that it isn’t working. At least not fast enough. While it goes too far to claim, as some have, that Christian tradition is the cause of our environmental crisis, certainly the tradition has done very little to stop it. Christian communities (by which I mean congregations and larger groups like synods, conferences, dioceses and other denominational and inter-denominational organizations) are in most cases no more eco-sustainable than the wider society. Its members and leadership are no more likely to speak out against ecological malpractice or to present viable concrete alternatives than non-religious people. Christian earth stewardship is not reaching the communion of believers with its message, and the communion is not evangelizing the wider society toward earthhealing and earthkeeping.

We must ask ourselves why?

The reasons are related to our manner of proclamation and to the matter that we proclaim; that is, to church structure and institutional life, and to the compelling power of the Word in our time.

If the people in the pews and the congregation as a community are to internalize these new values and ideas, their pastors and priests have to internalize them. This means seminaries have to internalize them. To guide these institutions, their governing bodies need to internalize them. We need to eco-evangelize the administrative leadership of denominations and the boards of their seminaries; we must reach out to their faculty and student bodies, and, of course, to their administrators.

The gospel successfully communicates the grace of God when it speaks with meaning and power to the needs of the people, when it heals, when it opens doors into hope, when it shows people who they can be and what they can do in the world to matter.

The environmental crisis is a frightening, confusing, and hopelessly huge problem for most people. At the same time, it is rarely perceived as a direct personal threat in the way that a shrinking economy is, or the behavior and social future of our kids, crime and drugs, the disintegration of the family. How is earth stewardship relevant to these other problems? In fact, how is the gospel as a whole relevant?

Many people want to experience their salvation, not just believe in it. Christian earth stewardship will begin to transform people’s lives and their churches when they experience it as an integral part of a gospel message that speaks to all of their concerns. When it reduces their anxieties, upholds them materially as well as emotionally and spiritually, when it provides their families with strong stable support, when it gives them joy in God—then this landed gospel will blow into our lives “like the rush of a violent wind.”

We earth stewards must ask ourselves: Where is the transforming power of the gospel message as a whole? How is the earth stewardship message integral to this God-breathed core of teaching and practical guidance? How do we communicate the urgency of the environmental crisis and the relevance of our vision of salvation as essential elements of Jesus’ message?

So far, Christian earth stewardship is mostly theology. It has not explored its practical, real-life implications very deeply. This is its second greatest weakness.

This isn’t a problem in itself. It is perfectly natural for new understandings of the gospel to arise among theologians who are actively reflecting on their tradition and its relation to the world, and to find expression as ideas in words. Only now it is time to begin translating our faith into practice. What are the implications of earth stewardship for church potluck dinners, baptismal practice, Bible study, Sunday school curricula, parish groundskeeping, witness in the local planning board, community economic renewal, housing…? What concrete alternatives can we provide? What is our new vision for Christian living and how do we get there?

To make this next move, earth stewardship theologians need to overcome a third problem: we must take ourselves more seriously. The Ten Principles have powerful far-reaching potential for social transformation if we take full responsibility for them. Most earth stewardship writers stop short of declaring the full radical implications of their own principles.

At the heart of the problem is the declaration that earth stewardship is the right management of God’s property, which we hold in trust. To proclaim that the land belongs to God—and to take that proclamation seriously—challenges the very foundation of capitalist economics and enlightenment political theory, in which every individual has the right to life, liberty, and property. So far, earth stewardship writers have made the claim of God’s sovereign ownership of creation, and then let it go. This is a hot potato, a root principle of earth stewardship that we cut up into fast-food french fries. We should either drop it and deny God’s claim on the land, or fully develop a new understanding of property ownership that is grounded in the gospel.

Another principle that earth stewardship has sown on the path and then left to the birds is covenant. This is an ideal theoretical context in which to get real about land tenure and land use law. Now we are ready to develop real covenants. What sorts of binding agreements can we make with each other and with God about how we live on the land? Inside the church, how do we hold each other accountable for our ecological practice, both in family households and in the household of the parish? Outside the church, how do we hold corporations, utilities, and our governments and other social institutions accountable under the law?

Or is covenant merely a rhetorical device?

When we take these principles seriously, we realize that reform isn’t enough. So far, earth stewardship is a reform movement. However, our problems—social, political, economic, ecological, even religious—are so interrelated that the piecemeal, issue-oriented, institution-based, reactive measures that characterize both secular environmentalism and Christian earth stewardship are insufficient, even when taken all together. You can’t save the ozone layer without political regulation, economic conversion, and restructuring, redefining consumer desire through the media, changing agricultural practice, and understanding that shredding the ionosphere tortures the worship of the firmament into a screaming lament for God’s handiwork. Everything has to change because everything is interrelated. This means revolution, not reform.

Nonviolent social transformation on this scale requires radical alternatives to community life. Here, the Christian tradition is one step ahead because we already have communities that are (theoretically) aligned to God, not to the over-culture, and they remain the last bastion of hope (though under siege) for holistic community. When we look more closely at parish life as the locus and focus of ecological ministry, what opportunities do we see? If we think more boldly, what new alternatives for community life does God offer us? When we look at the early Jesus movement as a revolutionary one, does it inspire us with our own revolutionary alternatives?

The final question is one of leadership. Who will start? And when? Revolutions build in a community until someone strikes a spark. That spark catches among some—usually the young and the dispossessed—and then others try to stamp it out. They usually succeed. Has the tinder been laid? When the movement ignites, will our leadership answer with wisdom and joy or with fear? with ideas and support, or with alarms and wet blankets?

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§ One Response to Christian Earth Stewardship—Strengths & Weaknesses

  • Rod Zwirner says:

    Steven,
    Thanks so much for releasing this material and refocusing on how stewardship seems too reductionist to deeply stir spiritual sources. It sends me back to
    Emil Bock’s Anthroposophist approach in his Kings and Prophets. I find
    his Ch 8 on how David’s kingdom coalesced in Jersusalem and its sacred sites, complements your work on the importance of “nature sites”
    on Israelite spirituality. As David represents the humanization of consciousness, he prepares a “house” for the coming Christ consciousness. It seems that Friends could be positioned to bring forth the internal dynamic at the heart of the Gospel from which can emerge the needed power and leadings to deal with the multidimensional problems we are facing. However, daily demands scatter me so it is hard to meet the challenges you bring forth.
    Bless you and your leadings,

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