Earthcare and the Heart and Soul of Jesus’ Gospel

May 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

After giving up on Christian earth stewardship and rebooting my study of the gospel of Jesus looking for some opening into earthcare, I found two. Well, one and a half.

“Good news for the poor”. The heart of Jesus’ gospel, I discovered, was what I call the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God: Jesus’ good news was a prophetic condemnation of the imperial economics that oppressed his people and a radical restructuring of his own community’s economics so as to release the poor from that oppression and from their suffering.

“And he was with the wild animals”. The soul of his gospel—or at least one dimension of it—was the role that the landscape of Palestine played in his communion with the Father: a radical spiritual ecology that informed where he went to do what and why.

The economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God

In the course of my study of the gospel, I took a course on The Prophetic Tradition with the School of the Spirit. On the reading list was The Politics of Jesus by the Mennonite John Howard Yoder. Yoder has a chapter on the Jubilee message in Luke. This put me on a trail back into Torah to study debt redemption law, beginning with the Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 and including related legislation, like that in Deuteronomy 15.

The Jubilee called for four things:

  1. The cancelation of all debts.
  2. The release of all debt slaves, people who had gone into indentured servanthood to pay off a loan.
  3. The return of families who had lost their family farms through bankruptcy to their ancestral portion, or landholding, to their inheritance, to the farm that they had lost to debt—or more accurately, to creditors.
  4. And the injunction to let your land lie fallow for a year.

As the very first action in his public ministry in the gospel of Luke (chapter four), Jesus declared “good news to the poor” through a Jubilee, “the year that Yahweh favors”. But this was just the foundation of his economic platform. Once I had learned to recognize the Jubilee and redemption terms of Torah, I found them everywhere I looked in Jesus’ teachings and actions. From this initial proclamation of the good news for the poor, the message spreads into every corner of his ministry. It is the cornerstone of the kingdom of God he preached.

Very many of our most treasured and familiar teachings and sayings of Jesus deal directly with one or more of the four elements laid out in Leviticus 25, though he reinterpreted them in really creative ways. The Beatitudes are my favorite. They are an extended midrash on inheritance law, promising to fulfill number three above.

And the economics of redemption do not just find expression in Jesus’ sayings; they also find embodiment in his actions. All the stories of feeding figure prominently, including the Last Supper. But also at least half of his healing miracles and some of his other “miracles” either serve to relieve the suffering of the poor directly or have some economic dimension.

These are big claims, I know, and obviously I can’t go into detail here. And we’re still not talking about earthcare, either, at least not directly. For while Jesus has basically nothing to say about land use, he is all about land tenure—who gets to own the land. This in a civilization that defines poverty as the inability to support yourself and your family, that is, as possessing neither land nor trade.

Spiritual ecology

But as exciting as it has been to discover the economics of redemption in the gospel of Jesus, it has been even more thrilling to discover how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine in his own spiritual practice—to look at where he went, to do what, and why.

But this path led me even deeper, into the very origins of the western religious tradition, a tradition of spiritual ecology that Jesus either knew already or rediscovered, but which began with Moses and the inhabitation of the promised land of Canaan, and was in some ways picked up again by George Fox. By spiritual ecology, I mean using the ecology of your landbase as a doorway into communion with the divine.

This is a completely different approach to earthcare than stewardship of property loaned to you in trust. It is an invitation to communion with land and with God. In fact, Christian earth stewardship practically prohibits such nature communion with the principle that we worship the creator, not the creation. I say “practically” because this principle does not literally prohibit seeking divine communion in the natural world, but it builds a fence around it, fearing the slippery slope toward paganism. This fence is maintained most ardently in the evangelical Christian hatred for “New Age Spirituality”, the intuitive seeking for this communion by some of our contemporaries.

These topics—spiritual ecology, land-based spirituality, and religious culture of place—are the subject of another book that I have not even really started writing yet, though I’ve done some workshops on aspects of it. I’m not sure whether this blog is the place to work this out. My blog entries are already way too long to work well as blog entries. But I think I will touch on a couple of things experimentally.

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Christian Earth Stewardship—A Dead End

May 7, 2016 § 7 Comments

From 1990 to 1996 or so, I followed my initial leading to write a book synthesizing the work of Christian earth stewardship theologians. Reading it now after decades have passed, I am astonished at how thoroughly I internalized the Christian worldview to which I had been so hostile for so long and how comfortable I became speaking with a Christian voice. Reading it now pulls be back into that head space and reminds me how—joyful, really—it was for me to be there then.

I read those theologians, I followed the trails into Scripture that they had discovered and the trails that I found on my own, and I read some of their critics. And the more I read and thought while doing this research and this writing, the more I came to feel that Christian earth stewardship led to a dead end. I became a critic myself. Over time, the book became both a synthesis and a critique. And that critique inevitably became not just a critique of the Christian approach to earthcare, but of the Christian worldview itself. Again, I was the critic.

I had been a critic before; I had started out that way. But that earlier critique was shallow, ignorant, and hostile. Now I was inside. Now I felt I understood the assumptions behind the work and I had developed—or rather recovered—a profound love for the foundation, for the Bible, the love I had known as a pious Christian teenager. Now I wanted to speak to the tradition from the tradition about its own strengths and shortcomings and what I saw as its full potential.

In the book, I added chapters on Strengths and Weaknesses and on Assumptions, and I wrote detailed critiques of each of the Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship. I suppose I will publish these here at some point. Strengths and Weaknesses is ready now, so I’ll publish that one, at least.

But I had lost the passion I had started with. I no longer believed in the direction I was going. First, just as an observation, earth stewardship was a demonstrable failure. More than a generation had passed and the church still had not caught on—hardly at all. Lots of good theology and still no action. Relentlessly, I asked myself why.

I see lots of reasons, but the three that loomed largest for me were, first, that the foundational Christian paradigm of sin, salvation through faith in Christ, and deferred judgment simply crowded destruction of creation onto an already long list of more compelling, sexier sins without providing any real accountability here and now, in this world and time.

Second, that the sins of destruction were mostly collective sins, not individual. The basic unit of ecological action (or non-action) is the household, not the individual, not even the individual as consumer. As individuals, we are virtually powerless to change our civilization’s ways. This allows denial and encourages apathy.

As “household” I included, besides family households, businesses, governments, churches, nonprofits, and other corporate entities—any entity that produced, consumed, and exchanged using a system of its own governance. And then there was the infrastructure—the electrical grid, roads and railroads, the internet—and corporate capitalism itself as a system of production, consumption, and exchange—structures of civilization that were not even really under the governance of even the largest “households”. An individual corporation, for instance, could decide to go green, but they would still have to use FedEx and computers and the rest.

Meanwhile, Christianity had atomized the sin and judgment and salvation paradigm to the individual as the locus of action, judgment, and reward or punishment. Jesus had started it, to a certain extent, but Paul finished it when he said, “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile”. The people of Israel were no longer actors to be held accountable as a people under covenant, as they had been in the Jewish tradition for almost two thousand years up to that time. Thus Christian earth stewardship had no structures for meaningful accountability in the real world in real time, unless it chose to recover the ancient meanings and structures of covenant, beyond the rhetoric of the principle of covenant that they had articulated—but only as principle, not as concrete, practical plans for changing how we make ecological decisions as corporate households under God’s guidance and God’s judging eye.

The third main problem was that earth stewardship did not come organically out of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus himself has basically nothing to say about care of the earth. Oh, he does have a couple of stewardship parables, but they are really about the kingdom of God, and especially about money, not earthcare. And yes, he uses land-based and agricultural metaphors all the time. But again, they are about the kingdom of God.

It was telling that the earth stewardship theologians don’t rely on Jesus. They are quoting Hebrew Scripture almost exclusively, plus the “cosmic Christ” passages of Paul. Jesus has basically nothing to say about earthcare.

I came to believe that, if the message of earthcare did not come directly and organically out of the gospel of Jesus, Christians were not going to pay much attention; and they weren’t. If Jesus doesn’t talk about it, why should we?

So I dropped the project before really finishing the book. I told myself that I would now study the gospel of Jesus on its own terms and if I found something, I would follow it, but if I didn’t, I would lay the project down.

And so I started over. I spent years studying the gospels, trying not to force some revelation, but to read them in the spirit in which they were written, waiting to see what G*d would reveal, following the openings that G*d gifted me with. I did not find an earthcare message in Jesus’ gospel; it’s just not there.

But I found something else—two things, really. And they ignited a new fire that has yet to burn out. Not even close. That is for another post.

Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship

April 24, 2016 § 5 Comments

Christian theologians began addressing the destruction of creation in a serious way after Rachel Carson published her landmark book Silent Spring in 1960. For my first book on earthcare, I read a lot of these books and began synthesizing the main common themes. I found ten such themes.

The first several principles define God’s relation to creation as its Creator. Principle four—the central principle of Christian earth stewardship—defines the human’s proper relation to creation. The rest of the principles define the human’s proper relation to God vis a vis creation. Together these principles define a covenantal triangle, a three-way set of mutual promises and obligations, though these Christian theologians mostly ignore God’s side of the covenant and focus only on ours.

Here are the ten themes or core ideas I found in this literature:

  1. “The earth is the Lords”: God is the sovereign proprietor of creation—not humans. (Ps. 24:1)
  2. “Behold, it was utterly good”: God’s creation is inherently good.n (Gen 2:4)
  3. “The heavens are telling the glory of God”: The creation glorifies God; therefore so should we, especially in our earth stewardship. (Ps. 19:1)
  4. “Have dominion . . . “: We are given dominion over creation, but only in trust as stewards. (Gen 1:28)
  5. “A little lower than God”: Among the creatures, we humans enjoy the privilege of God’s special favor. (Ps 8)
  6. “Because they worshiped the creature rather than the creator”: We worship the transcendent Creator, not the creation. (Rom 1:25)
  7. “I am establishing my covenant with you”: Covenant is the rightful context for our earth stewardship. (Gen 9:8)
  8. “Open your hand to the poor”: Responsible earth stewardship calls for social justice. (Deut 15:11)
  9. “The time has come . . . for destroying those who destroy the earth”: We are called to responsible earth stewardship; harming creation is a sin.
  10. “The creation waits with eager longing”: Salvation in Christ offers the prophetic promise of a new covenant with creation. (Rom 8:19)

Writers supported these principles with biblical proof texts. Soon I will provide a document with the passages I found either in my reading or in my own research. I reviewed it briefly and saw some problems with it; I haven’t looked at it in a while.

A lot of these Bible passages don’t really work very well, in my opinion. A lot of the time, you must argue from inference and stretch the meaning pretty thin, at that. The most glaring case are those supporting the idea that destroying creation is a sin. This is the key claim of Christian earth stewardship, and yet nowhere in the Bible does it say this outright.

All Christian theology must work within the basic framework of its sin-salvation paradigm, in which the basic human problem, not just spiritually, but in all human spheres, is sin, and the irreplaceable solution is salvation in Christ. So Christian earth stewardship theologians must add bad earthcare to the already long list of sins, a list that is dominated by things that have been on the list for millennia and have been more clearly defined in the Bible.

But I am getting to my critique. For, after writing most of this book, I came to the depressing conclusion that the book led to a dead end, that Christian earth stewardship was itself a dead end, and that some new approach was required. I felt I had to start over, after years of research and writing.

Quaker Earthcare Testimony—An Opening

April 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

From opening to leading to ministry

In 1990, Buffalo Meeting asked New York Yearly Meeting’s Friends in Unity with Nature task group to bring them a program for the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, which was still celebrated on Sundays then. NYYM’s FUN had been established by the little group that heard the word from Marshall Massey’s address to the FGC Gathering several years before.

A f/Friend and I went to Buffalo, and I had my notes all ready. But while praying over them the night before, I had an opening. I would later find the opening articulated by Matthew Fox in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, so I know the basic ideas were in the air, but to me it came as a thunderbolt, a new revelation. The opening was this:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

If the Christ was the Word, the Logos, the organizing principle and order of creation, then to destroy creation was to re-crucify Christ.

Now I knew the Bible pretty well and immediately, meaning began branching out from this white hot source point, leaving trails like fuses to other Bible passages and new ideas. I was on fire. The next morning I shared this stuff with the meeting, receiving a cool reception. I don’t think they were expecting a Scripture-based sermon.

Well, neither was I. I had spent the last couple of decades bashing the Bible and being openly hostile to Christians and their ideas. But here I was quoting the Bible and sharing what was obviously a Christian message.

Over the next few weeks, the ideas just kept coming. The fire within me just got more intense. It became clear that I was led to write a book, a book of biblical earthcare theology.

Because this was such a cross to my will, I asked my meeting for a support committee. I was afraid that my hostility toward the Bible and toward Christianity would interfere with the truth I was seeking. I didn’t get the support I wanted and that is another story. But I found I had to go on without that support anyway. Soon I was applying to be a resident student at Pendle Hill, intending to start my research and my writing there. I was at Pendle Hill for two terms, coincident with the first gulf war in 1991.

I continued my research for several years, studying the Bible intensely and also reading Christian earth stewardship theology. In 1995, I went to Earlham School of Religion under the Patrick D. Henry Scholarship for Christian Writers and began writing in earnest. The result was How Long Will the Land Mourn: A Synthesis and Critique of Christian Earth Stewardship. The title comes from my favorite Bible passage on earthcare:

How long will the land mourn,

and the grass of every field wither?

For the wickedness of those who live in it

the animals and the birds are swept away,

and because people said,

“He does not see what we do.”

In the next post: the Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship, the first fruits of this leading.

Quaker Groups Statement — Climate Summit 2014

October 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

In September, seven Quaker groups produced a group statement on climate change for distribution ahead of the People’s Climate March in New York City and the Climate Summit held the next week at the United Nations. The organizations were Quaker Earthcare Witness, Quaker United Nations Office, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Quaker Council for European Affairs, American Friends Service Committee, Quakers in Britain, and Living Witness. Click the following link to download a pdf file of this statement, Facing the Challenge of Climate Change: A shared statement by Quaker groups.

I am very glad that these organizations were able to present to the world a testimony on this all-important issue. I know it sometimes is not easy to get approval for such a statement by even one organization, let alone so many. And these organizations carry considerable weight, both among Friends and in some parts of the wider society. Furthermore, I know that it sparked a lot of conversation around Quaker circles and some action. New York Yearly Meeting, at the least, endorsed the statement and released a press release about its endorsement. I suspect that some local meetings and maybe some other yearly meetings and organizations did so, as well. So hurray for the faithfulness of the Friends who crafted and approved this statement.

I do have some concerns, however. But in the comments and critique that follows, I hold up this statement, not as a failure on the part of the Friends who wrote it and approved it, but as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how we Friends—liberal Friends, anyway—pursue and articulate our social and ecological witness.

My concerns—a summary. The writer in me wishes the statement were bolder—stronger and more direct in its language. The Quaker minister in me wishes it was more prophetic in its message and that that message came from closer to the heart of our tradition. Another way to put this concern is that I wish God and the faith and practice of Quaker ministry played a more central role. The document designer in me wishes it were formatted more attractively.

All this inner grumbling has made me somewhat outwardly grumpy.  I’ve written about this before: The liberal branch of Quakerism consistently produces witness statements that barely mention God and use secular language rather than clearly religious language, let alone distinctively Quaker language, to make its arguments. These minutes of conscience often could have been written by some secular organization, for all that you can tell.

Stronger language. In the main body of the statement, paragraphs begin, “We recognize . . . “ “Recognize” is as passive an action word as you can get. All you have to do to recognize something is to have your eyes open and your brain turned on. No small thing in this time of eco-denial, I admit. But we Friends can do much more than “recognize”—can’t we? Can we not TESTIFY!? If you replace all the Statement’s “We recognize” phrases with “We testify”, or something else that clearly declares our stand as religious, Quaker, and God-breathed, how much more powerful would it read! If you do these replacements, however, you quickly recognize that you need to change the message itself.

Prophecy. One testifies to the Truth. One testifies as a witness, which implies a prophetic judgment. One testifies to the Truth on behalf of its Source. Traditionally, a prophetic oracle invokes God, names the sin, and then it often predicts the consequences of that sin, hopefully with vivid and even poetic images. The language in this statement lacks prophetic teeth; in fact, it’s weak in prophetic perspective. If this testimony arose from a prompting of the Holy Spirit, then it should say so. Now I realize that some of these organizations serve “constituencies” that might not be comfortable with such overt religious language or they may have other obligations related to funding and mission that complicate the process for public proclamations like this. My question is about source and truth in our prophetic witness, and not really about this particular document: Do our minutes of conscience come from divine prompting? Are we speaking truth to power? What is that truth? And are we courageous enough to give it a prophetic voice that comes from our own venerable tradition?

Quaker tradition. Almost all the language of the Statement invokes the rhetoric of secular social justice work and secular environmental science. It uses “anthropogenic” (a technical, somewhat off-putting word that it must then define, which sounds condescending to my ears), “mean temperature rises”, “most vulnerable peoples”, “global economic injustice”, “limited natural resources”, “fossil fuel extraction”, “beautiful human family”. It never taps the rich resources of Quaker written tradition, except for the fantastic quote from William Penn at the beginning. It never invokes the Bible, either, except obliquely in its reference to the “peaceable Kingdom of God”, even though the Bible is the original source of all our testimonial rhetoric, just as the Holy Spirit is the source of the testimonial life itself, and of the distinctive testimonies that have arisen from that Life.

Speaking of God. Here’s the crux of the matter: Where is God in our public witness? The statement concludes with this sentence: “We see this Earth as a shining gift that supports life. It is our only home. Let us care for it together.” I wish we would end our minutes of conscience with powerful, explicitly Quaker/religious prophetic oracles.

The “gift” idea in this last sentence suggests a possibility for some earth stewardship language that clarifies where this gift came from (the Creator) and why we have a religious responsibility for it (stewardship). I think Christian earth stewardship has some problems of its own (the topic of my first unpublished book). However, if we took full responsibility for its principles, we would have a truly radical agenda, and earth stewardship has the additional value of appealing to a lot of people in language they understand. The gift comes from God, it’s not ours to do with as we please, we will be held accountable for how we steward the gift. It would speak most directly, I would think, to evangelical Christians, and to many Muslims and orthodox Jews.

However, when this last sentence capitalizes “Earth”, it unconsciously reaches for another perhaps more powerful if more difficult Truth, which the quote from Penn prefigures: Earth is not just a gift for life support, our spaceship earth. It is not just our home. Earth is worth capitalizing because it is alive with the very life and spirit and presence of the Creator.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God (referring to Genesis 1:1 here). All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

Many Friends may not rise to this language the way I do, but it expresses poetically in the language of our tradition the truth that, in some deep and mysterious way, our God and the earth are one; they are integral to each other at the deepest levels of reality. Never mind the spat between Genesis and evolution; the creative process—evolution—expresses the divine in true and important ways. This truth is the traditional foundation for the testimony that Penn gives us in that epigram at the beginning: that the face of the Creator is “in all and every part of” creation.

This means that to destroy the Earth is to re-crucify Christ, who is the Word. Ecocide is deicide, not just suicide.

That’s what I wish this statement had said.

Genesis and earthcare

August 17, 2013 § 9 Comments

The theme for New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions 2013 was “Keeping Faith: Answering that of God in All Creation”. The Bible study for the week focused on the first three chapters of Genesis and what they might teach us about “answering that of God in all creation”. The facilitator, Ruth Kinsey, was the pastor of Farmington Meeting for a long time, though she now is retired, lives in Folkeways, a Quaker retirement community, and is a member of Gwynedd Meeting in Pennsylvania.

I thought Ruth did a great job of calling forth from the material a strong message of responsible earth stewardship and of reinterpreting some of the more problematic aspects of these stories. Nevertheless, many participants, I think, were deeply troubled by some of these passages, especially the verses on dominion over creation and the submission of women to men. And I have my own concerns, as well.

I think that Friends should not use the first three chapters of Genesis in defining Quaker earthcare, for several reasons. I want to return to each of these in future posts.

  • Creation. First, the creation myths in Genesis one and two are not the true story of the earth’s creation. Why would we be guided by stories that have no relation to the evolutionary processes that really produced the human race and our world, processes that we must understand and respect if we are to be responsible earth stewards? We should ground our earthcare witness in the science that reveals the mind of God more truly than this myth can.
  • God. Some would say that while the Genesis stories may not describe the true process of creation, they do give us valuable insights into the Creator, into God’s relation to creation, and our relation to God vis a vis creation. I disagree, however. I feel that these chapters either portray a God that does not exist or they misrepresent God in ways that make God irrelevant or even inimical to our earthcare concerns. We should ground our earthcare witness in the leadings that the Spirit of Love and Truth has given to our earthcare prophets, both Quaker and non.
  • Stewardship. The theology of traditional Christian earth stewardship for which these chapters are the starting point offers principles of real value and power for earthcare witness. However, I feel that ultimately, traditional Christian earth stewardship leads to a dead end. I have written a book on this subject and I don’t want to use this blog to lay out the whole book, but in future posts, I do want to discuss some of what I call the 9+ principles of Christian earth stewardship vis a vis Quaker earthcare witness. If we took full responsibility for these principles, we would embark on a truly radical witness—but we won’t. No Christians will. And even if we did, it would not be enough.
  • The Fall. The story of the Fall in Genesis two and three is the very foundation of the sin-salvation paradigm so central to traditional Christian belief. But there was no Fall. Where is the evidence for a pair of proto-humans who were living in a pure “state of innocency”, as George Fox put it, and then fell from grace, leaving the rest of humanity inherently corrupt and disobedient to God?
  • As a parable, the story of the Fall may be trying to teach us something about human nature, our situation here on earth, and about God. However, I feel that the story of the Fall distorts the reality of human nature and of the world we live in, and, as I have said before, it defines a relationship between God, humans, and the world that has a shadow side; I feel that this shadow too strongly dims any light that these verses might offer us.
  • We do have an inherent tendency to disobey and to do wrong; I’m not denying that. But we also have inherent tendencies to obey and to do good, to create, to procreate, to organize socially, to nurture our young, to wage war—sinfulness is just one of a complex and extensive constellation of human instincts or predilections, and not, i my opinion, the most important at all. Why single sinfulness out among them all as the one that truly and decisively defines the human condition and the God we worship? Well, I plan to return to this topic of what I call the sin-salvation paradigm in later posts. And I want to focus especially on how the story of the Fall actually undermines faithful earthcare.

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