"Nature is the new poor."
That’s a provocative observation from theologian Sallie McFague.
I stumbled on it while preparing for last night’s forum sponsored by 1Sky and Repower America about Christianity and the care of Creation.
Below, as my next post, I’ve pasted the text of my presentation. As always, I look forward to your responses!
Christians aren’t so much called to be successful, but rather faithful.
Depending on your perspective, this is either freeing or a real bummer.
Generally, it is safe to say that “success” tends to be associated with a decent and stable job, family, comfortable house, good reputation, etc.
But the trouble comes when we Christians reflect upon the one who is the foundation for our beliefs: Jesus.
He had none of these.
And yet he was faithful.
Christians believe that Jesus came to deliver soteria, a word often translated as “salvation,” but which in the Greek implies health, healing, and wholeness…the sort you don’t have to wait to die for.
And so he was in the business, so to speak, of restoring, forgiving, feeding, serving. Now.
It can’t be overlooked, of course, that he did also end up on a cross.
Sometimes being faithful is risky business.
Now, typically, Christians have looked to the cross as being primarily about the forgiveness of sins: “Jesus died for you.”
And while I’m all for that, the last 70 some years of theology has begun to wonder if perhaps there might more to his death than the forgiveness of sins.
Nobody is objecting to the forgiveness of sins, to being justified by Jesus’ blood, mind you. But after Auschwitz, it is difficult not to wonder whether justification has to have something to do with justice.
In other words, did Jesus die for more than just sin? Did Jesus die not only for the sinners, but also for those, or for that, which are sinned upon?
And it’s out of that idea that Christians recognize that God is in solidarity with those who suffer, that Jesus isn’t the only one to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”, that God feels our pain more deeply than do we, and, again, that Jesus came to bring soteria–health, healing, and wholeness–to those who suffer, because from a Christian standpoint, if God’s primary agenda were death and decay, then Jesus would still be dead in the tomb.
Instead, Christians believe in Easter, an empty grave, an announcement that life, not death, has the last word.
Now, what does this have to do with the topic at hand?
Perhaps surprisingly, lots.
Many Christians look at Jesus’ life ministering to the oppressed and outcasts, and his death on the cross, and see that God is interested in attending to the crushed.
And so a movement has begun that asserts that while God is concerned with the well-being of all people, God has preferential concern for the poor, for the voiceless, for the subjugated.
Feminist theologian Sallie McFague states that “nature is the new poor,” and that we would do well to “integrate needy nature and needy people.” (Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, 170.) I think she’s absolutely right. And in fact, they already are related; areas of environmental degradation directly correspond with areas of communal poverty–one need only look to the effects of BP on the local economies of the coast to see this to be so.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has put out a fine Social Statement about ecological concern entitled “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice.” (http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/Environment.aspx) It states, “When we act interdependently and in solidarity with creation, we do justice. We serve and keep the earth, trusting its bounty can be sufficient for all, and sustainable.”
It goes on to say that through participation, sufficiency (that is, having what we need, and not what we want), and a sustainable lifestyle, we can honor God’s creation by acting out just living for all creatures.
Now, to some, this seems like an extraordinary leap. A theologian named Gordon Kaufman points out that the main vocabulary of Christianity–like sin, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, hope, faith, love, righteousness–all concern human relationships. (“The Concept of Nature: A Problem for Theology,” Harvard Theological Review 65 : 350, as discovered in Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology [Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1985], 6.)
In fact, the New Testament is hard pressed to demonstrate a real pattern of concern or interest in an ethic toward the land. One can argue that’s because they were anticipating Jesus to return at any moment, and their attention was focussed instead on evangelism.
And while Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, points out that the Old Testament has no “environmental agenda” that we would recognize as such, “land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.”
He writes these stunning words to make the point.
“Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the compromising pursuit of space.”
He goes on to worry about how having land, i.e., power and wealth, “can…be…the enemy of memory,” namely forgetting what it is like to have no place, and therefore no identity, no power, no promise. (The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd edition [Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2002], 4)
But Wendell Berry, author, philosopher, and advocate of the earth, speaks about the Jewish-Christian tradition of scripture reading and worship as showing a “pattern of reminding.” (Wendell Berry, “The Responsibility of the Poet,” What Are People For? [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990], 91.)
So, although the New Testament leaves a bit to be desired in terms of specific references about respecting and stewarding creation, it does have a fine pattern of reminding for those in pain, threatened by death, devoid of hope–like speechless nature.
And it has this key event, this resurrection story, which tells us that now that we who can speak know that death isn’t final, there is more to do with our lives than preserve them.
We can instead be faithful, even, and perhaps these days most precisely, on behalf of all creation.
So many of the early Christians were “displaced,” city-dwellers, not only dislocated by the exile and return but people who experienced rejection from their neighbors or who travelled for their faith (like Paul) that I think even Brueggeman’s articulation of space would have to be a reach for them. But paradise was vividly real as the place they did have, and not only proleptically. Although it leaves some things to be desired from a Lutheran point of view, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker’s SAVING PARADISE gives us provocative clues about how paradise as a relationship among the Christian communities, the martyrs, the natural world, and God was the foundation of the art, architecture, and ethics of early Christianity. It may be our readings of the NT that are inadequate, not the scriptures themselves.
I like this comment a lot. I’m very intrigued by the notion of paradise being relationship…all too often I think it is spiritualized, a destination to get to, rather than one to live out. You now have given me another book to read.
I do believe that there is relatively little in the NT, compared with the OT, using land as a sacred reference point. Elsewhere Kaufman, whom I quoted above, notes that it is not a surprise that the early church gravitated toward the notion of “kingdom” rather than something more organic, more material.
I bet you that sacramental theology might step up to the plate here, however.
And, as Steve Matzner pointed out in last night’s forum, there is no shortage of agricultural references; mustard seeds, vineyards, sowing, and so forth.
My sense of Brueggeman’s notion of space is more a notion of “irrelevant space,” or “amassed space.” Space becomes a commodity and a selfish possession, disconnected from history and relationship. I am reminded of his book Israel’s Praise, in which he points out his dislike of Psalms full of unanchored praise–like 150. His critique here gave me fodder to critique “contemporary creeds,” creeds which are meant to do the same thing as the Nicene or the Apostles, but don’t. They don’t, because they have no shared and spanned history, no anchor in anything but the immediate moment.
Now. Off to purchase Saving Paradise.