Greening the Lectionary

A Theological Response to the Ecological Crisis: Reflections, Reviews, Comment.

Lent 3 Exodus 20.1-17, 1 Cor 1:18-25

“I, the Lord you God am a jealous God, punishing children for the inequity of parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments”.

I have always found these words problematic, after all how can God, who we imagine to be a loving father, punish individuals for the sins of their parents? However, if we exchange the idea of punishment, for consequence, then it seems only too true. For we find ourselves in this perilous ecological crisis not only as a result of our own choices but because of the choices of those who went before us.

The ancient wisdom contained in the ten commandments has been ignored for generations. As early as the fourth century St Ambrose of Milan was bewailing the fact that

“the world has been created for everyone’s use, but you few rich are trying to keep it for yourselves. For not merely the possessions of the earth but the very sky, the air and the sea are claimed by the rich few”.

The idols of possession, productivity and consumption have emerged unchallenged to compete with God’s vision for his creation. The ideal of sabbath rest has been abandoned. Covetousness is no longer seen as a sin but a pre-requisite for an economic system based on creating a desire for things we don't need, where we are encouraged to keep up with our neighbours rather than love them as ourselves. There have been many attempts to describe the root causes of the ecological crisis but Christians cannot be afraid to name the cause as sin and remind the world that sin is not a joke but a danger with long-lasting consequences. 

We might imagine that given a blank sheet we would have built a different, better world. We know we are complicit but not completely to blame. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our choices will affect future generations in devastating ways. The rate at which we are using resources cannot be sustained, even if we do manage to leave a habitable world for generations to come,  they will not have the same resources and opportunities available to them that we have enjoyed. We might even think of this, in the light of the eighth commandment, as theft. Greta Thunberg reproached the UK parliament with the words “The future has been sold so that a small number of people can make unimaginable amounts of money”. Jesus refused to allow his Father's house to be desecrated by the idolatry of greed. Are we required to make a similar stand against the desecration of this planet we share with other creatures and future generations? We cannot continue to say that it isn't our fault for ever.

In 1967, Lynn White declared that “Christianity bore a huge burden of guilt” for cultivating a dominating attitude towards nature. Whilst there was some truth in his claim, I would suggest it bears a greater burden of guilt for not recognising and naming sin for what it was, focussing on personal sins and neglecting societal ones, and over-emphasising sexual sin whilst not calling out greed, discrimination, oppression or idolatry. White suggests that the answer to the ecological crisis would not be found in technology but in religion and I agree with him, because if the problem is sin, then as Christians, do we not claim to have an answer? Suggesting that the cross of Christ is an answer to the ecological crisis may appear foolish, but Pope Francis reminds us of the need for conversion and that a Christian conversion necessitates an ecological one. Repentance is the only answer.  

Philip Larkin wrote “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself”. We might not agree with his conclusion, but misery has indeed been handed on, but whether we continue to do so is up to us. As Christians, we claim that in Jesus Christ, this cycle can and will be broken. This is why for the sake of our children and grandchildren we must continue, like St Paul, to proclaim Christ crucified.

 

 

Lent 2

 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. “

In 1937, in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoffer published his theological classic The Cost of Discipleship. The English title of the book speaks for itself, he writes of a discipleship which is demanding, all-consuming and risky. This week’s Gospel makes the cost of discipleship explicit. Jesus’ mission as the Christ will cost him dear, he will not have the easy path to glory that Peter hopes he might, rather he will be rejected, he will suffer and he will die, before rising again after three days. Following Jesus means following him to the cross. The German title of Bonhoffer’s book is Nachfolge means "following“.

This does not mean that those who follow Christ will inevitably face martyrdom, or that we must seek suffering. Nor does it mean that when we find ourselves bullied, abused or exploited we must accept it as “the cross we have to bear” (too many women describe their abusive husbands as “the cross they are carrying” to leave this unsaid). However, it shows the lie of “the prosperity gospel” which suggests that those who follow Jesus will achieve worldly success, because God somehow favours them. Following Jesus, is no guarantee of an easy life or quiet one.

Part of this costly call to discipleship is living differently, putting our minds to divine and not human things. This means, for example, having a different attitude towards possessions. Bonhoffer writes:

“Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.”

In Mark 10:17-22, the cost of sitting lightly to his possessions renders discipleship too costly for the Rich Young Ruler and remains an ever-present challenge for Christians.

Part of this costly call to discipleship is naming sin for what it is. It is refusing to be complicit with structural evil. For Bonhoffer, this meant calling out the Nazi Regime. Confronted with Nazism, the German Church faced a choice,they could become the religious arm of the state, turn a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities or they could stand against it. Bonhoffer chose the latter course and it was costly. He was initially sent to prison, then to concentration camps, and finally he was hanged. How much easier it would have been to keep quiet, to stay out of politics, to focus on his prayer life, but would it have been more Christian?

In the face of the ecological crisis, we face a similar choice to Bonhoffer. We can name the evil inherent in the destruction of the natural world, in the rich inflicting climate chaos on poorer nations, in bequeathing to future generations problems we are not courageous or selfless enough to solve. This will be costly, both in terms of personal lifestyle, for we will have to practice what we preach, and in terms of conflict, for if we challenge the powers and principalities of this world there will be push back. But the alternative of staying silent, being accommodationist, and making compromises with the values of this world in ways which prove more costly for others rather than ourselves, reeks of cowardice. Is demanding action on the ecological crisis, despite its inherent risks and sacrifices, part of the cost of discipleship in the 21st Century? 

Thoughts for Lent

 

Lenten themes lend themselves easily to a "Green" perspective. Although the causes of the ecological crisis are manifold and include technological development and increasing population, as Christians we must recognise and name the role of sin. The lust for power that sees the natural world, and other people as resources to be exploited for financial gain. The injustice, that sees the limited resources of the world unequally shared, and the burden of climate change falling on those least responsible for the emissions which have caused it. The greed and gluttony involved in those who have much, taking it for granted and continually wanting more.The profligacy that uses precious resources, to create goods with little purpose, for a limited amount of time, before disposing of them, without thought for the consequences. The pride, that leads us to imagine that we can solve this by our own ingenuity, rather than admitting we are on the wrong track and changing our ways. The sloth, that believes it’s down to other people to sort this out. If sin is at the root of the problem, then self-examination and repentance are crucial.

Pope Francis (2015) calls for an ecological conversion - a change of heart and mind similar to and demanded by Christian conversion. However, we must be careful not to understand the problem exclusively in terms of personal sinfulness, which limits our response to our own changed lifestyles. These sinful attitudes are embedded in our society, our culture, our way of life is predicated on them. Our efforts to live sustainable lifestyles are frequently thwarted by the assumptions of the world we live in; one which considers air travel but not public transport to be essential, which sees continual growth to be necessary for economic well-being, and where success is calibrated by accumulated possessions. We need to examine not only ourselves, but the societies of which we are a part. We need not only to repent, but call others to repentance. Against this background the fasting and self-denial of Lent not only function as spiritual disciplines which enable us to addres our own behaviour, and build our own characters, but as prophetic action. Opening up the possibility of different ways of living.

About the Editor: Revd Ruth Newton

Ruth is parish priest of St John's Sharow, a Silver Eco-Church, whose  Churchyard has been awarded County Wildlife Status.She is a member of the Church of England General Synod. Ordained for 18 years, Ruth has ministered in three multi-parish benefices, as a Cathedral Canon and as a Lay Training Officer. Ruth has a Masters in Theology, a PGCE and an an associate fellowship with the Higher Education. She is currently studying for a Doctorate in Ecotheology and teaching. She is working on a freelance basis, she is available as a speaker.

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