Greening the Lectionary

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

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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