Easter 3, b, 4/22/12
You will have noted the many activities and opportunities to celebrate Earth Day this weekend. That is, I believe, a good thing. But sometimes it becomes a bit, well, flaky. Did you notice that in yesterday’s newspaper there was an ad for “the greenest” bed mattress? Made of organic latex, cashmere, aloe vera, certified organic cotton, hand culled New Zealand wool, and coconut coir (the fiber obtained from the husk of a coconut)? All that in a mattress that sells for only $2100![i]
Yes, there is a lot of fuzzy thinking on the manner in which we human beings interact with the natural world…fuzziness that need not be. We are blessed with a good number of deep thinkers, Christian thinkers on these matters, who can help us determine how we will act upon this natural environment, this gift of God, this singular Earth. One such thinker is Professor John Cobb Jr., a prolific United Methodist author,[ii]who in his book, The Earthist Challenge to Economism, has clearly elucidated the main points that I wish to share with you over the course of the next few minutes.
With respect to the natural world, we must begin by confessing ….confessing that human economic goals simply dominate decision-making the entire world over. Economic thinking determines how most goals and the most important goals are pursued. In fact, we have come so far that we begin to suppose that this is simply the rational way to be. Many assume that when we free ourselves from all ideology we will adopt this economic determinism as a kind of necessity,…. but a careful study proves this is short-sighted. When we allow economics to dominate society we have adopted an ideology that upon closer examination is itself strange, dangerous, and new, one that has been accepted by many people only quite recently.
From almost any humanistic point of view the recent dominance of economic considerations is clearly a reversal of traditional values,
- From a naturalistic point of view, this economic dominance neglects the worth of nature and we have seen time and again how it leads to nature’s destruction.
- From a communitarian point of view, this profoundly denies the social nature of human beings and our context in the natural world.
- From a small d democratic point of view, making our decisions on the basis of how much product or money we’ll generate, frequently leads to the loss of self-governing by those who aren’t the top dog financial decision makers .
- But maybe most telling for those of us who intend to follow Jesus Christ in our decision-making, this dominance of economic thinking quickly becomes an idolatrous worship of money, of things, of power.
Now, I suspect I am already losing some of you. In our public life objections such as these I am raising are rarely taken seriously. These other points of view are tolerated to a degree, but not taken seriously enough to affect the important decisions that we make. These other points of view are considered merely ideological, whereas the almost unbridled pursuit of economic growth is thought to be practical, pragmatic. Just read the newspapers. See what people value enough to focus their energies and spend their time on. The one goal that unifies the body politic almost regardless of political party in every nation is that of sustained economic growth.
John Cobb's word for this placing of economic growth on the throne at the top of our value system is “economism.” It is no stretch to say economism is the world's shared religion. Most individuals leave to experts the tinkering with the system and focus themselves on intensely competing with others to assure their own slice of the pie. This is done in order to acquire what we often unthinkingly believe to be the necessary goods and services that are commonly understood to make life worthwhile.
If economism is the dominant religion of our time, it is worthy of closer examination, especially on Earth Day, especially in the Spirit suffused community of the church.
Here is an alternative approach, that focuses on economic growth that genuinely contributes to the well-being of human communities in a sustainable way. James Gustav Speth, then Administrator of the UN Development Program put it this way at the United Nations nearly 20 years ago, when he said:
“Sustainable human development is, first of all people centered. It puts poor people first. It meets their basic needs, including the need to attain self-reliance, and it enlarges their opportunities, including the opportunities to live a long and healthy life, to be educated, to have employment needed for decent standard of living.”
“Sustainable human development is also environmentally sound. It stresses the need to regenerate the natural resource base, to increase the long-term productivity of the resource sectors, and to protect the environment both locally and globally. And sustainable human development is participatory; it can only be achieved where poor people have an opportunity to participate in the events and processes that shape their lives.[iii]”
Those of us who organize our lives through a religious perspective must come to terms with the fact that the way most religion has developed has disconnected us from important engagement with the Earth. Many streams of Christianity focus so intently on salvation in the afterlife, apart from history, apart from materiality, consummating in a viewpoint that with the promise of Jesus’ imminent second coming, there is really no point in conserving the Earth.
But on closer examination it isn’t just some forms of Christianity that are problematic. Other major religions of the world in the West and also in the East focus their adherents on a salvation that is either post historical or so inward and individual that almost uniformly religions have not honored the Earth in the way a new earthist perspective as John Cobb names it, would call for.
Earthists reject the primacy of any national or lesser allegiance in favor of caring first for the future of the whole Earth: human and other sentient beings.
Earthists embrace the well-being of the entire earth’s ecological balance as the most important decision-making factor.
This shouldn’t sound strange to us Christians, but, in fact, we have habitually traded the biblical vision of human responsibility to care for God's good Earth including all sorts of creatures with their own intrinsic value… for a vision of hierarchical dominance where we humans use whatever we want no matter what it costs in planetary health or animal life.
A few weeks back I noticed dozens of butterflies dancing among the wildflowers and in the garden of our backyard. I delighted in their beauty and complexity. But this past week the visitation of butterflies has left dozens and dozens of caterpillars in our garden that have largely ruined the leeks, the onions, and even the marigolds that are there supposedly to fend off such pests.
It was with only minor qualms that I began picking out the caterpillars and casting them away, then coating the plants with a sprayed mixture of water, dish soap and hot pepper sauce to get rid of those caterpillars. How often in protecting our food supply do we even consider the fact that the caterpillars are of higher complexity, more sentient, in most ethical systems more important creatures then leeks or onions, but there I was casting them out. When we eat our cattle, when we feast on fish or chicken do we give thought to the intrinsic value of such creatures? Usually not.
But we do find on occasion the awareness of the grand vision. I suspect it was his mystical experience that allowed the apostle Paul to expound as he did in today’s passage: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;” (Rom. 8)
Paul surely could not have envisioned the groaning of creation in our day. Paul would be stunned that we are even still here in fact, as he expected the imminent return of Christ in power 2000 years ago.
But we are still here, and in every biblical sense we are still responsible, and as we have become more powerful with respect to the natural world, even more responsible. So let us turn for a moment to the thinking of the most well-known and widely respected social ethicist of the 20th century, Professor Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Professor Niebuhr’s work is best presented in the 21st century by Prof. Gary Dorrien[iv] who is now The Reinhold Niebuhr Professor in Social Ethics at Union, who will be in Austin this Friday and Saturday at the justice conference cohosted by our own UCC Endowment For Creative Ministries Program Committee. That is the conference that is mentioned in the insert in your bulletin today.
Dr. Dorrien points out that Niebuhr clearly recognized how we moderns and now postmoderns are almost uniformly unaware of the mixed motivation inherent in even what appear to be our most altruistic endeavors.
To use Paul's language, the sinful proclivity - the inherent and inescapable selfishness deeply entrenched in human nature- can make even the finest outreach tainted, besmirched, ambiguous. Surely, we should be trying to right this sinking ship, this planet Earth, but Niebuhr would say, “do so with great care.”
Do so aware that unscrupulous salespeople will try to subvert your altruism and idealism to their own purposes, selling you $2,100 mattresses.
Do so listening to the least of these, Jesus’ sisters and brothers, for the welfare of the poor should be of paramount concern.
Do so listening carefully to your erstwhile opponents who come from other political parties, other religious persuasions, other cultural contexts. For they may have insight into that truth to which you are blinded by the limited perspective that every human being possesses and is possessed by.
Do so in the most small D democratic way possible, listening, listening, listening while you make your decisions and continue listening all the while you execute your decisions.
Let me commend a Christian Earthism that does put the global priority first, but then also lifts the values of love and compassion as its motivation;
That lifts up the creation of caring community as a goal;
That commits to the well-being of generations who won’t walk the Earth until long after we are gone.
Sure, we will each have an unavoidable negative set of effects upon the natural world by our being and living here, but those effects can be mitigated. We can reduce our carbon footprint and our waste trail. We can invest our energies to turn this ship around! And this, my sisters and brothers, is just the day to make that commitment!
[ii] For a wealth of online materials by Prof. Cobb, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Cobb