Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Series A

The Church has the Authority to be a Public Witness in Word and Action against Global Climate Change.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for Year A 2011

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:    Psalm 25:1-9   Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 

Philippians 2:1-13   Matthew 21:23-32

 

By what authority do you do these things, Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation?

The texts for this Sunday provide a good occasion to address one of the most frequently voiced and vexed issues in the church’s engagement with environmental issues, dealing with the skepticism, widely shared in our culture, regarding climate change. By what authority, the religious leaders ask of Jesus, do you do these things? The question comes with reference, as Warren Carter succinctly states, to “the entry, the destruction in the temple and disruption of its sacrificial system, healing, and receiving praise of 21:1-22,” the prophetic action of Jesus with which he challenged the authority and control of the powerful and prestigious religious leaders over the temple space (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp 420, 423).  But the question might appropriately also be asked of a congregation’s actions and advocacy relating to care of creation, consequent upon its confession of Jesus as “the Lord, the Servant of creation.”

 

By what authority does the church speak out against the forces of global climate change?

By what authority, the critics will ask, does the church engage in making arguments for certain public policies and changes in personal behavior with respect to politically controversial environmental issues? What qualifies its leaders and teachers to make pronouncements on matters in dispute in the province climate and earth sciences, and of economics? What basis is there for taking one side or another in the ongoing debate over such matters as climate change or species extinction? Indeed, by what authority do we engage in such matters, in the name of Jesus?

 

Jesus’ response to the leaders regarding his authority in this Gospel reading from Matthew 21 is instructive for framing a response to these questions. As Warren Carter sees this episode,

 

Jesus’ authority to teach (7:29), to heal and forgive (9:6, 8) has been shown to be superior (also 28:18), but they have refused to recognize its origin (God) and nature (life-giving service). . . .Their question is a trap. If he claims his own authority, he admits to having no institutional or cultural legitimation, and appears to have acted against God’s purposes and certainly against theirs. If he claims God’s authority, he blasphemes (9:3) and violates their jurisdiction” (Ibid., p. 423).

 

To say “We don’t know” is to show not ignorance but resistance to Jesus’ approach.

Jesus turns their question back on them, however, challenging the authenticity of their concern for accountability. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” he asks (21:25). Are they really concerned to know whether his action is from God, or is their question simply an assertion of their own power to control what happens in the sacred precinct? At risk, they acknowledge, is their standing in the eyes of the people who have recognized in John a prophet. They see his response in purely political terms. And not wanting to be drawn into a divisive and contentious controversy, they respond, “We do not know” (21:27). As Warren Carter comments, “They choose a path of non-commitment, which, ironically, betrays their commitment. To not answer displays not genuine ignorance (their debate in 21:25 shows they know the options) but deliberate resistance” (p. 424).

 

“Non-commitment” about climate change is not neutral; it serves the status quo!

The “We do not know” critics would urge upon the church an analogous stance with respect to environmental concerns, and especially so with respect to climate change. There is fundamental uncertainty in the predictions of the future made by scientists, they would argue, and we are not competent to resolve such issues. It is not legitimate to engage the authority of the church in such controversies. But such ‘non-commitment” actually commits the church to a path of conformity with respect to current policies and their devastating consequences for the creation. Michael Northcott argues that this is an instance of “what Thomas Aquinas called ‘affected ignorance’, where individuals—or in the present case whole societies—choose not to know what can and should be known”  (Northcott, A Moral Climate: the Ethics of Global Warming, p. 39).

 

The church is committed to the bold witness of the prophet.

It is true that the church cannot claim scientific authority, although the considered judgment of the scientific community is always relevant to ethical deliberation as one of the authentic authorities regarding how things actually work in the world. Ecological science is particularly important for moral deliberation on the part of the church relative to environmental issues, because it represents a radically relational form of reflection, which is highly consonant with biblical thought (See Norman Wirzba’s fine chapter on “The Difference Ecology Makes” in his The Paradise of God, pp. 93-122). What the church is appropriately called upon for, however, is the kind of speech in which both John and Jesus engage, as heirs of the prophetic tradition.

 

Northcott calls this kind of speech “truthful witness.”  It is the   

 

paradigmatic form of resistance to the deceits which collude with the power-knowledge nexus of technocratic society. Such witness constitutes what Aristotle called parrhesia—fearless speech—and Jews and Christians call prophecy. In the art of parrhesia witness is born to the truthfulness of speech by the actions and character of the prophet.” (Northcott, A Moral Climate: the Ethics of Global Warming, p. 39).

 

Not an impartial witness, the church is a “partial witness” on behalf of those who suffer.

Just so, he insists with respect to the question of global warming, “against the putatively impartial discourses of modern economics and natural science, there is a need for ‘partial witness’ which names the sufferings of those people and species which are threatened by climate change for what they are: vicious sacrifices demanded by the destructive gods of the global economy” (Ibid., p. 41). 

 

The need for this “partial witness” over against the “deniers” of climate change derives from deeply grounded convictions about the nature of Earth as God’s creation. In his view, actions a congregation can readily incorporate into its life—such as “turning off lights, turning down the heating, cycling or walking instead of driving, holidaying nearer to home, buying local food, shopping less and conversing more, addressing the causes of fuel poverty locally and internationally”—are to be understood as “rituals encouraged by the recognition of global warming.”

 

The fossil-fuel based economy is dangerous to global and human life.

We might engage them as an expression of a deeper awareness that

 

the fossil-fuelled global economy is dangerous to planet earth and to human life, not just because it is warming the climate of the earth but because it is deeply destructive of the diversity and welfare of the ecosystems and human communities from which surplus value is extracted and traded across highways, oceans and jetstreams (Ibid., p.273).

 

Words and actions of the church serve to correct “modern thoughtlessness.”

Inspired by a genuine concern for creation, taken as an entire web of creation, the congregation’s actions have prophetic authenticity because they “correct modern thoughtlessness. They sustain the moral claim that it is wrong to live in a civilization that depends upon the systematic enslavement of peoples and ecosystems to the high resource requirements of a corporately governed consumer economy (Ibid., p. 273). The roots of moral action, he contends, “do not lie in the certain ability to calculate consequences, but in a coherent relationship between the inner world of thought and emotion and the outer world of bodies, relationships and species.” Such actions respond to the deeply spiritual condition that “the strangely disembodied thought world of fossil-fuelled modernity is characterized by the disruption of the coherence of inner and outer world in the lives of modern humans.” Accordingly,

 

 Actions, which will have the effect of mitigating climate change, are also actions that reaffirm the embodied relationship between inner desire and the outer world of what Christians call Creation. For this reason, such actions are intrinsically good, and will promote flourishing even if, as a minority of dissenters suggest, greenhouse gases are not the primary driver of global warming (Ibid., p. 274).

 

As Carter characterized Jesus’ own actions, the authorization for these actions is that they have their source in God’s purposes for the creation and that they contribute meaningfully to its healing.

 

Jesus models what it means to be “Servant of Creation.”

We have had occasion to argue earlier in this series that an appeal to Jesus as our authority on behalf of care of creation must be grounded in the full narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Fortuitously, our second lesson brings before us this Sunday an important and powerful rehearsal of that narrative. It is precisely in not regarding “equality with God as something to be exploited,” but rather taking the form of a servant, that Jesus is identified as the Lord who is God’s servant of creation. Unlike the human creature who, in assuming the powers of death and life in relationship to the rest of creation, does indeed from the outset seek such equality, Jesus serves the creation even to the point of giving his life for it, and is consequently exalted by God as Lord of all. (See our comments in this series on the texts, variously, for Name of Jesus, Passion Sunday, Holy Trinity, and most recently, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.).

 

The church has authority to act in new ways in response to new circumstances.

Two additional but related reflections are appropriate.  The text from Ezekiel 18 provides warrant for a prophetic correction to an appeal often made on behalf of ecological concern.  We should act on such issues, it is urged, to forestall the dire consequences for our children, lest they come to share the experience suggested by the proverb quoted, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2-4); our children’s future well-being, the argument goes, should move us to act so as to not burden them with an environmentally degraded world. The proverb implies deep pessimism and a kind of determinism that would actually preclude a more open future. The prophet would rather have us understand that, as Walter Breuggeman puts it in commenting on this passage, each new generation, whether facing exile in the biblical past or alienation from creation in the present time, “has freedom for new actions and is not fated to live in paralysis generated by decisions previously made” (Brueggeman, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, pp. 685-86.). The point is perhaps relevant to the interpretation of the Gospel reading as well. Jesus the Servant of Creation calls on his church in a time of grave ecological crisis for new actions unforeseen as part of its witness.

 

Our authority? To advocate for ecological justice for Earth-community.

Our obligation, finally, is to care for the lives of all that currently share in God’s creation.  They are no less the objects of God‘s love than those who will or will not inherit the earth from us. Urgent attention must be paid to the destruction of the environment currently taking place and to the injustice of its distribution across the globe. This is the proper sense of the psalmist’s prayer: Make me to know your ways, O lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25: 4-5). We have new things to learn, new ways to walk, and new actions to take, all as co-servants with Jesus of God’s creation. And he does provide the authority for doing these new things.

 

Topics:

By what authority do you do these things, Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation?

 

By what authority does the church speak out against the forces of global climate change?

 

To say “We don’t know” is to show not ignorance but resistance to Jesus’ approach.

 

“Non-commitment” about climate change is not neutral; it serves the status quo!

 

The church is committed to the bold witness of the prophet.

 

Not an impartial witness, the church is a “partial witness” on behalf of those who suffer.

 

The fossil-fuel based economy is dangerous to global and human life.

 

Words and actions of the church serve to correct “modern thoughtlessness.”

 

Jesus models what it means to be “Servant of Creation.”

 

The church has authority to act in new ways in response to new circumstances.

 

Our authority? To advocate for ecological justice for Earth-community.

 

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