Salvation Brings All Creatures to a State of Fulfillment!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Robert Saler
Readings for Year B 2011-12
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
2 Kings 5:1-17
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Ecologically minded Christians often find themselves in dialogue with environmental activists who share a passion for the natural world, but who do not share Christian religious convictions. Because there are many and various forms of spirituality among environmentalists, one of the challenges for Christian preaching about ecology stems from the need to distinguish Christian presuppositions about nature (and humanity’s place within it) from the assumptions that accompany other spiritual worldviews.
This is particularly pressing when it comes to the issue of “anthropocentrism,” or the tendency to prioritize human welfare even if such prioritizing ends up as justification for denigrating other creatures – or even the Earth itself. At the risk of oversimplification, it seems clear that numerous “radical” strands of contemporary ecology (such as “deep ecology”) seek to correct anthropocentrism in ways that betray a certain hostility towards humanity itself—as if the main solution to our ecological woes would be to eradicate humans from the planet in order to allow the Earth’s ecosystems to bring themselves back into balance. Humans qua human, on this view, are an invasive species to the Earth, or perhaps even a disease in need of curing.
How should Christian preaching dialogue with these vital currents of contemporary ecological thought? I would suggest that, as Lutherans, we draw upon the time-honored recommendation to distinguish moments of “law” and “gospel.”
Regarding the moment of law: anthropocentrism—particularly to the extent that it has been bolstered by certain interpretations of Judeo-Christian scripture, as Lynn White Jr. documented in his seminal 1967 article “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”—is indeed a sin of which the church needs to repent, continually. It has been clear for some time now that humans, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, are occupying the planet in ecologically unsustainable ways. We are taxing the earth beyond its capacities, and we have set up a host of ideological justifications—economic, philosophical, and religious—to encourage us in these rapacious activities.
In our readings for this week, God—operating through the prophet Elisha and through God’s incarnate Word, Jesus—is about the work of healing, specifically leprosy. Leprosy was (and is) a disease that causes, not only intense physical suffering, but also extreme social isolation. It is a condition of biological alienation from life-giving networks of support.
With that in mind, those meditating and preaching on these texts may need to take seriously the testimony from the aforementioned “radical” currents of ecology that humans, in our excessive abuse of the earth, are FUNCTIONING as a disease upon the earth. A disease that alienates ourselves and creation from the life-giving ecological networks of “life support” which God has made an integral part of nature’s blessings. Can we stand to hear the message that, in our greed, we have become agents of Earth’s dis-ease? Such a proclamation of law might be the moment of truth-telling that we need in order to honor these texts in the 21st century.
But what, then, is the gospel?
First we must assert, in a humility born of undeserved grace, that Christians cannot agree with the idea that humans AS SUCH are irredeemable. Humanity, from Genesis forward, is deemed part of God’s “good” creation, and so any salvation of the earth must encompass humanity as well, “chief of sinners though we be” (1 Timothy 1:15).
If God, in Christ, is to be our salvation, then the task of preaching gospel from these texts may well require asserting boldly that Christ is still about the work of ending alienation, healing dis-ease, and bringing all creatures into a state of biotic fulfillment within the intricate networks of life that God has made. And such preaching may also call us to look for signs of God’s Holy Spirit carrying on such work in our own times—both within the church and outside of it.
And is such gospel preaching prompts that age-old ethical question, “what then should we do,” then one could do far worse than looking to the example of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians. Using himself as an example, Paul describes a life of ascetic discipline (askesis) that seeks as its goal the accommodation of creaturely existence to the aims of God—that is, conforming our lives to Christ and Christ’s gospel mission on earth. Those undertaking askesis labored to curb those impulses and actions that would go against God’s gracious will.
If, in our time, we find ourselves functioning as agents of dis-ease and alienation among God’s creation, and if our faith tells us that God in Christ seeks to salvifically heal us of our sin and heal Earth of the effects of our sin, then it may be that part of our ethical responsibility going forward will be to think seriously about how we can undertake the sort of ascetic disciplines that will curb our own Earth-damaging actions.
Can we envision a new asceticism centered on, for instance, reducing carbon emissions? Consuming less meat? Buying fewer goods? The lists of lifestyle alterations that we might undergo for Earth’s benefits are readily available; what preaching might do is to give us the theological foundation for undertaking such askesis with joy. The joy that comes from knowing that God has graced humanity with the ability to be co-agents in the earth’s healing is, at least potentially, a powerful gospel force on earth.
The word of law is that humans, by our actions, are often agents of the planet’s dis-ease.
The word of gospel is that God is at work restoring health to the intricate, ecological networks of “life-support” of which humans are a part.
The gospel “ethic” that results might be, following Paul, a new understanding of askesis, that is, discipline for the sake of creation’s well-being.