God calls us to do what is right, not what we have the right to do!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Robert Saler
Readings for Year B 2011-12
The world continues to be saddened by the events of September 13th, when the Italian luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground near the island of Giglio. It has become clear that human error and negligence was a definitive cause of this event, which has left many dead and has threatened ecological catastrophe for the fragile aquamarine ecosystems of that region.
One of the striking pieces of information to emerge from this disaster is that these cruise ships are in the habit of doing “sail-byes” near these islands in order to show off the massive, opulent ships to the islanders, who are expected to be impressed by such grandiose displays of human technological achievement. It seems clear that, for all of the human tragedy in this case, here again is an instance where human technological hubris may have caused untold damage to God’s good earth. “Showing off” our massive technological achievements creates victims, human and nonhuman.
The readings for this week are oriented around several interrelated themes:
1). Authentic prophetic speech;
2). Idolatry and spiritual struggle against demons;
3). The ethical distinction between what we are ABLE to do and what we OUGHT to do.
The biblical texts of both the Old and New Testaments are univocal in regarding prophetic speech as an endeavor fraught with risk and danger. On one level, prophetic speech often meets with resistance from those who bear the brunt of its critique, and that resistance can become fatal for the prophet involved (Luke 13:34). Even more seriously, the text from Deuteronomy makes it clear that a prophet’s ultimate accountability is to God, who threatens to judge any self-styled “prophet” who speaks (in God’s name) a word that is not from God. Prophecy is no way to achieve fame or security; it is a razor’s edge act of truth-telling (parrhesia).
But prophetic speech must occur in God’s world, because the world as we know it is the site of both idolatry and struggle against that which would degrade the life of God’s creatures. In the Corinthians text, Paul acknowledges the situation of “freedom” in which the congregation finds itself. They can, in this instance, choose to eat meat that has been produced as the result of pagan temple sacrifices. However, Paul urges them to withhold from doing so if such eating will offend the consciences of those who cannot abide the practice.
Thus, Paul introduces an ethical distinction which is crucial for Christians, and indeed for contemporary humanity: the need to cultivate a worldview of care and charity that holds back from taking actions that one COULD do in order to maintain life-giving relations with others. The point that Paul is making is a fundamentally ecological one: we are in a relationship of vulnerability and interdependence with others, and therefore we are called to exercise our freedom in ways that promote health and viability with these relations. The relationship takes priority over vain and undisciplined “freedom.”
Do we not find ourselves, as a human species, armed with unprecedented levels of technology and ability to shape God’s earth, to “co-create” (as Philip Hefner and others have termed it)? But do not our vulnerable selves, inextricable from the health of the natural world, need to think carefully about whether or not the “cry of the earth” is prophetically calling us to hold off from doing all that we MIGHT do in order to give first priority to our fragile, interwoven relationships with all of God’s creatures? Is creation itself the prophet that now speaks God’s word to us?
When viewed with Christian eyes, our current obsession with using technology to exploit the natural landscape for economic ends can only be described as idolatrous (placing our own short-term interests above God’s will for God’s world), and perhaps even demonic. As Vítor Westhelle has pointed out (in his book The Church Event: Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant), in the biblical narratives “demons” are often forces that impede the life of the one afflicted such that the person can no longer speak for themselves. Worship of technology drives us to render creation “silent” in the face of our desires; yet, God’s word tells us that we are disciples of one who exorcises such demons in order to let that which is afflicted speak once more.
If God’s creation is struggling to speak, or even cry out against our idolatrous “use” of it, then do we have ears to hear? It may be that the deepest point of gospel in these readings stems from our conviction as Christians that Jesus, God’s incarnate sign of love for God’s material world, is at work in us—exorcising the idols of lust for domination from our own hearts, and calling us to use God’s gift of speech to speak up for that which God would have preserved, and preserved abundantly.
By allowing God’s incarnate word and God’s material world to speak truth to us, perhaps we can be healed (soter) of that which holds us back from ecological care and from a relationship with that on which we so depend. If this could be, what grace indeed!
Christian ethics depends upon the Christian placing priority upon maintaining life-giving relationships rather than exercise of capricious “freedom.”
God’s creation cries out, but is silenced by our complicity in idolatry.
Creation itself might be God’s prophet to us in our time.
Following Christ means submitting ourselves to the call of God’s incarnate word
God’s beloved world; a call to be healed of that which holds us back from caring relationship with that which God has made.