Eco-justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary for the Sundays after Epiphany, 2017
By Dennis Ormseth
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Our interpretation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as grounding for an “Earth-honoring faith” concludes in this comment with the development of two themes, Jesus' teaching regarding retaliation and his commandment to love our enemies. In the relationship between these two themes we see how strongly Jesus teaching supports such a faith.
As we pointed out in our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, Larry Rasmussen shows that key to an “Earth-honoring” faith is a repudiation of what he describes as “the modern/eco version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all: the ethic of masters and slaves.” It is this ethic, he argues, with its relationship of “subject-over-object and mind-over-matter in a paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master.” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p.101). As we see in the verses from the Sermon on the Mount appointed for this Sunday, with respect to relations between humans at least, Jesus clearly rejects the “paradigm of dominiation” within which such an ethic operates. “Do not resist an evildoer,” he commands. To be sure, the relationship between humans and nature is not of direct concern here; his illustrations of the command have instead to do with a bully, a lender, and a soldier. His point in each instance is, nonetheless, to discourage the habit of domination manifest in these relationships: a second cheek is offered after the first is struck, a sacrifice of personal honor that risks doubling the insult of the first, but also serves to confound the strategy of an arrogant antagonist; if one relinquishes all one’s clothing to someone who is reclaiming the debt of a coat, one thereby exposes the lack of caring characteristic of a debtor economy; and one who has been forcibly compelled to carry another’s burden voluntarily goes an extra mile, exemplifying a relationship of willing service. Jesus thus offers a vision of relationships, as Warren Carter puts it, that are “without exploitation, reciprocity, and self-aggrandizement. . . One’s resources are available not only for oneself but also for others.” Jesus, he notes, offers “examples of creative, imaginative strategies which break the circle of violence. The servile refuse to be humiliated; the subjugated take iniative by acting with dignity and humanity in the midst of and against injustice and oppression which seem permanent.” Such actions, Walter Wink suggests, “ manifest the destablilizing, transforming reign of God”(Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 153) .
Can such strategies also be righteously and effectively asserted against those who persist in a master/slave relationship with the Earth? What is called for with respect to 'an Earth-honoring faith,” we want to suggest, is the extension of Jesus' repudiation of the paradigm of domination to cover human relationships with the earth. Taken together, Warren Carter suggests, these examples offer a vision meant to train “the audience to imagine the embodiment of God's empire in numerous other situations.” The sayings of the Sermon on the Mount, he observes, “illustrate a way of life marked by a comprehensive and consant love even in the face of opposition.” (Carter, p. 157) So once again, the Sermon directs us into “affairs of the heart.” Can this love then overcome the practices of domination inherent in the master/slave relationship in which we commonly bind the Earth?
This possibility has been explored in connection with the discussion of our second theme, Jesus' commandment to love one's enemies. “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43). The radical character of this teaching is illumined by comparing it to the reading from Leviticus, our first lesson. There the principle is clearly one of reciprocal altruism: “love your neighbor as yourself.” One’s love of self is the standard by which love of neighbor is measured. The commended good behaviors in this instance stretch but do not break the circle defined by that self-interested “your.” However extended that circle might be, it nonetheless falls within the scope of a standard list of behaviors characteristic of all living organisms, including humans: “struggle for resources; reproductive behavior; association with, and positive behavior toward, genetic relatives; and reciprocal behavior.” Conditioned as they are by Darwinian natural selection, these “biological relationships abound with cooperation, but very rarely exhibit anything going beyond our understanding of kin and reciprocal altruism” (Patricia Williams, “The Fifth R: Jesus as Evolutionary Psychologist,” Theology and Science 3, no. 2 [July 2005: 133-43], quoted by Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, p. 67).
“Turn my heart to your decrees,” we pray with the Psalmist this Sunday, “and not to selfish gain.” And appropriately so. Considered theologically, Christopher Southgate argues, reciprocal altruism constitutes a “no” to God’s own self-giving love, to the love “poured out without the cost being counted. The work of the Holy Spirit in offering possibilities of community succeeds in giving rise to ecosystemic complexity, but ‘fails,’ in most of the nonhuman world, in creating any community characterized by authentic altruism, true self-giving love” (The Groaning of Creation, pp. 67-68). Is this “no” to God by the creatures absolute? Can the limit be transcended? A representative consensus of sociobiologists would probably say no, it cannot be overcome. Darwinian natural selection can provide for reciprocal altruism, extended in complex ways as long as the inherent self-interest in survival of the species remains in force. The answer is clearly yes, on the other hand, in view of Jesus’ teaching: Jesus' rejects at the outset the principle of reciprocity; he has just repudiated the lex talionis of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (5:38). His call for non-violent responses to evil have in common an element of extraordinary self-giving. Accordingly, the command to love one's enemies is seen to be a command to love as God loves. Indeed, it rests on a faith in God as both loving Father and as the creator who graces the earth with light and rain. What it means to be “children of your Father in heaven” is to love as God loves (5:44). It is to love without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions. And to love without qualifying distinctions: God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall equally on the righteous and the unrighteous. To love in this way is to love perfectly, because that is how God loves; so “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus’ insistence on such love as a human possibility is in fact what makes his teaching such secure grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. To love the whole creation as God loves it, is to love the other which appears, from an “all too human” point of view, as an enemy that constantly limits the resources of time, space and energy available for one’s survival. We can well imagine that the creation, no less than its Creator, delights in the emergence of a creature “that can become more than itself, whose life can be broken and poured out in love and joy after the divine image. . . capable of sophisticated reflection on the planet, and hence potentially a partner for God in the care of living things” (Southgate, p. 68.) Holmes Rosten, III, concurs, in pointing to the Christ-like kenosis (self-emptying) that this love entails:
An exciting difference between humans and nonhumans is that, while animals and plants can defend only their own lives, with their offspring and kind, humans can defend life with vision of greater scope. They can sacrifice themselves for the good of humans yet unborn, or on the other side of the globe, the entire human community. Humans can also care for the biotic communities with which they share this planet; they can care for their biosphere. Here we recognize a difference crucial for understanding the human possibilities in the world. Humans can be genuine altruists; this begins when they recognize the claims of other humans, whether or not such claims are compatible with their own self-interest. The evolution of altruism and the possibility of kenosis is complete only when humans can recognize the claims of nonhumans. In that sense environmental ethics is the most altruistic form of ethics. It really loves others. This ultimate altruism is, or ought to be, the human genius. (“Kenosis and Nature,” in The Work of Love; Creation as Kenosis, edited by John Polkinghorne, p. 64. Emphasis added.)
In the practice of such genuine altruism, the human does indeed bring to the creation an “image of God”, a degree of perfection that is divine.