Call It Love – Dennis Ormseth reflects on whether we must appeal to “self-interest” in order to love creation as our neighbor.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany completes the narrative of Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, read last Sunday. If the first half of this story contained the “programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative” of Jesus ministry, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, this reading “announces the theme of prophetic rejection that had been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:34. “Jesus declares that no prophet is acceptable in his own country, and his townspeople’s vivid rage and murderous intentions fulfill his prophecy.” While the “programmatic prophecy” provided strong encouragement for care of creation as represented by the promise of the Jubilee year, this “prophetic rejection” is also highly instructive as to difficulties a congregation might encounter in advancing the cause of creation care today.
“Why do his townspeople turn on Jesus?” Johnson asks. Their initial response was enthusiastically approving: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). The exchange that follows transforms them into a murderous mob, which drives Jesus from town and attempts to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28). What happens, we suggest, is that while initially overjoyed by the fact that Jesus is one of their own (“Is not this Joseph’s son?”), the people are deeply offended by his immediate refusal of the implications of that claim on him. “Doctor, heal yourself” is what they are thinking, he suggests: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Elijah and Elisha, he reminds them, both extended the prophetic visitation “to Gentiles—outside the boundaries of the people Israel.” Thus, what the reader of the Gospel has already heard from Simeon is now delivered to Jewish townspeople in the narrative: “the salvation brought by Jesus would extend to all nations” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 81-82).
The dynamics that drive this encounter will be familiar to those engaged in promoting care of creation. The standard appeal for support of an environmental policy is almost always couched in terms of self-interest, on the assumption that in the political arena, self-interest is what naturally motivates people. Condition or predictions of ecological disaster are presented with the expectation that rational people will make a positive, self-interested response to eliminate or avoid them. When the danger is clear—smoke in the air, pollution in the lake we have enjoyed swimming and fishing in, for example—we do respond. Action with respect to a more ambiguous and less well-defined threat, such as that from non-point source pollution, on the other hand, is more difficult to motivate. The more diffused the source of the problem, the more self-interest has to include an enlightened interest in the well being of other persons with whom one shares one’s community. But there are natural limits to the power of this extended appeal. When the appeal involves various economic interests of the community, conflicts naturally arise. And a political leader who insists on policies involving costly remediation that will mostly benefit only unknown strangers can quickly alienate her own constituents.
In light of this difficulty, the secular environmental movement has recognized for some time that religious communities have considerable “social capital” which they would like to tap for their work in environmental advocacy. What they have not always understood well is how such social capital is generated within a religious community. So when congregational leaders are recruited to be an advocate of a given environmental policy, they are understandable wary of potential conflict. Self interest is at play here as well. Some steps are easy. An energy audit for a church building, for example, may save money for the congregation over time. The self-interest of the congregation is clear. But resurfacing the great expanse of asphalt on the church’s parking lot so as to permit runoff to drain into the aquifer is another matter entirely, because the payoff is so remote as to be incalculable. And advocacy on issues that clearly impact local industry will inevitably raise questions on which members of the congregation will be divided, perhaps sharply. Anthropogenic climate chaos projected to arrive a generation or two in the future is an easily deferred concern, especially as other more immediate economic demands crowd the political agenda. Even the most popular appeal to the “future of our children and grandchildren” gets weighed negatively on the scale of self-interest in comparison with more immediate concerns such as profit from industrial farming using fertilizers and the funding one needs to educate those very children and grandchildren. If such appeals to communities of faith are to succeed, they need to be based on some other principle than self-interest.
Jesus, it would seem, did not make it clear how much he had the interests of the people in his synagogue on his heart. Hadn’t he more or less deliberately shown them that other communities had at least equal claim on his talents? This one who spoke so graciously as to evoke their hopes for a prominent place in the restored kingdom of God cared more about the people in Capernaum than those in Nazareth! The great expectations which he had so quickly aroused were as quickly dashed. And in a dry run for the later response of the people of Jerusalem, they angrily drove him out of town and threatened his life: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).
Might Jesus have handled the situation more adroitly? Couldn’t a well-trained community organizer succeed where Jesus failed, simply by carefully eliciting their self-interest so as to enlighten and perhaps even transform it? Perhaps he could have, but that wasn’t his mission. To do so did not coincide with his interests, or better, with the interests of the one who had consecrated and appointed him, as our first reading maintains, “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Deconstruction of their understanding of themselves as Jesus’ neighbors must precede the building and planting of the new community of God’s kingdom. As the collected readings from the Season of Epiphany have so clearly shown us, his “way” indeed leads “through the midst of them” out beyond Nazareth, beyond Jerusalem even, to encompass the whole inhabited world.
What the advocate for enlightened policy on environmental issues, whether an outsider or insider in relationship to the community of faith, needs to understand about that community is that there is another principle at work in its life. Call it “other-interest,” as opposed to self-interest. Or call it love, as in our second reading from Corinthians 13, that habit of being that is “patient,” “kind,” “not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” which “does not insist on its own way, . . is not irritable or resentful; . . does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” It does these things because it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of the beloved, in addition to which it also “never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Love is all-inclusive with respect to both space and time, some people would say to an impossible extreme, others to an infinity of possible realizations. It is God’s love, God’s care for all creation, communicated through all creation, to all creation.
In his recent book Earth-Honoring Faith, Larry Rasmussen asserts rightly that the problem with nearly all ethical theories and ethical regimes, both classical and modern, is that they are essentially anthropocentric: values are defined in relationship to the self-interested standard of the human species that is defining the good. Rasmussen calls instead for an ethic that embodies H. Richard Niebuhr’s way of answering the question, “Who is my neighbor I am to love as I love myself?” The neighbor is “the near one and the far one; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in convictions and loyalties. [The neighbor] is man and he is angel and he is animal and inorganic being, all that participates in being.” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith; Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; p.221; the quotation is from The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education, p. 38). To “love your neighbor as yourself” is not simply an extension of self-love, as it might appear to be, but rather love of neighbor for the neighbor’s own sake as one beloved by God, which might lead to care of the neighbor’s neighborhood, whether or not one shares immediately and directly in that neighborhood. The genuinely eco-centric ethic that we need for the future, in Rasmussen’s view, is one that instead measures “all our moral and religious impulses by such questions as:
Are they Earth-honoring? Do they contribute to Earth’s preservation and restoration? Is life and what it requires the better because of them? Are the parental elements of life accorded their place? Has the shift from ego to ecosphere as the center of moral work been made? Does it re-form itself around the human vocation of tilling and keeping in such a way as to move into new first works for the age of the Anthropocene.[the epoch characterized by human transformation of the earth].
“Because we are born into a great web of belonging,” Rasmussen explains, “the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference. The ethical method of Earth-honoring faith thus first asks how the health of the primal elements is secured and then, from there, how the well-being of human life and other life is secured in relation to it. It asks questions of our working moral theory such as these: What individual and collective virtues, what consequences of our decisions and actions, and what fundamental obligations does this web of belonging, this communion, require of us?” (Rasmussen, pp. 220-21).
Further readings in year C of the lectionary will surely provide answers to these questions.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2013.