The Way of Ecojustice in a Dangerous Time – Tom Mundahl reflects on our place in the world.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Thomas Mundal in 2017)
Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have also designated times of renewal centering on prayer and reflection. While Lent is certainly a period for baptismal preparation and rumination about what it means to live as a resurrection community, it also is properly a time of repentance — turning around and renewing the way we think about our identity and vocation. We sing hymns that honor the Risen One, who “prayed and kept the fast.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, No. 319) On Ash Wednesday we were starkly reminded of our mortality as we heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives — singly and in community.
This Lent could not be more timely, for those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by a presidential regime that ignores the most elementary climate science, threatens water resources and Native culture by permitting unnecessary pipelines, and strips government agencies of the funds and qualified public servants to protect the web of living things. What we do to nature we do to people, so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.
We need this liminal season of Lent to return to the threshold of faith, to retreat briefly to the high desert of quiet and rediscover our center. For this time of threat requires that we once more discover the character of creation and our status as creatures so that we may be renewed in our baptismal calling to care for each other and “till (serve) and keep” all God has made. (Genesis 2:15)
This is the task laid down by our First Reading. While the storyline beginning at Genesis 2:4b is often called “the second creation account,” it is much more a series of stories about the character of God’s earth and what it calls for from humankind, perhaps better referred to as “groundlings.” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 80.) Why “groundlings?” Our vocation is totally wrapped up in the name: “In that day that the LORD God made the earth and heavens, when no plant of the field had yet sprung up…there was no one to till (or “serve”) the ground. Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:5-7)
It is no surprise, then, that the central purpose of these “groundlings” is to “till (serve) and keep” the garden. To the gift of this vocation is added the invitation to enjoy all the fruits and delights of the garden with the exception of the “tree of good and evil.” Transgressing that ban leads to a death sentence. (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, pp. 46-48) To be a creature, after all, implies limitation.
It is precisely this limitation that the partners charged with caring for the garden violate. They are persuaded by another creature, the serpent, that the Creator and owner of the garden is holding out on them by maintaining a monopoly on divine power. That this is false takes no more than a bite of the tree’s fruit, as the “groundlings” discover not omniscience but shame at upsetting the gracious harmony of the garden.
While this narrative is hardly an explanation of how evil came into the world, or of the origins of death (assumed to be part of the created order), it does illustrate the human drive for power, autonomy, and escape from responsibility. This is revealed especially during the investigation conducted by the garden’s owner as the “groundlings” defend themselves with “I” language, revealing a breach of this primal relationship. (Brueggemann, ibid., pp. 41-42)
Because adam has not cared for adamah, the “groundlings” are expelled from the garden. As both the Yahwist author of this section of Genesis and critics of contemporary agricultural practice agree, “The land comes first.” (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, Meeting the Expectations of the Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1984, p. 80) Not to “till (serve) and keep” the land brings dreadful consequences.
Today, ignoring care of the soil can be seen with a simple aerial view of the Mississippi delta where a “dead zone” the size of state of Connecticut has formed, the results of erosion and a catalog of chemical fertilizers and herbicides poisoning this watershed which drains 41% of the continental U.S. It is no wonder that Iowa’s rich topsoil which was once as much as fifteen feet deep now averages only four to six inches.
American agriculture has been transformed into an abstract set of economic and bio-physical transactions that see the soil as a mere “medium” for production, a “resource” that can be used indefinitely, not a living organism in creation that must be “served” with all the agricultural arts. When the concern is winning the prize given by the National Corn Growers’ Association for maximum bushels per acre instead of the long term health of the soil, there is trouble brewing. Only care of the humus will make life human.
By falling for the abstract promises of the clever and neglecting their vocation to care for the garden, the “groundlings” lost the farm. That this continues is beautifully described in one of Wendell Berry’s short stories, “It Wasn’t Me.” Elton Penn has just purchased a farm at auction, a “place” he can call his own. He makes that clear in conversation with friends: “I want to make it my own. I don’t want a soul to thank.” Wiser and older Wheeler Catlett responds that now Elton Penn is connected to a particular farm, things are different. “When you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you’re in a different line of succession.” (in The Wild Birds–Six Stories of the Port William Membership, San Francisco: North Point, 1986, pp. 67-68)
The Genesis pre-history (chapters 1-11) is populated by actors who “want to make it my own” until Noah comes onto the stage. Noah, “a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (Genesis 9:20) This certainly makes him a “new Adam,” one whose faithfulness in preserving creation (“tilling [serving] and keeping”) shows what membership as a fellow creature means and paves the way for making creation a real “place,” wreathed with story.
This, according to Paul, is also the way of Jesus, who not only empties himself on behalf of all, but in resurrection life suffuses creation with the gift of overflowing grace which frees “groundlings” from sin and for “the exercise of just power” throughout the scope of creation. (Romans 5:15, 17) Because the righteousness of God means “God’s putting things right” (Krister Stendahl, Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, p. 31), believers are called to exercise “dominion in life” (Romans 5: 17) as Noah did in faithful care for the elements of creation he protected during the deluge. The “deluge” we experience may be political, civilizational, as well as environmental, but its effect is just as deadly.
It is based on what Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute calls “the uber-lie.” Simply put, “it is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet and never suffer the consequences.” (postcarbon.org/the-uber-lie/) That political candidates seeking votes fear “the limits to growth” is no surprise. In response to this central dishonesty, those who have received overflowing grace are called to join with all who recognize that curbing consumption so that all may have enough, population control, and public policy supporting these by curbing carbon emissions are elements of “exercising servant-dominion” and “putting things right” in God’s creation. This may have to begin at the local level where “soil” becomes “place” through stories of care and where “groundlings” affirm their “membership” in the whole creation which Paul promises will “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:23)
Just as the community of faith is freed by the overflowing grace of the Christ to care justly (“to exercise dominion”) and serve creation (Romans 5:17), so Matthew’s temptation narrative reminds us where the authority to carry this out rests. In the course of this three-fold testing, the curtain is removed so that Matthew’s audience cannot help but recognize the awful truth: the Roman Empire and its colonial collaborators are in thrall to the evil one, the destroyer. (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 106)
That Jesus intends to move beyond the sump of Roman rule is signaled by the location and details of our reading. As the temptations intensify, so does the elevation — from the high desert (4:1), to the temple “wing”(4:5), to the top of “an exceedingly high” mountain (4:8). Not only do these locations reflect Matthew’s fascination with mountain settings, they put Jesus in what early modern philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) called “the state of nature” where what is basic about the human behavior can be discovered.
While these “wild states” may seem to indicate “advantage devil,” Belden Lane, drawing on Terence Donaldson’s study of the function of mountain imagery in Matthew, suggests something entirely different:
“An eschatological community takes shape on the boundaries, at the liminal place on the mountain’s slope. The established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.” (Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998, p. 45)
Even though this appears to be a one-on-one conflict, in fact it is the Spirit who has “led Jesus up to the wilderness” (4:1) where Jesus “affirms his baptism.” And, it is the Spirit who gathers the “new community.” (Luther, Small Catechism, Third Article, “What Does This Mean?”)
In his preparation for writing The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky had come to see atheist revolutionary terrorism as the greatest temptation to those seeking to bring change to Russia’s czarist autocracy. It is no surprise, then, that at the center of this vast novel we find “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, an imaginative retelling of Matthew’s text. Jesus suddenly appears in Seville, Spain, where after healing a child he is promptly arrested. During the interrogation the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for refusing the three temptations which would have lifted the burden of freedom from the masses, those who would say, “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky tr., San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 253)
Ralph Wood suggests that the temptations of “miracle, mystery, and authority”—Dostoevsky’s shorthand for our narrative’s three challenges—sound only too familiar in a culture in love with the miracles of gadgetry, the thrill of amazing athletic feats, and willing to hand over freedom to authoritarian leaders. He writes, “Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification, constitutes a yet worse kind of herd existence than the one …(Dostoevsky) describes—a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.” (Ralph Wood, “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake,” First Things, December, 2002, p. 34)
Rather than defining freedom as individual autonomy, Jesus gathers a new community where “our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network and shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises.” (Wood, p. 33) In other words, as Wendell Berry would say: we discover our vocation largely through our “memberships.” The integrity of this vocation too often requires resisting temptation at heavy cost.
This is authentic freedom whose pathway is led by the one who resists temptation, who refuses the easy road to accomplish the will of the one who sent him. This is self-emptying love that we will recognize most fully on Passion Sunday when we hear the “Christ Hymn” from Philippians 2:5-11 with its blunt portrayal of kenosis. And it may be increasingly the way of ecojustice in an increasingly dangerous time.
In his recent Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture (named after the author of the important volume, The Fate of the Earth (1982), the decade’s most important warning about nuclear weaponry—available online at www.fateoftheearth.org), lecturer Bill McKibben compared the nuclear threat with the danger of climate change by describing a nuclear attack as something that “might happen,” while climate change is a process well underway. More importantly, McKibben suggested “learnings” from the anti-nuclear movement.
The first lesson referenced by McKibben is the power of “unearned suffering.” The anti-nuclear movement learned this from the civil rights movement. Now in the face of potential violent repression, “groundlings” of faith who advocate for strong governmental programs seeking ecojustice on the national level may pay a price previously unimagined. Reflection on what needs to happen and its cost will be part of our Lenten pilgrimage.
Gathering: “O Lord, Throughout These 40 Days” ELW, 319
Hymn of the Day: “Light Shone in Darkness, ELW, 307
Sending: “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord, ELW, 580
Saint Paul, MN