Did God not make creation for the common good? – Tom Mundahl reflects on threats to community well-being.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
James 3:13-4.3, 7-8a
The readings for this Sunday raise one of the most fundamental questions we face: Is creation given to advance partial and only human interests—whether individual or national—or, is creation given for a greater and more comprehensive good? Since this perennial issue is squarely at the heart of whether humankind will truly care for God’s creation, we need to explore our texts from this angle.
Jeremiah seems to have seen this even against the backdrop of Josiah’s great reforms (622 B.C.E.). While this movement called for repentance and the purification of religious practice, Jeremiah (called as a prophet around 627 B.C.E.) saw the closing of northern religious sites and the centralization of worship in Jerusalem as an attempt to use the temple as an instrument of national defense and a cloak for violating the covenant (Jeremiah 7:1-15). To him, it was a clear case of what we would call “exceptionalism.” In fact, Josiah’s alleged discovery of the “lawbook,” Deuteronomy, could be seen as a move to create a climate in which the living prophetic word could no longer be heard (John Bright, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, xlv).
The word Jeremiah delivered to the people (Jeremiah 11:9-17) made it plain that the covenant, which had become little more than nationalistic window-dressing, was now null and void. What had been intended as a “blessing for all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) and as permission to care for aliens, sojourners, and even beasts of burden had become a jingoistic ideological weapon of the regime.
For carrying out his calling to deliver this news, Jeremiah’s life was threatened. Ironically, the chief danger seemed to come from his own extended family in Anathoth. Because Jeremiah refused to “sugar-coat” God’s message, his own hometown “folks,” long associated with the defeated priestly line of Abiathar, were under pressure. By threatening Jeremiah, however, they could prove their loyalty, something they obviously were anxious to do (R. L. Clements, Jeremiah – Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988, p. 82).
Jeremiah’s reaction to this attempt on his life—an individual lament—constitutes the whole of our reading. In language reminiscent of Isaiah 53:7, he sees himself as a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” (Jeremiah 11:19) Like Isaiah in last week’s reading (50:4-9), he learns the cost of prophetic speech seeking God’s purpose, not national exceptionalism.
This is a theme—all too real—for those who struggle to care for God’s creation. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, fifty years ago this month, she met fierce opposition from manufacturers of pesticides. Chemical companies baited her for not caring about those in tropical nations who suffered from malaria and other insect-born diseases. Nearly a century earlier, Henrik Ibsen had portrayed just such opposition to truth-telling in his play, An Enemy of the People (1882). The play’s protagonist, Dr. Stockman, discovers that the waters in his community, dependent on its springs and spa for economic survival, are polluted by the local tanning factory. Instead of being hailed as a hero of public health (the common good), Stockman becomes “an enemy of the people,” blamed for destroying their short-term economic future. It is truly lamentable.
The author of James is deeply concerned with the determinants of community health as well. This reading contrasts a life that builds up community (James 3:13-18) with “passions” (the Greek word here translated as “cravings,” tearing it apart). Few more vivid descriptions of the danger of coveting exist: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder” (James 4:2). Not only does this smack of the Cain-Abel story (Genesis 4), but it reminds us of Tolkien’s drama of the lust to possess “the ring of power” in his epic, The Lord of the Rings.
These passions that corrode the common weal (see Martin Dibelius, James, trans. Michael A. Williams, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Hermeneia commentary series, 1975, p. 215) are no strangers to us. We have built an entire economic order devoted to ever-increasing consumption. This economy goes far beyond meeting basic needs. As economist Juliet Schor (among many others) suggests, the economy encourages symbolic consumption as a “social marker” confirming belonging to groups where, for example, the new iPhone 5 is a required token of membership. (Juliet Schor, Plenitude, New York: Penguin, 2010, p. 27). This is truly consumption generating itself at the expense of deeper community and the planet.
Even though Jesus’ disciples have sworn off consumption during their time “on the way” (Mark 6:7-13), they are not immune from passions threatening the servant-hood at the heart of the “new community” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988, p. 25). As they reach Jesus’ home in Capernaum, we discover that “on the way” they had been arguing with one another over who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). This ‘second passion prediction ‘ moves the discussion from last week’s revealing of the cross as a prerequisite for discipleship (Mark 8:27-38) to a warning that the community will not survive an inflamed desire for greatness and power among its leaders. (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 184).
This threat to the heart of the community must be addressed immediately and dramatically. Jesus reinforces his teaching with a Jeremiah-like symbolic action, taking a child, the lowest status person in the household, and teaching from a seated position, a sure sign to pay attention! “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). The one named “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) shows no partiality; this is how both the new community and “the commons” are built.
One of the barriers to taking the notion of “the commons” seriously was removed in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom of the University of Indiana became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. It had been assumed that Garret Hardin’s 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, December 13, 1968, pp. 1243-1248), had established once and for all that in the contemporary world, any notions of an economic commons could not work, for shared land would inevitably be degraded. By her research in the sharing of grazing land by Swiss farmers with rules dating back to 1517, as well as work in Kenya, Nepal, Turkey, and even Los Angeles, Ostrom discovered a nearly forgotten, but rich vein of cooperation that has never disappeared (Jay Walljasper, ed., All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, New York: New Press, 2010, p. 23).
Ostrom’s work confirms earlier work by economists such as Marcell Mauss (The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York: Norton, 1967) that helps us to see that economic competition and the cash nexus as the basis of all relationships is far too narrow a lens with which to look at the world. Even the strange-seeming potlatch of North Pacific coast “first peoples” was at root an attempt to spur cooperative interdependence by reducing inequalities in wealth (Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, New York: Vintage, 1979, p. 9). This does not seem so far removed from the biblical notion of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25, and continued with Jesus.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
St. Louis Park, MN