Good Laws or Pure Persons? – Amy Carr reflects on the nature of pollution.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 8 – September 3, Year B (2021, 2024)
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Read alongside our burning questions about how to address the climate crisis through laws, policies, and personal practices, today’s scripture readings invite us to be as earnest as Moses and James in our exhortations about doing what will foster the flourishing of all, but as skeptical as Jesus in asking the most ardent seekers of environmental purity among us: “So just what do you think it is that actually cleans us up?”
In Deuteronomy 4 and Mark 7, we have “before” and “after” scenes of two leaders speaking about legislation that is intended to promote justice and well-being. In the first scene, Moses is speaking before that legislation takes effect; in the second scene, Jesus is speaking after those laws have taken hold in ways that spotlight the law-keepers themselves: as those who think law-keeping means first and foremost being perceived as the just and pure ones in a world on course to self-destruction.
Moses is cast as the one who has done the initial nitty-gritty work of getting together the oral and written policies that envision a path to a better future for the land and its people. In this moment, we catch him standing on a mountain overlooking the land that will become a new country. He pours his soul into a speech set on the precipice between the end of his own life and the birth of the kingdom of Israel, when the bands of freed slaves move under Joshua’s leadership towards settling a land. In his series of sermons in Deuteronomy, Moses urges those who were once oppressed by the laws of slavery to take care to craft a new collective life that is based on just laws:
“So now, Israel, give heed to the statues and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. . . . You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statues, will say, ‘. . . . [W]hat other great nation has statues and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?’” (Deuteronomy 4:1, 6, 8).
While we might be disturbed by the image of a recently oppressed people being about to embark upon a mix of settling among and conquering the indigenous peoples already living in Canaan, the urgency in Moses’ voice still rings true across the generations: Will we live well together, in this shared land? He speaks in the conditional, always: if you deeply listen and apply these laws put together in the wilderness, you and your neighbors and the land itself will flourish; if you don’t, disaster will ensue. So “take care and watch yourselves closely . . . make [these statues and ordinances] known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Structure your lives together around this legislation that envisions equity, care for the widow and the stranger, and Sabbath-keeping practices for the land itself.
In Jesus’ observation of the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7, that due diligence has been narrowed to a personally manageable set of daily rituals, expressing the Pharisees’ way of surviving under the conditions of Roman occupation. After centuries without a king or kingdom, Jews lacked the political power to enact the Mosaic law in a full-blown socioeconomic sense. So the small but influential Pharisaic sect interpreted the Mosaic law in a way that combined personal righteousness with rituals that publicly marked their identity as non-Gentile. Those daily liturgies kept Jews from assimilating, from losing their sense of peoplehood entirely. They expressed a refusal to consent to living entirely on the terms of the Roman empire—an attempt to be personally pure in an environment that felt contaminated.
Perhaps that is how some environmental activists worldwide feel today, at least wherever a government or industry seems tone deaf to the kinds of “unprecedented, transformational change”[i] needed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions through alternative energy sources and consumption patterns. So we might turn to what we can personally control: individual acts like recycling, lowering our own energy use, or participating in protests and social media activism.
I remember first feeling the calming power of protesting a policy that I knew would not be likely to change: during the Gulf War in 1990, when I gathered with others in downtown Nashville for regular protests against the US invasion of Iraq. My distress about the first US military action of my adult life gave way to a centering sense of rightness about bearing witness publicly, being a visible sign that there was not a consensus about US foreign policy. Like the Pharisees, activists utilize a public ritual to resist assimilation to a worldview with which we disagree.
As so often in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks the most devoted among us to ponder our motivations precisely when we desire to express the right thing. The Pharisees are not bad guys but fellow earnest lovers of the Mosaic law, which is why Jesus socializes with them so often. But he doesn’t hold back on naming aloud his disagreements with their way of living the law. In Mark 7, Jesus uses their disagreements to ask all of us to think about how we frame identity and belonging in relation to law-keeping. In particular, he warns all of us who care deeply about doing the right thing to avoid the temptation to make our own identity as pure law-keepers more important than the hard, dirty work of caring for the world and one another. So when asked why his own disciples eat with defiled hands, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of caring more about “human tradition” than the “commandment of God” (Mark 7:7). He contests their meaning of “defilement”:
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. . . . For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-15, 21-23).
We are missing the point if we think Jesus was against washing food before eating it, or against efforts to personally practice a good law (and protest a bad one) even when the rulers of the land aren’t tuned in to it. Today we might add: Jesus is not saying that we are never taking in contaminants through foods we eat that have been exposed to toxic chemicals. But Jesus is asking us to move beyond signaling our virtue (as the saying goes today) as if avoiding being seen as personally polluted were more important than actually addressing the root causes of pollution and creating the communal flourishing that Moses envisioned.
Likewise, the gospel question we might hear regarding environmental activism is not about whether or not we choose to join protests for climate change, or separate out our recyclables. It’s a liberating, challenging question about our motivations on one hand (the danger of virtue-signaling as an end in itself), and about going deeper into root causes on the other. What is it that keeps us from collectively finding a path to the net-zero emissions of carbon that we need to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius?
James joins both Moses and Jesus in a call to internalize the underlying values that the laws were intended to express. Like Jesus, James is not less than personal in calling for an interior awareness of all the anger, haste, and variegated “sordidness” that keep us from listening to “the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls” (James 1:19-21). James evokes our capacity for hearing and seeing aright, in a spirit of contemplation about what we are truly called to express with our lives: “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:25).
James takes us right back to the Pharisees’ concern with doing, but with the heart of Moses’ own passion in mind. In his gloss on the law, James highlights not only a concern for personally avoiding worldliness (especially the pursuit of wealth; James 2), but Moses’ and the prophets’ ethical orientation to the vulnerable, like caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). The alive, wriggling question in our own hands today extends this care to our environment as a whole.
What resources do you and your congregation bring to answering this question about how to reduce not personal pollution, but the global kind? Some of us might contribute to finding technological advances like those that reduce greenhouse gases, like green air-conditioning,[ii] or work with our local leaders to create a city or regional climate action plan.[iii] Some of us might read and digest and share with others the fruits of scientific findings about climate change, such as those in this month’s report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Some of us might help the rest of us find words for our fear, uncertainty, lament, or resolve to find the path of resiliency through the immediacy of wildfires, drought, flood, and heat as well as through the longer-term picture of species and habitat loss.
Moses, Jesus, and James are on the same page about inviting us not into a self-oriented display of personal purity or corporate green washing, but into asking how we can bring God’s orienting word of life into our whole being, investing from within our hearts in building toward the common good, where God’s word and people and land connect. How can we create ways of teaching this practice of wise, far-seeing law-making and law-keeping to our children and our children’s children (Deuteronomy 4:9)?
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
[i] Ko Barrett, Vice Chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), quoted in Rebecca Herscher, “A Major Report Warns Climate Change Is Accelerating and Humans Must Cut Emissions Now,” National Public Radio, August 9, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/09/1025898341/major-report-warns-climate-change-is-accelerating-and-humans-must-cut-emissions-
[ii] “A New, Green Air-Conditioning System Manages Without Nasty Gases,” The Economist, July 24, 2021, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2021/07/21/a-new-green-air-conditioning-system-manages-without-nasty-gases
[iii] For one model, see Chicago’s climate action plan, linked to in this article by Michael Puente, “Chicago-Area Communities Vow to Slash Carbon Emissions with Ambitious New ‘Climate Action Plan,’” WBEZ Chicago, July 24, 2021, https://www.wbez.org/stories/chicago-area-climate-action-plan-aims-to-cut-emissions/c59163ee-2575-40c3-be6b-07f4f03d4fa7