God Does Not Desire That Creatures Suffer – Amy Carr reflects on waiting and suffering, fairness and balance.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year B (2021, 2024)
Lamentations 3:22-33 or Wisdom1:13-15, 2:23-24
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
The activists among us might feel restive with this advice to those in lamentation: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26). To be sure, we are aware that acceptance is one vital stage of grief after a tragic loss like that accompanying the 6th century BCE exile from Judah, destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and loss of an independent Jewish kingdom. But when it comes to seeing and responding to environmental damage, we want to find a way to act: to clean up after our messes and to develop policies that prevent further destruction. The activist spirit in us resists the very idea that we should wait until the end of time for God to make everything well again. Especially in a pragmatic country like the US, a creation-minded spirituality seems better informed by a doctrine of providence that perceives God at work through our own efforts to abide by the ancient commandment God gave our species: to be stewards of the earth (Genesis 3:28).
And yet, when we contemplate the gravity of what we have done as a species to enable the destruction of habitat and the extinction of so many non-human species, perhaps we can indeed find a place for “sit[ting] alone in silence when the LORD has imposed it,” to put our mouths “to the dust (there may yet be hope),” to give our cheeks “to the smiter, and be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:28-30). Waiting in patience for God is here not about passivity, but about opening ourselves to accountability before God. It is about opening ourselves to the consequences of our collective actions, rather than practicing denial or running away.
In Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 217), Cynthia Wallace notes three definitions of “to attend:” paying attention; serving or caring for another; and waiting expectantly (with hope or dread). If waiting quietly for God’s liberation involves attention to what God is doing, that means cultivating habits of noticing what is going on in the created realm, and continuing to take in new information, even when it is unwelcome—holding what is in our awareness as we ask what God’s intentions may be. Waiting as attending also means attending to the needs of the earth: acting on what we see, trusting that the larger swirl of salvation includes our committed service on creation’s behalf.
The voice of Lamentations 3 is at once contemplative and prophetic—a voice that demands we behold the “steadfast love,” endlessly new “mercies,” and “faithfulness” of God (3:22-24) not amid a life of ease, but amid enduring being held accountable by that same divine presence.
Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24
More cosmological themes appear later in the Wisdom of Solomon, when natural forces become vehicles of divine action during the exodus from Egypt (chs. 11-19). Here, though, we are confronted with two claims that stand at odds with any empirical natural history.
The first problematic claim is that “death entered the world” not as an ordinary part of God’s created order, but through “the devil’s envy” (Wisdom 2:24). This echoes Paul’s history of the world in Romans 5:12 in which “death came through sin.” The second claim is related: that “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them” (Wisdom 1:14). Would this then mean that viruses are unnatural? Are predator-prey relationships not part of God’s intended created order?
In The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012, pp. xvi-xvi) Peter Enns suggests that the notion that death is not natural—not part of an original divine ordering—is more challenging for Christian creation theology than a six day creation story (a metaphorical reading of which is well-established). A non-literal reading of Paul’s theology affirms the “universal and self-evident” problems of death and sin and “the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ,” but “what is lost is Paul’s culturally assumed explanation for what a primordial man had to do with causing the reign of death and sin in the world” (pp. 123-124).
Might we likewise read Wisdom’s death-denial in a metaphorical way? Whatever it might mean to ascribe the current reality of death to demonic envy, I don’t think we need to walk away from Wisdom’s central testimony to the deathlessness of righteousness (1:15) and of God’s intention for everlasting creaturely flourishing. A Hellenistic Jewish text, the Wisdom of Solomon affirms human immortality (“for God created us for incorruption,” 2:23), yet does not peel back from the created order to a primordial world of Platonic ideas in which the natural world is immaterial (ultimately unreal). Instead, all particular creatures are imagined as mattering from the very beginning: “For he created all things so that they might exist” (1:14). God wills death for no one of them.
Here we do not find a qualified embrace of death’s goodness when death is viewed within a larger scheme of things—a view espoused by Aquinas, who used as an example the fact that a lion’s well-being depends on the death of its prey (Summa Theologiae, Question 22, Article 2; see for example http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1022.htm). Instead, the Wisdom of Solomon offers one biblical warrant for an eschatological vision in which the well-being of the whole creation depends on a liberation from death. In Evolution from Creation to New Creation, Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett imagine God’s new creation as an “emergent whole” that “will transform, yet preserve, the entire history of cosmic creation” (161-162). This future, marked by resurrection and immortal bodies, cannot be anticipated or predicted within an evolutionary framework; it can only emerge out of our intuitions of what God is up to in ways beyond our ken—a God who “does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).
The question for us then becomes one whose answer lies in the matrix of divine mystery and human action: Whether we are demonically denying or collectively addressing the outsized effects human activity has on our planet, how do the ways we dwell together, in the here and now, participate in the emergent whole that is the new creation?
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Given the high bar set by the twin miracles in the gospel text, we might find ourselves relieved to contemplate the more manageable set of communal care expectations in the epistle reading. Paul exhorts us to practice with “eagerness” (2 Corinthians 8:11-12) a properly proportioned distribution of resources, locally and globally:
“I do not mean that there should be a relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).
We are also reminded of a value voiced also in Exodus 16:18—the value of living in a satisfying moderation, rather than in an excessive consumption that comes at others’ expense:
“As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Corinthians 8:15).
Moreover, beyond living simply, we are encouraged not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of all that needs redress, but to focus our energies pragmatically on doing something with an “eagerness” that is “matched by completing it according to [our] means” (2 Corinthians 8:11); for “the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have” (8:12).
We can always do more by way of political organizing and national and international policy campaigns with regard to environmental protection. For some of us, this sort of activism is our vocation. But sometimes those whose activism centers on environmental preservation can lose sight of the ways that field professionals have been developing less environmentally damaging ways of extracting natural resources. Here are some ways I have observed of practicing creation care “according to our means” for those whose career depends on logging or mining. My grandfather, Frank Carr, earned a state award for being the first lumberjack in Michigan to practice selective harvesting of timber, rather than continuing to clear cut Upper Michigan’s white pines. Yet when my father taught in a forest technology program he used to have a sign up in his office that said, “Clear cuts are biologically beautiful.” His point was twofold: there are occasions when clear cutting makes the best sense for forest management in a given area; and there is far more biodiversity today in Upper Michigan now that there is a mix of old and new growth forest, rather than only an old growth forest that provides so much canopy there is no food for the now abundant species, like white tail deer, that rely on clearings and sunlight reaching the forest floor. For years I have also been learning from my brother about emerging environmental practices in the mining industry, from using superbugs to clean up superfund toxic waste sites (putting in those bugs was his first job after college) to water-cleaning practices in copper and gold mines in Nevada. While our society will continue to debate about the right balance of wilderness preservation and natural resource use, we might be mindful of those professionals who are working “according to their means” within their fields to better care for the earth.
Who in our congregations is practicing stewardship of land and its resources? What can we learn from them about the practices their professions are developing—practices to lift up as part of the expression of our community’s gifts?
A theme running through all today’s texts is that God does not desire that creatures suffer. While the Old Testament lessons offer theological explanations for the origins of suffering, and the epistle reading directs us to respond to suffering, here in Mark we witness Jesus’ direct healing of two suffering human beings who could readily recite Psalm 30: “O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (Psalm 30:2-3). The interrelationship between the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying girl points us in the direction of a cosmocentric reading of their passage from illness and death to restored life.
Taken together, the 12 year old girl and the woman hemorrhaging for 12 years represent the whole of the people of God. In addition to the implicit double reference to the 12 tribes of Israel, we see a story about a low-status woman set centrally (and as a delay tactic) within a story about a high-status child. The hemorrhaging woman may be perceived as perpetually ritually impure, and she herself is her own advocate; the dying daughter of the synagogue leader has others advocating on her behalf. The faith of the bleeding woman makes her well (Mark 5:34) without Jesus consciously intending to heal her at all, whereas it is the work of others to bring Jesus to a fully life-depleted girl, whose resurrection depends entirely upon the conscious action of Jesus. Both women are surrounded by crowds who interrogate Jesus and exhibit the spectrum of people’s responses to his actions, from doubt to amazement.
There is a kind of technicolor theological panoply in these dramas, at least with regard to questions of where individual, corporate, and divine agency each begin and end. Turning our attention to implications for our care of the non-human world, we might start with one blurry spot in particular: the mirrored leaking of the bleeding woman and the healer Jesus.
In “Permeable Savior” (Christian Century, January 18, 2017, p. 13), Julie Morris cites New Testament scholar Candida Moss’ observation that “the Greek phrase normally translated as ‘the power went out of him’ could also be translated as ‘the power leaked out of him,’” making Jesus’ body feminized: “leaky, porous, and permeable—like that of a woman’s.” Morris finds here an example of Jesus’ own gender-fluidity; but read with a green eye, we might notice additional layers of earth and spirit in these twin leakings.
On one hand, the bleeding woman took her physical well-being seriously, and let no gendered expectations or ritual purity norms stand in the way of her search for healing from a visible flow of blood. Jesus, on the other hand, is passive—his invisible power exuding from him just by virtue of his cloak being touched by a confident, demanding woman whose physical leaking could be stopped by his own leaking of spiritual power.
The vehicle that conveys Jesus’ spiritual power from his body to the bleeding woman’s body is the act of touching a physical object worn by Jesus. Likewise, Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter by taking her hand; her healing is complete only when she is nourished by physical food (“give her something to eat,” Mark 5:43).
The blood, the cloak, the hands, the food that replenishes, the mediation of touch: these remind especially Protestants that spiritual power is not simply about the inner life of faith. Spiritual power is also profoundly related to the seemingly unconscious, material realm that connects and sustains all of our lives. Indeed in these two stories in Mark, we see spiritual power itself portrayed as an impersonal force that is drawn forth through conscious awareness—be that the awareness of Jesus as healer, or the awareness of the most vulnerable person who cries out to God.
If we can begin to notice how the Spirit of God is active in the cries for help of all sentient beings, and active in the conviction that touch materializes spiritual power—perhaps then we can open our eyes to an ecological theology that bridges an anthropocentric focus on human well-being with a cosmocentric awareness that the unity of the church extends to the non-human material realm we inhabit.
Revised and updated by Amy Carr in 2021, from a commentary originally written in 2018.