Holding Steady the Vision of the Common Good – Amy Carr reflects on calculating the cost.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year C (2019, 2022, 2025)
Sitting down to think about the cost of a venture before beginning it—to see if one can afford the cost—isn’t that what those of us who treasure environmentally-minded use of land wish we would do with more foresight? But the social cost of environmental activism when it is counter-cultural—not merely pragmatic—is also something the gospel reading provokes us to consider. The stakes are even higher when activists are resisting monied and militant forces that value only short-term profit. But as our reading from Deuteronomy reminds us, individual discipleship is ever-entwined with the well-being of all—not just ourselves.
The context that keeps coming to mind to me in recent weeks is the Amazonian forest in Brazil, where a right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, denies the facts of climate change, openly encourages illegal logging, and tries to gut the environmental agencies and polices that are meant to resist deforestation. With so many Brazilians burning down—with impunity—areas of the forest for grazing, ranching, logging, mining, or farmland, many scientists fear the forest is at the tipping point after which the rainforest canopy can no longer sustain itself, drying out the forest and intensifying its vulnerability to burning. And pragmatically speaking, the irony is that farming will suffer without the canopied forest to keep more moisture in the atmosphere—and with more carbon released into the atmosphere through burning, raising temperatures and increasing drought conditions. (For sobering details about what is afoot in Brazil, see “On the brink: The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point,” The Economist, 8-1-19).
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).
Those of us who teach know that students often do not sit down to estimate how much time they need to read, research, and write to finish a project on time. Few among us resist the pull of immediate short-term pleasure. Even when we resist the temptation of profit by cheating, we might be willing to perform beneath our capacities in order to give our time and attention to something more immediately preferable. And we know we all need Sabbath moments, lily-of-the-field hours.
But here Jesus is calling to discipleship those who have considered the costs of investing in accompanying Jesus, and who know how doing so will strain their ties to family and to the state:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).
Reckoned in terms of green discipleship, those costs range from a commitment to ongoing learning about environmental issues, to finding ways to organize or connect with activist groups or movements, to risking attack or death if one becomes a prominent activist—as many indigenous Brazilian environmentalists have found (such as Emrya Wajãpi, killed on his tribal Amazonian lands by encroaching miners this past July).
And what of those of us who aren’t full-time environmental activists—not full-blown disciples—because we cannot afford to sustain our lives if we did so? Is it enough for us to be in the crowd listening to Jesus’ teachings, then going home and trying to love our neighbors as ourselves—perhaps including our non-human neighbors by writing letters, signing petitions, educating ourselves as we have time—and trying not to despair about how little we as individuals and as a species are doing?
Was Jesus judging those who counted the costs of activism as too high? Those who could not hate their families, in the active sense of breaking with their expectations of our responsibilities to them? Those who did not consciously place themselves in danger of arrest or attack? Or was Jesus simply being matter-of-fact—realistic about how few could meet the challenges of all-in discipleship?
We Protestants have inherited a resistance to making spiritual distinctions of worth among Christians. It reeks too much of the abandoned conviction that monastic life was superior to family life. Yet we too valorize heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of a small minority who resisted equating Christian identity with German nationalism.
Deuteronomy offers another perspective on a rightly dedicated life—a perspective addressed in fact to a nation. The well-being of the people and the land depended upon everyone being in sync and harmonizing with the ways of God:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God . . . by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear . . . I declare today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land. . . . .I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . ” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
Some hear in this passage the ring of a prosperity gospel, while others worry about the conquest sensibility so abused by European Christian settler colonialists, and which continues to echo no less in Israel and Palestine itself, with its two competing claims to indigeneity. But with the passage in second person plural voice, I hear myself addressed as part of a we—with no possibility of making a choice that could affect only my own status as a disciple.
In its corporate address to its audience as a people, a nation, the voice of God and Moses in Deuteronomy is as pragmatic as it is demanding. If we don’t work together to hear and heed the voice of the living God in matter-of-fact commandments (based, for ecological matters, on scientific understanding of the natural order), then we—people and land—will face collective destruction.
With a choice between collective flourishing and collective collapse, we are pulled towards a longing to harmonize, to synchronize our lives in a path of justice with our neighbors before a God who forces us to consider the consequences of doing otherwise.
If Luke sharpens the introspective focus of the question of the individual call to discipleship, Deuteronomy diffuses that focus to remind us that what is at stake is the good of the whole. We do not need to be against the state or our families, except where they walk in the way of death, the way that curses the possibility of a common life and the well-being of the land we ultimately possess together—or not at all.
Some readers may know of Paul Wellstone, a US Senator from Minnesota who was killed in a plane crash—but not before inspiring many of his students at Carleton, and many who encountered him when he was in office, with a contagious spirit of dedication to the common good. To be in his class on “Grassroots Organizing and Social Change Movements” was to be challenged to the quick to see, to care, and to participate in action to challenge structural injustice. “Why don’t the poor rise up in the streets?” Paul would ask, with prophetic passion. Among his students was a dedicated smaller group of disciples, some of whom were raised in Republican families and wondered out loud if they should or must distance themselves from old friends and families. Paul let students wonder such things, but he exuded a belief in American democracy and in everyone’s potential contribution as a citizen that was Deuteronomic in spirit—even if he spoke with the passion of Jesus calling for more. When my English major friend Deb asked Paul in office hours: “What about someone like me who wants to write children’s book? Can I contribute that way?” Paul declared that of course—there are many ways to contribute to the common good.
In many ways, for all his ability to speak like Amos, Paul (a secular Jew who drew on Jewish and humanist values) was also like the apostle Paul in Philemon—urging a better way in every way he could, appealing to the human heart to move it. As the apostle Paul encouraged Philemon to free the slave Onesimus—granting that the decision was Philemon’s alone, the power in his own hands—so too Paul Wellstone sparked a sense of possibility in those around him, a sense that we really could help to make a difference.
The activists who inspire us are those who “delight in the law of the LORD,” and “meditate” on it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). They perceive the pathway of justice and righteousness amid any current configuration of corruption, oppression, and exploitation. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).
We know that the just do not always prosper in conventional ways; they may have to bear their cross in ways that overtake their earthly lives. But it is prosperity simply to hold steady a vision of the common good, with ever-increasing ecological knowledge, especially in a time when many deny scientific facts.
“The way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6) by its own unsustainability. The question is whether the we all addressed by Deuteronomy will perish along with those who deny the way of God, the laws of ecosystems.
There is no path to hope except when we find closed all loopholes that might lead us to think we will be safe if we but look away. Better then to face Luke’s call to discipleship, Deuteronomy’s command to consider always the good of the whole people and land, and Paul’s creative lure to do the right thing because it tugs on our sense of a possible otherwise.
Originally written by Amy Carr in 2019.