Projection, Humility, and the Call for Justice – Robert Saler reflects on preaching care for creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For those preaching about ecological justice during this Lenten season, the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the marketplace presents a significant temptation. We should spend some time exploring that temptation and the ways in which John’s text itself provides a safeguard against it.
The temptation can be described as follows: Regardless of one’s political affiliations, there can be little doubt that the unfettered free market mania towards commodification of Earth (and its people) has been perhaps the most significant factor at play in the 20th century’s degradation of the environment. As Philip Goodchild has argued in his excellent work Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, neoliberal capitalism by definition cannot engender its own safeguards to keep commodification of resources from destroying our planet.
And so it is very easy for environmental preachers to make a leap from Jesus’ protest that the Temple was, in his day, being turned into a “marketplace” of both physical and spiritual economies to a jeremiad against contemporary capitalism and its effects upon the earth. To be sure, such critiques (pastorally calibrated) have their place in preaching, and it can be an effective tool in the preaching arsenal.
However, even as noted, an environmental preacher as Joseph Sittler was also careful to caution that it is very easy for us to simply project God’s will onto our own (especially when we regard our own causes as inherently righteous) and as such simply invoke theological language to “baptize” our projects. Sittler, in his ecological preaching, was also careful to maintain the ontological and epistemological DISTANCE between God and us so that preaching justice (including environmental justice) does not come off simply as coopting God’s word, but rather being responsive to it.
To be clear: Those of us who preach environmental justice DO, hopefully, feel as though we are being responsive to the effects of God’s word upon its hearers; however, the dangers of projection and cooptation must always be borne in mind. Just as I feel as though those who continually invoke the Bible to oppose, for instance, immigration reform are projecting their own politics onto the gospel, I must be open to the same charge being leveled at me and my own inevitable intermingling of religion and politics. There is no safe place on which to stand; all is risk in these fields. The risk must be assumed, but it should be assumed with humility about the extent to which our religious motivations and God’s will can finally be identified with each other.
Fortunately, the John pericope gives its own safeguard:
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
The dangers of “owning” the messianic impulse such that faith becomes a property of select individuals (which was, after all, the truly pernicious thing about heresies such as Gnosticism) were already present even when Jesus was alive and walking amongst the people; how much more dangerous are they today!
The preacher, then, has the opportunity to preach on justice in such a way that she can even call attention to the fact that any justice work that we do as a church cannot be a matter of simply “owning” God’s agenda—since that agenda, like Jesus, remains as elusive as it is allusive—but rather of responding in imperfect fidelity to the ongoing call for justice present in God’s world. This latter stance requires deep epistemological humility: At the end of the day we cannot “know” that we are right. It may be that God calls us to work within the structures of capitalism, or to work to undermine them, or to do both—or neither. These are contextual judgments made by imperfect humans, but scripture testifies to the fact that God is in the habit of using precisely imperfect humans to bring about the works of the kingdom. We must, in the end, act, but acting in humility confers far more effectiveness than acting in presumed “prophetic” arrogance.
Preachers, can you enact that balance between the longing for justice and the humility of finally not knowing the extent to which we are “right” in your own sermons? Can that generative paradox be a fruitful place from which to consider care for creation in your own context? I would assert that, to the extent that your own preaching can generate this sort of passionate humility, this space will communicate the gospel mandate to care for creation in a spirit of gentleness and love far more effectively than preaching born from projection. Let your preaching adhere to the paradoxical contours of John’s text, and allow the surprises of the Holy Spirit to take over from there.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.