Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Gentleness or Domination
distributed 8/13/04 - ©2004

"Lusty singing" is a wonderful thing in a church. The "y" on the end of the adjective is important, because it shifts the word from a carnal desire into a healthy vigor.

Lusty singing happens when a congregation belts out a hymn that they know and love. You can recognize it in volume that rattles the windows, and especially when people look up from their hymnals to let the power of the words roll from their heart and soul.

Such passionate, heart-felt singing can't be coerced. It emerges spontaneously when the conjoined message of words and tune resonates with our deepest longings and our bedrock convictions. Pay attention when you hear that sort of singing, because it points to a message of truth that is tapping into the core of our belief.

In many congregations, one song which strikes that deep chord is Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness. Its four verses work from creation, through Exodus and prophecy, Christ and Pentecost, and into a modern church filled with "bold new decision." The entire song has the gentle, invitational tone named in the opening line. It sings of a God who calls and coaxes and goads, not one who orders and demands.

It is a powerful, attractive hymn for our time. It gives voice to a compelling biblical image of God that is theologically solid -- one that speaks to our experience and dreams.

This week, I was drawn toward that hymn's celebration of gentleness when I accidentally encountered two profound statements about its opposite. While doing some other research, I came across two detailed theological discussions about domination.

In his book, Nature Reborn, Lutheran pastor Paul Santmire speaks of a "crisis in values" that has made it "permissible and even laudable for humans to exploit nature for their own ends Call this the spirit of domination."

Santmire points to the way in which that dominating spirit is embedded in social structures.

Throughout history, the structures of domination -- which might be thought of in biblical language as the principalities and powers of this age -- have supported the degradation of the powerless (slavery, child labor), the subtle and not-so-subtle practices of the genocidal mind (anti-Semitism), and the objectification of women (the 'rape culture'). The have also undergirded the systematic exploitation of nature -- the rape of the earth.
Santmire acknowledges that the Christian witness to these structures throughout the ages has been ambiguous. Our best theological convictions have seldom led the church to reject domination is all of its forms. His book, though, is an expression of the hope that we will not be bound to that history, but that we will come to "the end of theological legitimization of any structure of domination; the challenging of all master-slave relationships; the final inclusion of nature within the realm of grace."

I also stumbled across an article by Walter Wink, Ecobible: The Bible and Ecojustice (Theology Today, 1993). In it, Wink traces the history of the "Domination System" back about 5,000 years to the rise of agricultural civilization. He, too, acknowledges the complicity of our faith heritage -- especially parts of the Hebrew scriptures -- in imposing, maintaining and perpetuating the social and economic organization of a dominator system.

But Wink, too, lifts up a proclamation which supercedes the oppressive part of our heritage.

The gospel is the message of the coming of God's domination-free order. Jesus' teaching and being are at the core of Scripture, and Jesus is against domination. His preaching of the reign of God is directed precisely at the overcoming of dominations. A critique of domination is, I believe, the tenor, or central theme, or gist, of the gospel.
Theological ethics do not shy away from naming the depth of domination in human societies. Those ethics are powerful and hopeful when they give specific substance to a contrasting vision of love, partnership and gentleness.

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For the next 11 weeks, we in the United States will be engulfed in the rhetoric of political campaigns. Most of what we hear will be expressions of the domination system.

In foreign policy, the debate will be about the ways in which our nation imposes its will on the rest of the world -- militarily, economically, and culturally. The fact and the virtue of that domination will be largely assumed.

In domestic policy, we will hear a bit more range. It seems to me that the agenda of the right wing of the Republican party is an explicit ideology of hierarchy and domination -- of men over women, rich over poor, humans over the rest of creation. At its best, the Democratic platform seems to take more seriously the values of a "partnership society."

Clearly, though, in the domestic as well as the international realm, none of the policies and proposals come close to the genuinely liberating message of Jesus. While there are real and important choices between candidates this fall, Wink reminds us that the gospel is "permanently critical of every political program, reform, and revolution."

The elections in the US will put the reality of the Domination System into the news and into our public conversation, even if it is rarely named in those terms. I pray that, in our churches and in our wider communities, we Christians will claim this opportunity to witness to the counter-cultural message of our faith. May we be explicit in condemning all forms and expressions of domination. And may we proclaim, with lusty enthusiasm, the gospel promise of God's spirit of gentleness and justice for all of the creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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