Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Problem Child
distributed 1/28/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Community United Church of Christ in Boulder, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

=== An addendum to this message is found at the bottom of the page ===

Surely every teacher deals with the problem at some point. Many of them wrestle with it every day, and some have to face it in every class throughout the day.

There is a kid who acts out constantly, disrupting the class, constantly calling attention to himself/herself. For whatever reasons of hostility or insecurity, the problem child needs to be the center of attention. The other students suffer when time and again the class clown or the class bully demolishes the lesson plan. The teacher struggles to find the right balance between discipline -- which ends up feeding the kid's need for attention -- and trying to ignore the troublemaker so that real instruction and learning can happen.

The trouble-making kid often leaves the class, boasting to self if not to others, "I'm the most important person here! See how much time and attention the teacher gave to me!" The teacher, on the other hand, leaves the class frustrated and angry, because those who deserve so much love and attention have been cheated once again.

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A month ago, I wrote about the tsunami, and tried to address some of the difficult theological questions raised by that tragic event. Among the many comments that I received, one came from a person who raised several good and probing questions about my biblical grounding and Christian interpretations. In one place, Jeff wrote:

You state that the intentions of God "are not all about humans." How do you know that? I would say that the biblical witness is quite otherwise -- not that God is only concerned with us, but that She is certainly primarily concerned with us, "who are of more value than many sparrows." Certainly God's incarnation in the human Jesus does mean that we are very, very special objects of God's concern. Does it not?
In my reply to Jeff, I said:
Does God's saving work in Jesus make humans more important than the rest of creation? I have often suggested a parallel -- is the kid who constantly acts up in the classroom and demands all of the teacher's time more important than the other students? God's saving act for humanity is required, not because we're better than the rest of creation, but because we have caused deeper problems. Jesus said, "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." (Matthew 9:12) Let's not be proud of that need for healing and redemption.
The question that Jeff raised really is a pivotal one for Christian theology. It addresses a primary reason why most churches and most Christians are not passionately concerned about the Earth's distress. For most Christians, it goes without saying that the love of God is all about humanity. Like Jeff, they presume that, because God came to us, God loves us best of all. Because we matter so much, then the rest of creation must be unimportant.

The Christian faith is distinctive because of its proclamation about a unique event where God took human form. It looks to the incarnation -- to God becoming human -- as the defining event in salvation history. Christianity celebrates God's saving work as a solution to humanity's deepest problems of sin and death.

Our intense pride about God's act of salvation has led us to think that we're the only ones who really matter to God. We sound just like the disruptive student: "I'm the most important person here! See how much time and attention the Teacher gave to me!" And our pride is just as misplaced.

Maybe that's why so many faithful Christians -- clergy and laity alike -- have a hard time dealing with the brother of the prodigal son. We have no problem seeing our human condition in the younger son who squanders his share of the inheritance, and yet is welcomed home with rejoicing. But what about the older brother, the one who stayed home, worked hard, and didn't ask for favors? The one who never needed exceptional forgiveness, and who never had a great celebration thrown in his honor?

The father says to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (Luke 15:31) The father loves both children, and the older son will still receive his inheritance. (Note the phrasing -- "all that is mine is yours" -- and the reminder that junior has already taken his share.) The party thrown when the prodigal returns is a dramatic expression of forgiving love. But the faithful, reliable child is also deeply loved.

If the younger son represents humanity in this parable, who does the older son represent? Can we see here all the rest of God's creation, all of the parts of God's family who have been faithful and obedient? In the older son, can we see a different aspect of God's love?

Yes, there is dramatic good news in God's saving work in Jesus Christ. But we diminish the profound love of God -- the love of the Creator for all of the Creation -- when we fall into the error of believing that only humanity matters.

When that theological error allows the exploitation and destruction of creation -- when the misbehaving student not only disrupts, but actively harms the others in the class -- then it is time to be very clear about the reality of God's universal love. It is time to tell off the troublemaker, and put things back in perspective. It is time to send the problem child off to the principal's office, and give appropriate attention to the rest of the class.

It is time for an explicit change in our theology. In our prayers and our sermons, in our personal conversations and our private faith, let us reject the notion that God's love is only or exclusively for humanity. Let us always speak of God's all-encompassing love for the entire creation -- including humanity.

Then, and only then, will an ethic of creation care flow smoothly from our faith.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This edition of Eco-Justice Notes was intended to make a point about Christianity's theological problems in recognizing God's love for all creation.

It has been pointed out to me that my simplistic, stereotypical description of "the problem child" in a classroom is inaccurate and insensitive. While many classrooms are disrupted, it is often the case that the students are wrestling with physiological and psychological diseases, or are themselves the victims of distorted and disruptive relationships. It is not helpful to label or blame those students, as I did in this week's Notes.

I apologize for the hurtful portrayal that I used to make a larger point, and I confess my insensitivity in not tumbling to that problem myself.

Let me affirm that "the problem child" is in need of love, help and healing -- "salvation" in theological language. And let me affirm the core of the message that I was trying to communicate -- that those who have less need for exceptional help are still important and loved.

Peter Sawtell

NOTE: The Eco-Justice Notes from 3/29/02, A Restorative Theology of Easter, uses similar perspectives in describing a theology of atonement that includes all of creation.

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