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

The Utterly Insensitive Jerk
distributed 9/17/10 - ©2010

A newspaper story this week pushed me to compare an Utterly Insensitive Jerk with Jesus, the Christ. Somewhere between the two, there are lessons for how to live more just and sustainable lives.

You know about Jesus, so let me start with the Utterly Insensitive Jerk.

I met him through a feature story in the Denver Post. Their "lifestyle" section every Wednesday focuses on food, and this one dealt with an interesting issue -- how differing eating habits can divide a couple.

The pair used to illustrate the conflict is Nora (who recently adopted a vegan diet) and James. A few years ago, James started following a "paleolithic diet", eating only foods that ancient hunters and gatherers would eat. For him, there's a heavy bias toward the "hunter" side, and he seems to hunt at the grocery store for feedlot produced beef.

James, you might have gathered, is the jerk That is made clear in the opening sentences of the article.

Nora Hembree was overjoyed when her meat-loving boyfriend finally agreed to share a vegetarian meal with her. That's why she was shocked when she opened the door and saw James Battle holding two huge ribeyes ready for the grill. What was meant to be a quiet dinner at home morphed into the biggest fight this couple of nearly three years has ever weathered. "I understood that she wanted me to experience a vegan meal, and that's great because I was all for it," says Brattle, 32. "I just wanted my steak on the side."

Well, that's a clear set-up to see that James is not very well tuned into the feelings of others. But the lines that lead me to the Jesus comparison come later. James contrasts his meat-laden diet with Nora's vegan fare.

"I can't argue with her that my carbon footprint is much bigger than hers because more energy is used to create meat than to grow corn," says Battle. "And, yeah, I realize that the animal I'm eating probably didn't have a very happy life. ... I'm willing to pay that price to have my steak."

I have a very hard time understanding the Utterly Insensitive Jerk here. Other than some very vague sense of guilt about his high-impact lifestyle, or maybe the conflict in his relationship with Nora, I don't see what "that price" is which he is so willing to pay.

The planet and future generations are taking a hit from his contribution to global warming. The livestock raised in feedlots and poultry factories certainly are paying a heavy cost. But where is he actually feeling any pain, or paying a steep price?

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That's what made me think of Jesus.

One approach to Christian theology emphasizes a doctrine of substitutionary atonement. In the cosmic accounting scheme of sin, Jesus "pays the price" for us all. His voluntary sacrifice settles the debt, and makes grace and forgiveness possible. It is essential that the sinless Christ make the choice, and say, "I'm willing to pay that price."

My personal theology doesn't focus on the divine bookkeeping of retribution and punishment, and I'm not fond of an angry God who demands sacrifice. (A Restorative Theology of Easter gives a taste of another perspective which is more inviting, and which addresses the alienation between humanity and the rest of creation.) But almost all Christian beliefs do highlight the self-giving, compassionate love of Jesus. That love is at the core of his identity and his ministry.

As the utterly sensitive one, Jesus doesn't focus on what benefits he gets in a relationship. He does pay close attention to the costs and burdens carried by others, and consistently tries to lighten their load -- healing physical ills, and easing moral quandaries. In all theologies, Jesus is willing to give fully of himself, to freely pay that price.

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We all fall somewhere between the utterly insensitive jerk and the utterly sensitive Christ. (Oh, please don't tell me about the people you know who are worse than James!) The contrast between the two of them does offer guidance as we try to live responsible lives. What lessons do I find here?

We need to be honest in describing the prices that are paid. James can intellectually catalogue his effects on animal welfare and the global climate, but he places next to no real value on them. In that, James is uncomfortably similar to most of us. We need to be much more vividly aware of the burdens we are placing on God's creation -- burdens that are well-hidden from most of us in the affluent, urban world.

If we don't want to be like the jerk, we need to be confessional in acknowledging the actual costs we impose. The farm workers exposed to pesticides. The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer run-off from Midwestern corn fields. The mountaintops blasted away for cheap coal. The species crowded, poisoned and hunted into extinction. The global climate careening toward unstable tipping points. And the list goes on.

We need to be far more accountable in paying an accurate price for the lives we lead, personally and as a society. That's true economically, and morally.

A reasonable financial price needs to be placed on the fossil fuels we use so mindlessly, and that destroy the planet in their production, refining and combustion. Our foods are cheap because they waste soil, use a lethal brew of chemicals, and exploit cattle and chicken, salmon and tuna. Our throw-away consumer culture hides all sorts of costs in squandered resources, ecological impacts and human health. Our environmental bookkeeping is way out of balance, and we -- the ones who have benefited so richly -- do need to start paying realistic costs. Economic change will shift the way we do business.

We also have to go beyond the financial. The jerk's mindset might be quite comfortable with paying much more at the store. He might be quite willing to pay an actual price for his steak, but he'd still be utterly insensitive. He'd still be unconcerned about the widespread destruction his life causes.

If we are going to make a turn toward justice and sustainability, we need to willing to pay the emotional and ethical price that will motivate us toward change. We must be willing to discern that we are in relationship with the farm workers, and the peasants who recycle our toxic electronic junk. We must recognize that we are neighbors to the folk of future generations who will pay enormous costs for our current privilege. We need to remember that we are in relationship -- both ecological and covenantal -- with all of our kin in the planetary web of life. We must be willing to pay the spiritual price of acknowledging our relationship, and of living with some sense of respect and compassion.

We're somewhere between the selfish jerk and the selfless Christ. Culturally, I'm sorry to say, we are far closer to the utterly insensitive one.

May the bad example of the Utterly Insensitive Jerk lead us to take an honest look at ourselves, and to heed the call to be more like Jesus.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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