Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Dangerous Territory
distributed 6/24/11, 8/14/15 - ©2015

The Sermon on the Mount is dangerous territory for Christians. That is where Jesus puts forth some of his most challenging instructions. They are such bold and transformative ideas that lots of church people think that we're really not supposed to take them literally. You know: "Blessed are the peacemakers" and "Love your enemies" and "Do not worry about tomorrow."

Then it gets even harder. Eco-justice calls on us to look at those sorts of Bible passages -- and not just the Bible, but our own lives and the structures of our society, too -- from a perspective of concern for the whole Earth community. Faithful eco-justice is not about me and my salvation. Joy, justice and righteousness are found only when the whole of God's creation is brought into right relationship.

One of those remarkable passages from the Sermon on the Mount caught my attention recently. At first, I was surprised by a twist in the phrasing, and then I was lured into the dramatic eco-justice challenge that Jesus puts before us in the modern church.

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"So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)

Those words from Jesus lead me to affirm the much more contemporary words from a group of prominent theologians in God's Earth is Sacred: an open letter to church and society in the United States: "We are convinced that it is no longer acceptable to claim to be 'church' while continuing to perpetuate, or even permit, the abuse of Earth as God's creation."

Walk with me while I connect those two statements.

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Six times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-48), Jesus stretches far beyond legalism and conventional thinking with the formula, "You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you ..." (This is where we find the passage about adultery that Jimmy Carter famously quoted in a 1976 interview with Playboy.)

As we all know, the Ten Commandments sensibly say that "You shall not murder." But Jesus stretches the ethics of that commandment clear to the point of warning about being angry with someone, or insulting them. Remarkable!

Then comes the line that surprised me. Jesus doesn't offer instruction "if you are angry when you go to offer your gift", but rather, "if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you".

If somebody else is angry at you, it is your responsibility to seek reconciliation. If somebody is accusing you, come to terms with them quickly -- and only then make your offering. Even more remarkable!

Let's remember, too, that "offering your gift at the altar" is a more significant act than our routine practice of dropping a check in the offering plate on Sunday. Jesus is referring to the annual acts of Temple sacrifice related to the Day of Atonement, a central ritual in the Jewish calendar. The trivialization of Temple sacrifice is what Jesus was objecting to in the Holy Week "cleansing of the Temple", one of the most dramatic and controversial acts of his ministry -- so yes, we are supposed to take these matters very seriously.

In just a few sentences, Jesus swings us from the conventional "You shall not murder" to the wild idea that a righteous person should forgo the annual act of sacrifice if they are aware of someone who is angry at them. Don't even take part in the ceremonies for the Day of Atonement if your have not taken the initiative to bring reconciliation for the community.

These are hard words. They become even harder when we read them with the eco-justice perspective that stretches the idea of neighbor and community out to include all people, including future generations, and all of the rest of creation.

You may not be a murderer. You may not even be angry. But if you know that a member of your community is angry with you, then you must work to restore community before taking part in the most important rituals of faith.

Is it possible that the Earth community could be angry with me, or with my culture, for the devastation of life on this planet? Could the poor and the powerless of the world -- the ones who bear the brunt of toxic chemicals, pollution, climate change, depleted oceans and spreading deserts -- could they have something against us? Could the future generations who inherit a world that is damaged, depleted and destabilized have just cause to be upset with us? Might the whole of God's creation -- the species forced into extinction, the suffering life within the acidic oceans and the fallen rainforests -- be crying out against us?

If we take Jesus seriously, we cannot pretend to be "doing church" in faithful or appropriate ways unless we are taking the initiative to seek reconciliation with Earth community. It is not about whether we feel upset about the state of the world. If we have good reason to believe that others are upset with us, then we have an obligation to act for restoration and healing.

Those theologians who signed God's Earth is Sacred in 2005 -- Sallie McFague, Barbara Rossing, John Cobb, Larry Rasmussen, Neddy Astudillo, John Chryssavgis, Paul Santmire and many others -- speak to us in the reconciling spirit of Jesus when they say, "We believe that caring for creation must undergird, and be entwined with, all other dimensions of our churches' ministries. We are convinced that it is no longer acceptable to claim to be 'church' while continuing to perpetuate, or even permit, the abuse of Earth as God's creation."

Just as Jesus said that it was a travesty to offer atonement sacrifices when you know of the anger others hold toward you, so we in the modern church cannot offer comfortable words of assurance when we know that God's creation is being devastated. If we are not actively and effectively seeking reconciliation with Earth community, then our pious rituals are a travesty.

The challenging words of Jesus -- as they so often do -- call us to transformation. Seeking reconciliation with creation takes us far beyond the basic steps of changing light bulbs and occasional bike rides. This is a call to us, individually and as churches, to profoundly change our lives, and to engage in active resistance to the ongoing exploitation of God's creation.

The Sermon on the Mount is dangerous territory for Christians. And we can claim to be taking our Christian faith seriously only when we enter into that dangerous challenge.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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