Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

From the Margins
distributed 12/16/11 - ©2011

The Christmas stories have become so familiar, so domesticated, that we often forget how scandalous they are.

This most holy event -- which we proclaim as the unprecedented incarnation of God -- happens through an unmarried pregnant teen, in a backwater town, witnessed by shepherds at the absolute bottom of the social ladder, and completely under the radar of the political and religious authorities.

Some biblical scholars will remind us that there's little historical fact in those birth narratives -- what spoilsports! That doesn't matter too much, though. The theological message that is packaged in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke meshes well with the clearly historical details about the life and ministry of Jesus. Over and over again, we see the holy taking root in surprising and scandalous places.

If you want a respectable religion -- one that is deferential to wealth and power, one that looks to the mainstream commentators for a reassuring analysis of the headlines, one that helps us fit in comfortably with polite society -- then the Christianity of the manger and the cross isn't it. The Jesus who washes filthy feet as a model of leadership, who uses poor women and kind Samaritans as good examples, embodies a holiness that challenges the conventional wisdom about what is valuable and righteous.

The stories that we read in this Christmas season proclaim a disquieting truth about God's purposes. God does not work through the established channels to transform the world. It is the poor and the marginalized who bring the good news. And the good news that they bring is a threat to the powerful and the pretentious.

This year is full of stories that echo what we hear from the stable in Bethlehem, and from the adult life of Jesus. When good news comes, it still comes from the margins.

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A week ago, I was waiting for news from Durban. It turned out to be a long wait. The UN conference on climate change ran a day and a half longer than planned.

Again this year, a deal was finally reached because the poor nations spoke with moral clarity. It was the countries with the most to lose who demanded accountability from those seeking to expand their wealth and privilege.

Grist commentator David Roberts wrote a few days ago about the long-standing conflict between the developed (Annex 1) countries, which are expected to reduce emissions sharply, and non-Annex 1 (developing) countries, which aren't. China, India and several other rapidly growing economies are considered "non-Annex 1" countries.

Something different happened this time, though. Pressure on the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) came not just from Annex-1 countries (though E.U. climate rep Connie Hedegaard was reportedly relentless), but also from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). AOSIS chair Karl Hood put it bluntly: "While they develop, we die; and why should we accept this?"

AOSIS and LDC are tiny countries, but for obvious reasons, they have unique moral authority: They quite literally face annihilation if temperature is not restrained.

In Durban last week, the nations without political, economic or military power spoke the truth which could not be denied. Whatever success came out of the UN conference came from the margins.

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This week, Time Magazine named "The Protester" as their person of the year.

No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn't just voice their complaints; they changed the world.

The Arab Spring sought democracy instead of dictatorship. The movement spreading from Occupy Wall Street is rejecting the political and economic power of "the 1%" and shifting the focus to the poor and the middle class. Neither movement is trying to swap places within the existing framework. It is not about the outsiders becoming the new dictators, or the new super-rich. At their best, "The Protesters" have been rallying in public squares to call for the common good.

Through the summer and fall, protesters rallied and engaged in civil disobedience to block the Keystone XL pipeline. Ranchers, students, clergy and climate scientists stood up to Big Oil and the established political power of Canada and the US -- and the grassroots protests won a surprising victory, at least for the short term.

"The Protesters" resort to protest because they are on the margins. They live in countries where elections are not held. They live in societies where corporations and the wealthy have overwhelming power to shape legislation and policy. People take to the streets to speak their truth and to make their demands when they are so invisible and powerless that they have no other option. As Time Magazine recognized with their cover story, this has been a remarkable year of protest around the world. It has been a year in which the voice of the marginalized has been heard persistently, clearly, and powerfully.

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There is a difference, of course, between the stable in Bethlehem and the occupied plazas in Cairo, New York and Washington DC. Mary and the shepherds were not carrying signs and shouting slogans. The truth that comes from the margins sometimes comes quietly, and sometimes in protest.

Whatever the setting, though, the core of that truth is the same: that all of us are valuable and important, and that our communities are really healthy only when the needs of all are being met. That truth is at the heart of the biblical vision of shalom. Eco-Justice ethics speaks of "solidarity" and "participation" as primary norms which express that truth. Our eco-justice ethics extend the definitions of neighbor and community to include all people, and all the rest of creation, now and into the future.

At Christmas, we put forth the preposterous idea that God shows up in a manger, cares for the poor and the sick and the despised, makes the powerful angry, and is executed as a criminal. The Christmas faith says that love, hope, joy and peace are found when we look to the margins.

This year, the truth from the margins has broken into the world in vivid and surprising ways. For those of us who take the incarnation seriously, we can see evidence of God's truth in those acts of witness and protest.

The challenge, this year as always, is to hear genuine good news within the truth of shalom and community, and to align ourselves with it. May our celebration of Christmas be an act of dedication to join Christ on the margins with words and deeds of hope.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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