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

The Transformative Christmas Story
distributed 12/18/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jean & Brendon Bass of Bethel, Maine. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.
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This is the week when we -- in the Christian church -- tell The Story.

We draw on the narratives from Matthew and Luke, embellished a bit with animals at the manger, and we tell that story which is central to our faith. This is the week when we proclaim the mystery and the joy of incarnation, of birth, of God with us.

Birth isn't the whole story of course. Christmas is inseparable from Good Friday and Easter. The story isn't complete without all of the in-between news of the life and message of Jesus.

Jesus isn't the whole story, either. Jesus is central to our proclamation, but we must never lose sight of other essential parts of the story -- creation and relationship through the cosmos, justice and right relationship in community, and the ongoing revelation of God beyond the Bible and beyond our church.

Christmas is a joyous and beloved part of the larger story. It is embedded within the wondrous, remarkable good news of God among us, with us, and beyond us.

I wonder, as I look at the week ahead, will I be able to hear genuine good news in and through the Christmas story? Will my home church, and other congregations around the planet, tell The Story in a way that proclaims hope and transformation sufficient for our world's profound need?

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I often refer to David Korten, because he is so remarkably clear about stories. What he writes about a need for a deep cultural transformation is voiced by many today, but he is explicit and persistent in describing the need for a different story to shape our identity and our meaning. Indeed, his newest book is titled, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.

I haven't read the new book yet, but it seems to echo a central theme of his earlier The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community. He says that our society now is shaped by a story about Sacred Money and Markets. It is a story that is monetary and materialist, one that blesses inequality and exploitation as unavoidable. It is a story of distorted meaning and shallow purpose which is at the heart of the ecological and social justice crises which surround us.

In the language of the new book, Korten describes an alternative story which offers transformative prospects.

A Sacred Life and Living Earth story is grounded in a cosmology that affirms we are living beings born of a living Earth itself born of a living universe. Our health and well-being depend on an economy that works in co-productive partnership with the processes by which Earth's community of life maintains the conditions of its own existence -- and ours.

A 2014 presentation by Korten previews the themes of the new book, and gives more detail about the two contrasting stories. In it, he also critiques several cosmologies that fit comfortably with the story of sacred money and markets. He names "the Grand Machine" of modern science and the personal spirituality of "Mystical Unity" as descriptions that cannot guide us toward the transformation that we need. And it becomes clear that David is not a fan of how the Christian story is often told. He said:

According to the conventional teaching of the Abrahamic religions, we are the creations of a Distant Patriarch, an all-powerful, all knowing God who lives in a far place called heaven and rewards our obedience with a place of eternal bliss by his side in the afterlife. Whatever exists is by his will. By a currently popular distortion, he wants us to be rich and rewards his favored with wealth and power. So get with the program. Go for the money.

Well, I'm glad to know that the Christian theology and ethics and biblical commentaries and spiritual guidance that I encounter on a daily basis do not fit with that "conventional reading" of our traditions. What I see in feminist, process and eco-theologies, even in ecumenical and evangelical thought, sounds much more like the sacred life and living earth story.

The wonderful document from the World Council of Churches, "Together Toward Life", presents an incarnational, ecological and justice-seeking vision of the mission of the church. And the environmental encyclical from Pope Francis -- "on care for our common home" -- is just as clear as Korten's books about the complete failure of "sacred money and markets" as a story of meaning, and of technical manipulation as a path toward healing.

There is a Christian story that offers transformative meaning, guidance and hope for our world in this time of profound crisis. It is not a new story. It is one that faithful Christians have been telling for two thousand years.

This Christian story speaks of a world caught up in confusion and distortions and lies -- "sin and evil" in traditional language. It is a world where wealth and power overwhelm love and community, a world where ownership replaces stewardship, a world where shallow religion excuses corruption and greed. It is a world so profoundly removed from God's shalom of right relationship and genuine understanding that intervention is necessary.

So God does intervene, not as a distant patriarch, but as a human, even as a baby! God is with us -- teaching, modeling, embodying. God is with us -- rejecting "sacred money" and dominating power. God is with us -- inviting us to participate in the joyous realm of peace with justice that is God's constant blessing and invitation. God is with us -- triumphing over the false and partial power of empire and lies.

The Christmas story is one of great good news when we tell it in the context of God who is with us to transform sin and evil, to overcome oppression and exploitation, to renew community and establish right relation. The Christmas story is relevant good news when it is put forth as an absolute contrast to money and markets, to a mechanical world of objects to be used, to a mysticism that allows us to ignore suffering -- and even as a contrast to a distant patriarch who doesn't really care about Earth and all of its life.

But that Christmas story -- that transformational, liberating, joyous story -- needs to be explicit. In a world seduced by wealth and power, a world where the "other" is feared or used, where individualism smothers community -- in our world, the Christmas story loses meaning if we don't push the challenging message.

The baby and the cute animals can just let us feel comfortable. The gifts of the magi can be warped to look like our excessive gift-giving to ourselves. Herod can look like an isolated bad guy, instead of the face of empire. The story can be sanitized, and its transformative power hidden and denied.

So I wonder, as I look at the week ahead, will I be able to hear genuine good news in and through the Christmas story? In this Sunday's Christmas Pageant, the carols of Christmas Eve, the readings of scripture and the reflections of pastors -- will I be able to hear in them the promise of a world completely and utterly transformed?

That is my spiritual challenge for the next week. To remember, to listen with full attention, and to be open to surprise and delight. I invite you to join me in listening for -- and in telling -- that great story of our faith which brings good news that is more than equal to the trouble of the world.

NOTE: The next two Fridays are Christmas Day and New Year's Day. I don't plan to be writing or sending Eco-Justice Notes on either of those dates -- and I hope your holiday observances are not centered on reading email commentaries! The next Notes should be sent on January 8, 2016.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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