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

Ancient Good Uncouth
distributed 12/9/16 - ©2016

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In Advent -- the pre-Christmas season of expectation and hope -- worship and devotions read from the biblical prophets. (The Lectionary this year draws from Isaiah every week.)

Those old words speak of longing for God's shalom -- a passionate desire for the embodiment of God's peace with justice. The prophetic promises of good news carry an implicit critique of the current wrongs. If swords can be beaten into plowshares, then the current tragedy of warfare has gone away. "A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse" and that ruler of Judah will judge the poor with righteousness -- a prospect that is as remarkable and unfamiliar as a lion bedding down with the lamb. The message of hope acknowledges, and is rooted in, a world that doesn't measure up to God's promise.

The four weeks of Advent are designed to give Christians enough time to recognize the dissonance between the world as we know it, and the world that God intends. If Advent is doing its job, the start of December should stir up some discontent, some frustration, and some heartfelt longing for a different reality -- in our own spirituality, in our local communities, and in the world as a whole.

In those terms, I was strong in the Advent spirit this week when I spoke at a protest rally. We were decrying the US Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) auction that day of new oil and gas leases. While others spoke about air pollution, climate change and BLM policies, I quoted a hymn and talked about historic movements for social change.

Science and politics are important -- and expanded moral context also is necessary in shaping and sustaining our hope through the long struggle for climate justice, and other expressions of God's shalom.

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A great old hymn in the Christian church is titled, "Once to Every Man and Nation" [http://www.billkassel.com/once-to-every-man-and-nation/] (or, in more inclusive language, "Once to Every Human Nation"). The hymn is based on a long poem by James Russell Lowell. In 1844, he was writing about "The Present Crisis" of his day, which was the call to abolish slavery.

A few lines of the hymn have always spoken to me.

Once to every human nation, Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side. ...
New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth.

In 1844, it was not oil and gas leases being sold at auction, but human beings, enslaved Africans. That "peculiar institution" of slavery was seen as an economic necessity the foundation of southern agriculture, and essential to the prosperity of the entire country. Enormous amounts of wealth and power were invested in the slave economy. The notion that one person could own others as chattel was tied to deep-seated social principles of privilege, exploitation and dominance.

In the 1840s, slavery was firmly and powerfully established. The abolitionists took on a hard cause when they dared to question the well-established idea that the enslavement and exploitation of human beings was normal, and necessary, and appropriate.

In the 1840s and 50s, there were individuals who knew that slavery was wrong. They didn't own slaves, and they refused to buy products that derived from slavery. But a time comes, said the poet, when nations must decide for the good or evil side. National laws and national policies have to be subject to ethical judgment. What is needed is a moral choice, not a practical or economic one.

The fact that something has been going on for a long time does not make it good or right. In fact, Lowell reminds us, "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." What was once considered ordinary and acceptable can become obscene in new circumstances. Slavery, declared the abolitionists, was one of those practices that was decidedly "uncouth."

Today, we look back at the pre-Civil War abolitionists, and we admire their moral clarity, their passion, their risk-taking. We look back, and we wonder how anyone could have thought that slavery was considered acceptable. But at the time, it was the abolitionists who were generally considered radicals and crazy and unrealistic.

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On a frigid Colorado morning, speaking to two dozen fellow protestors and one TV camera, I reaffirmed the ethical claim that "time makes ancient good uncouth." New occasions teach new duties, and it is time, once again, to say that what used to be normal is now unjustifiable.

In the spirit of Advent, when we recognize the dissonance between God's realm and today's world, we'll open ourselves to longing, frustration and anger. In the light of current events and contemporary knowledge, we recognize that some long-established practices can no longer be accepted. New oilfield leases fall into that category.

50 years ago, even 20 years ago, a good case could be made for opening up more and more fields of oil and gas. Cheap fossil fuels were the path to opportunity and prosperity. The limits to what the global biosphere can handle were not well known.

But today, we cannot pretend to be ignorant. Now we know that every new oil and gas lease pushes us farther and faster into climate crisis. We've already tapped into more fuels than the global carbon budget can absorb. And we know that viable options for energy are now available.

A time comes when nations must decide for the good or evil side. National laws and national policies have to be subject to ethical judgment. What is needed is a moral choice, not a practical or economic one. What is needed is institutional change, not personal actions, alone.

That was true about slavery in the 1800s. It is true about fossil fuels with our century's crisis of climate change. That historical reference grounded my demand at the rally that the BLM stop these auctions of oil and gas leases.

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The season of Advent is not about decorating the tree and buying presents. Advent calls us into prophetic honesty about what is really going on in our world. Advent stokes our longing for justice, peace and righteousness -- and so it will also stoke our discontent with injustice, conflict, and exploitation.

Paying attention to the news during Advent will make us aware that "time makes ancient good uncouth." War, hunger and injustice seem perennial, but new affronts to God's shalom become evident.

May this season of Advent open our eyes and our conscience. May Advent move us into lives of compassion and ongoing action.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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