Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Peace with the Earth
distributed 12/14/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Lakewood United Church of Christ, of Lakewood, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.
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Depending on how strict your church is in separating Advent and Christmas, you may already be singing joyous carols. Certainly, ten days from now, Christmas Eve services will be reading the birth narrative from Luke (the one with the shepherds, but no magi), and we'll be singing the familiar nativity hymns.

But what if we ask new questions of those well-known texts and lyrics?

Luke tells us (2:13-14), "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!' " Avoiding the thorny theological questions about "those whom God favors," we could stick with the simpler expression that we know from It Came upon the Midnight Clear: "Peace on the earth, good will to all."

The proclamation of peace on earth envisions the in-breaking realm of God. It is an anticipation of God's shalom. But ethicist Larry Rasmussen asks a new question about that peace for Christianity in the Anthropocene. "Does peace on Earth include peace with the Earth?"

If we take that question seriously, we're taken deep into the realm of repentance and transformation, and put on a path toward a profound new hope.

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Rasmussen's question isn't a simple conversation starter for a discussion group. It deals with matters at the heart of his weighty and influential book, "Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key."

Rasmussen is very clear that the ethical stance he develops is a dramatic break from conventional morality. "As religious ethics 'in a new key,' we have proposed a moral universe different from that of modernity." What he outlines for relevant ethics is "a seismic shift from the encapsulated human self and human society to the ecosphere as center, boundary and subject."

Peace on the earth from that "encapsulated" view leads us to the human-oriented celebration of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled." Rasmussen's perspective challenges us to take a much more expansive look at what reconciliation involves.

Working from the ethic implicit in Earth-honoring faith, Rasmussen posits that "planetary health is primary, and human well-being derivative."

Because we are born into a great web of belonging, the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference. ... Earth-honoring faith thus first asks how the health of the primal elements is secured and then, from there, how the well-being of human life and other life is secured in relation to it.

God and sinner reconciled only makes sense when all of God's creation is in right relationship. Human reconciliation on a damaged and dying world does not adequately embody God's shalom.

"Does peace on Earth include peace with the Earth?" It must -- especially in this era when human impacts have brought us an Earth that is "damaged, depleted and destabilized." And if there is to be peace with the Earth, there must be profound changes in human society. We must change more than our technology and economies. We must find new stories of identity, new narratives that tell us who we are and where we find our meaning.

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Last week, I wrote about the call to repentance from John the Baptist. I dealt mostly with John's instruction to end economic inequality and systemic exploitation, the matters of human justice. Toward the end of last week's Notes, I broadened from John's words to say that "we must not condone the devastation of creation."

A few days ago, I was delighted to receive a sermon about John's call to repentance that started with the ecological view. Pastor Ian Cummins, at Denver's large and prominent Montview Presbyterian Church, did what Larry Rasmussen said we must do: "first asks how the health of the primal elements is secured and then, from there, how the well-being of human life and other life is secured in relation to it." Larry's book takes 368 pages to develop that theme. Ian did it in four pages of story-telling, scientific warning, and theological proclamation.

With Ian's permission, his sermon, The Windshield Effect, is available on our website. I strongly, passionately, urge you to read it. It is a marvelous example of the sort of pastoral, faithful and relevant preaching that Eco-Justice Ministries hopes for in today's churches.

Rev. Cummins opened my eyes to new scientific findings about "the insect apocalypse." He cites studies that detail the catastrophic decline in insect life around the world.

In German nature preserves, the place where this has been studied most thoroughly, over the last 27 years the number of flying insects has diminished by 75%. Or if you prefer your depressing statistics closer to home, here in the US, over the last 20 years, monarch butterfly populations have fallen by 90%. And the rusty patched bumblebee that once buzzed through 28 states, dropped by 87% over the same period. Think about those numbers. That's not just a 'decline' in population, that's a holocaust.

Ian tied the message of biological devastation and disruption to the Advent text about repentance, and took that to the deepest levels. I'll quote a few lines, and again urge you to read the whole sermon.

Before we address this as a political, or economic, or justice issue ...we have to understand that this is fundamentally a spiritual issue.

We have mistaken our importance and we have misunderstood our place within creation. We have thought God loved us too much and that God loved the giraffe and the penguin and the dung beetle too little.

And we need to repent for this. We need a metanoia. We need to go beyond the current state of our mind, and radically reimagine our place in this world. We must develop a much deeper appreciation for the sacredness of the world around us. ... And then we must begin to see ourselves as a part of that sacredness -- connected to it, dependent upon it, and not indispensable to it.

Larry Rasmussen lays out the ethical framework: "Because we are born into a great web of belonging, the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference." Ian Cummins' account of the insect apocalypse proves that the great web is not healthy, and that repentance and transformation are essential.

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My weekly musings in Eco-Justice Notes frequently dwell on the mess that we're in. The intertwined crises of ecological disruption and social injustice are woven into the very fabric of our modern way of life.

Tinkering with the details of modernity will not solve the crises. We need the deep transformation of worldviews and faith that Rasmussen and Cummins offer.

The good news for our time -- a hard but hopeful good news -- is that such transformation is possible. We can envision, and we can act to restore, "peace with the Earth." In these closing days of Advent, may we take to heart John's cry, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" May our preparation, in repentance and hope, turn us toward God's shalom, and the health of the whole great web of belonging.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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