Greening the Lectionary

A Theological Response to the Ecological Crisis: Reflections, Reviews, Comment.


November 3rd 2019 All Saints Sunday Luke 6:20-31

Although there are enough similarities to suggest a common source, "the Blessings and the Woes" in Luke's Gospel stand in marked contrast to Matthew's more familiar Beatitudes. Both articulate a vision of the "upside down" nature of the Kingdom of God/Heaven where those who are currently overlooked and undervalued will be recognised and rewarded, but Matthew frames this in terms of character and spiritual values, whilst Luke's version is far more concrete. He is speaking not of attitudes but of the promise of a new world order - a literal reversal of fortunes where those who at present find themselves at the bottom of the heap will be raised up, echoing, the words of the Magnificat.

"He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."

Poverty, privilege, justice and equity are intimately bound up with the ecological crisis. The same factors that have so oppressed the planet, also oppress the world's poorest. Both the integrity of nature and well-being of vulnerable people are considered collateral damage in the pursuit of unlimited economic growth. It is the global poor who are at present bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and it will be the poor who are least resilient to the climate change in the longer term. Both ecological irresponsibility and vast inequality are symptoms of dis-ease - disordered relationships with God, with the created world, with each other and with the self.

This passage illustrates explicitly the axiom of Liberation Theology, that God has a preferential option for the poor. God takes sides and it is the side of the oppressed that he chooses. Working to mitigate climate change whilst not tackling issues of poverty and injustice is not a possibility open to Christians. They are all of a piece.

Despite this we should be cautious in interpreting the passage as suggesting that God will punish those who have plenty yet have ignored the needs of the poor, although there is ample Biblical justification for such a view - think Dives and Lazarus, or even the Sheep and the Goats. I prefer to think in terms of levelling. Achieving a more equitable world where the hungry are fed and the poor lifted from their poverty would come at a cost to the rich. In order for no-one to go without, some will have to have less. Such a re-ordering will be as painful to those with privilege as it is joyful to those who will be liberated. One only needs to consider the outcry in this country which met the suggestion that the demands of feeding the world’s population might necessitate a shift to a plant-based diet, to see the reluctance of those who have much, to sacrifice in order that all may have some.

Historically however, such a levelling is not without precedence when circumstances warrant it. During the Second World War and the years following, rationing ensured that limited food supplies were sufficient for the entiry of the population and the poorest benefitted, accessing a better diet than in the pre-war years. Thus, infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased.

It is often said that opportunity is the flip side of crisis and it may be that the deepening climate crisis presents us with opportunities to rethink the way that our global society works and to engage in some much-needed “levelling”, but this will not happen automatically and we will need to choose whether to stand with God, on the side on the poor, or woefully, on the sidelines.

10th November 2019 Remembrance Sunday Micah 4:1-5 Romans 8:31-end

There will be those who feel that it is inappropriate to preach about Green issues on Remembrance Sunday and that it should entirely focus on those who have given their lives in the service of their country. Nevertheless the themes of sacrifice, learning from the past, remembering the horror of war and committing ourselves to work for peace have considerable relevence.

Reflection on the resilience, self -sacrifice and ingenuity of the generation who experienced the Second World War has much to teach us about dealing with crisis by taking communitarian approach to resisting evil. This is why many advocate moving to what they term a “war footing” to tackle our ecological challenge. Now as then, desperate times call for desperate measures, a hiatus in the usual way of doing things and determination to prioritise the common good above personal convenience. I

n our present context any commitment to peace must include environmental justice. Already the ecological crisis is putting pressure on resources and this is only predicted to increase. Competition for increasingly scarce supplies of water, fuel, minerals and even land will inevitably lead to tensions which could erupt into war. Avoiding conflict will require detailed and sensitive husbandry on the part of the global community and international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

The vision outlined in the Micah 4:1-5 which is one of the four readings suggested for this Sunday, speaks into this. Offering an image of nations with a common purpose and direction. There is enough for all, as each will sit under their own fig tree or vine. No-one will be oppressed or fearful and war is a thing of the past as swords are beaten into ploughshares. When the possibility of war is removed then the effort and energy expended on it can be channelled into other more productive endeavours. How wonderful if the resources spent on the weapons of today could instead be turned towards tackling hunger, drought and flood.

Another suggested reading is Roman 8:31-end. This text reminds us that such is the tenacity, persistence and dependability of the love of God. that there is nothing than can separate us from it. It is a bedrock for troubled times, utterly trustworthy, utterly constant, and indestructible. As we face up to the gravity of our ecological situation, we will be tempted towards despair and hopelessness, but this passage urges us to keep faith and know that whatever disasters befall us, God remains the same. That which destroys and diminishes us, cannot destroy and diminish him. It is a passage that has comforted and strengthened those who faced dark times in the past and which will continue to sustain us in the future. No matter what fate humanity chooses to inflict upon itself, the love of God remains.

17th November 2nd Sunday before Advent, Luke 21:5-19

When looking this week’s Gospel against a background of climate volatility, floods and fires, there is a temptation to imagine that the apocalyptic predictions it contains are coming true. However, it is a temptation to be resisted, since every generation has been able to map the events of its era onto passages such as this, imagining the end of days to be imminent only to be disappointed. Whilst Christians are called to be in a state of constant readiness for the return of Jesus Christ, guessing when that will be is a fool’s errand. Jesus himself tells us that the day and the hour cannot be known. (Matthew 25:13).

Furthermore, it is important when seeking to engender environmental responsibility that there is no hint that climate disaster is a curtain raiser to the last judgement. Already there is a small minority, on the more extreme fringes of our faith, who are trying to accelerate the climate disaster in order to ‘speed the Lord’s return’, but even amongst more moderate Christians, such an understanding would breed apathy and ambivalence.

If we are not to interpret the passage as a timetable for the parousia, what then are we to make of it? With its prediction of persecution and calamity the passage can seem frightening, but I would suggest that its purpose is quite the opposite and it was written to instill confidence in the face of difficulties.

There is a sense of realism inherent in the passage. It is about managing expectations. Just because God, in Jesus Christ, is acting decisively in history, we should not assume that life will be easy ever after. Bad things will still happen. The world will continue to seem unfair and life will still be tough, and following Christ might even make it tougher, nevertheless God is not absent and evil and chaos will not overwhelm us. Inevitably the coming of the Kingdom will involve a severe struggle, which St Paul likens to the pains of child birth ( 2 Cor 22). In the midst of this we are urged not to despair or give into fear, but to hold fast to our hope that at the final reckoning God will emerge victorious whilst, in the meantime, giving an account of our faith.

Although I would argue that the climate crisis does not necessarily herald the second coming, much of the discourse surrounding it can be described as apocalyptic in that it raises the terrifying possibility of a planet unable to sustain human life. It seems that even the most fortunate of us face a challenging future. For some the challenges have already begun. But experiencing the consequences of climate change does not mean that God has deserted us. As we face up to new realities, it will be important to remember that God is present with us, not only in the good times but in the darkest of times as well.