By Rev. Peter Sawtell (pre-retirement! July 2020)
Four short affirmations offer guidance and challenge to the church.
God wills shalom for the world.
Shalom, of course, is a central concept from the Judaic faith tradition, and it carries through in Christian thought as “the realm of God.” It is the hope and ideal for life on this Earth that is filled with justice and right relationship.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote, “The central vision of world history in the Bible is that all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security and joy toward the joy and well-being of every other creature. … Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation.”
If God wills shalom for the world, then people of faith should hold that vision as the guide for how we live in the world. Shalom is the large umbrella which includes all forms of social justice: economic, racial, gender, environmental. Shalom seeks ecological sustainability, and seeks the well-being of future generations (of all species), as well as our current neighbors.
Shalom highlights the common good, not individual or national advantage — and that takes on specific meaning in every historical and cultural setting. An aggressive policy of “America first” violates shalom, as does a defiant individualism which refuses to cooperate with reasonable public health measures during this pandemic. Shalom decries the long history and the current realities of racism in the US, and insists on empowerment and cultural pluralism. God’s “preferential option for the poor” measure progress for shalom by a focus on the marginalized and the oppressed.
We live in a world of complex and interdependent relationships.
At the beginning of 2018, I named a similar theme to center my writing and work for that year: “The world is inherently relational.” If shalom is about right relationship, this affirmation reminds us that the vast web of those relationships is global and ecological.
Focusing on relationship turns us away from any view of the world which sees people, creatures or creation as simple objects to be used and exploited. All parts of creation are moral subjects, with inherent worth and rights. Not only is God’s eye on the sparrow, but God’s covenant made at the time of Noah was made “with all flesh,” with “every living creature.” God instructs Job (at considerable length!) about the beauty and value of animals and natural systems that have no human utility.
Our modern culture is materialistic and economic, and sees the world as a collection of things and resources. From an eco-justice theological perspective, the world is sociological and ecological, with a constant interplay among all the members of Earth community. From that perspective, we seek social and ecological health as an expression of right relationship.
Churches are called to be transformative of individuals and society.
The realm of God, the pervasive justice of shalom, is not fully present in the world. Christianity insists that all humans are prone to sin, and that human society embodies evil. The church exists, not to maintain that flawed status quo, but to move us toward right relationship and reconciliation.
Transformation — the religious word might be “conversion” — brings about a change of identity, of purpose, of meaning. We re-orient ourselves, and decide to head in a different direction. We commit ourselves to God and we become followers of Jesus. We turn toward shalom. We recognize that we are members of Earth community, not isolated individuals. And when we do those things, we can no longer “be conformed to this world.”
The church today is profoundly acculturated. In far too many settings, churches give their blessing to the values and goals of secular society. From an eco-justice perspective, the church must proclaim a radically different vision of what is good and valuable. We must invite and entice people toward transformational change, and we must seek to embody those now counter-cultural values within the institutions of our society.
The world is limited — and we find abundance within those limits.
Theologically, only God is unlimited. This planet is finite. We are all mortal. There are only 24 hours in the day. Those are indisputable realities.
In this finite world, there are limits to what humanity can use and consume, and there are limits to what sort of wastes the world can absorb from us. We are in ecological crisis because we have passed both sets of limits. We have depleted and poisoned God’s creation.
Both theologically and practically, we find abundant living when we discover how to live joyously within those limits. We can celebrate sufficiency (enough) instead of always wanting more. We live life most fully when we come to terms with our mortality. We function most appropriately when we respect natural cycles that reprocesses and restore, instead of creating waste that never gives life.
Our economic system demands constant growth and consumption. It is a system grounded in a lie which can never bring satisfaction and health. An eco-justice theological perspective celebrates simplicity and a recognition of the limits of the world.