Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Inhabiting the World House: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Vision in Today’s World

Saturday, 15 January, was the anniversary of  of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my personal heroes and one of the largest influences on my theological ethics. (Indeed, one-third of my Ph.D. dissertation dealt with King’s life and work and I have written several articles on King. Moreover, even when not cited, King’s life and work is often in the background of my writing and my preaching.  I say this not in an uncritical fashion:  I find some influences on King (Wieman, Tillich) to be unhelpful; I find King–like his mentors in American theological liberalism–to be too dismissive of influences which would have greatly aided his work, like that of Karl Barth and the Biblical Theology Movement; And I find some aspects of King’s moral practices, especially his serial adulteries, to undermine his witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  All our heroes have feet of clay and we should not hide their frailties, shortcomings, misdirections, or even sins. )

Since today in the United States is the national holiday in King’s honor, many are writing reflections on his life and work.  Many of these are terribly wrongheaded, such as the claim by a Pentagon lawyer that King would support the current U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan!  (For an excellent rebuttal to this absurdity, see Cynthia Nielsen’s reflections on King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in NYC one year to the day before his death.) The infamous American short-term memory and lack of historical consciousness, combined with a deliberate tendency to “tame” King and others who challenge the status quo, have led to a reduction in which King’s Dream is viewed only as ending racial segregation, so that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is the fulfillment of King’s Dream or even that King, a self-declared democratic socialist who died marching with and for garbage collectors, should be an icon for Glenn Beck and the rightwing, libertarian “Tea Party” movement!

Every year at this time we distort King and twist his legacy in the name of celebrating it.  Mostly, we do it by showing carefully edited snippets of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” Speech and presenting King as the “great Dreamer” of racial harmony without ever carefully examinging his thought–leaving out completely his solidarity with the poor and strong critique of U.S. capitalism (his demand for a Living Wage for all citizens, his admiration for the democratic socialism of Norway, his acceptance of Marx’s critique of capitalism even as he rejected Marxist materialism and historical determinism, and, most of all, his attempt to forge a multi-racial, multi-cultural “Poor People’s Movement” which would radically reshape U.S. society), along with his commitment to gospel nonviolence and his absolute opposition to imperialist militarism, not least the imperialist militarism of the United States.  Most of those born since King’s death in 1968 have no idea that he referred to the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” something I fully believe he would find equally true today.  For these reasons, I am among those who would like to see a 5 year halt in talking about the “I Have a Dream” speech– and to reorient our reflections on King to his later, more radical, speeches and writings.  (In this, I recommend especially a pamphlet put out by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and written by former Executive Director, Gary Percesepe, Seeing Beyond the Dream Speech. )

In 1967, King published Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, his last book before his death. (His final book, also very germane to our times, The Trumpet of Conscience, was published posthumously.)  I think Where Do We Go From Here? is among the least read of King’s writings, some of the most radical of his reflections, and the most useful for our own context in the early 21st C.–since we have not faced squarely the problems King was dealing with, even since.  I take one section from that wonderful book for these reflections:  The concept of the “World House,” a term less familiar to us than King’s characterization of the Kingdom of God (being born into the world) as “the Beloved Community.”

King tells a parable that he read somewhere:  A divided and long-separated family find that the head of this clan has died and they have all inherited a mansion.  The catch: They cannot sell it, but must live in the house, putting away their differences and learning to live together.  King turns this story into an allegory:  All humanity is the separated and estranged (even warring) family.  God, though far from dead, is the Parent who had given humanity a House.  The World, the planet Earth, is the House and humanity must learn to live in it together, sharing its resources, working for its upkeep (rather than ecologically destroying it), and learning to live together as one family.  We want to divide into warring nations or tribes.  We want to be concerned only for our own racial or ethnic or language group or only for our own religious group.  (Expanding beyond King’s view in 1967, we want to be concerned only for those of our own sex, our own sexual orientation, or our own gender identity, too.) We want to be concerned only for those of our own economic class (or, to claim that there are no classes, that anyone can become wealthy, that the wealthy have earned their riches and should not be asked to share them–even if the rest of us have to bail them out from their own foolishness–or to claim that the interests of the wealthy naturally “trickle down” to help the rest of us–NONE of which is supported by a shred of evidence) and let those who are weaker or more vulnerable fall by the wayside.

In all these ways and more, we deny that we are one family.  King insists (with his own/my own Biblical tradition) that this is false. We are all children of God.  The World House is ALL our home–and we have NO CHOICE but to learn to live in it together–or we destroy both ourselves and the World House.

I suggest that this vision of King’s in 1967 is more relevant than ever, today.  Our refusal to care for God’s beloved earth ecologically is leading to greater species extinction than at any time since the end of the Age of Dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.  Even as it may be too late to save the polar ice caps, nations and oil companies are foolishly racing to drill for oil in the Arctic circle (because nothing could possibly go wrong in THAT scenario!).  Water is used profligately in Europe and North America while it becomes increasingly scarce for the poor of the Two Thirds World.  Americans are increasingly obese while Hunger and Poverty stalk the globe.  People kill in the name of religion or politics or ideology or land.  We enact policies to make the top 1% ever more obscenely wealthy while poor multiply and Middle Classes vanish.  We treat healthcare as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a human right and when a law is passed that mildly reforms this obscenity (still largely trusting the great god Free Market, the largest idol of the West), we call it government tyrrany.  We have billions for the War Machine, but schools go starving for funds and when teachers and parents complain, the reply is that “education cannot be solved by throwing money at the problem” (something we never say about either the Military Industrial Complex or Money Powers of Wall Street).  The views of teachers are dismissed as “bleatings of a teacher’s union” and parents’ pleas are dismissed with the claim that the parents–often working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet–should educate their children themselves–either privately or by homeschooling (regardless of means or whether said parent has enough education to make that feasible).  In a reverse Robin Hood society, we constantly steal from the poor to give ever more to the obscenely wealthy–who then claim they are “overtaxed” when paying a smaller percentage than at any time in the last 50 years!

Against this whole mess, Dr. King presents the vision of the World House.  We are not primarily Black or White or Brown, we are family.  We are not primarily rich or poor, but family. We are not first Americans or Vietnamese (or Iraqis or Afghans), but one family. We are not first Muslims or Buddhists or Jews or Christians (Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, Liberal or Evangelical), but a family sharing a World House.  If we see ourselves in that light–as one family sharing one World House–then both our personal actions, the actions of our organizations (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples; businesses and corporations; political parties), and the public policies of our various nations and governments, must CHANGE to reflect that reality.  In place of fearful militarism, we must enact Common Security.  In place of hoarding, the equitable distribution of resources–so that all are fed and have shelter and adequate medical care.  In place of the exploitation of the earth and our family members, we must live sustainably.

It’s not an easy vision to enact.  To live this way will be a huge struggle.  Perhaps this is why this World House has been so ignored.  But if this World House allegory correctly displays our real context as humans on this third rock from the sun–as I believe it does–then we MUST struggle to live accordingly.  If, in our individual, corporate, and political lives we struggle to live out this vision–then we will truly be honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–and, beyond him, honoring the God he strove to follow.

January 17, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, economic justice, environmental ethics, heroes, human rights, justice, nonviolence, peace | Leave a comment

Of Oil, Eschatology and Creation Care

The  “oil volcanoe” from the British Petroleum-owned oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has greatly depressed me.  At first, I was angry–full of righteous indignation at the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (because I feared exactly this when expanded offshore drilling was proposed in ’08) and at Pres. Obama for attempting to relax restrictions on offshore drilling as a way to buy Republican Senate votes for a climate change/clean energy bill–a ploy that wouldn’t work because Sen. Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has decided that the way back to a GOP majority is to block everything the president was elected to pass through whatever obstructive rules he can find.  But even if it would work, I fear the price is too high.  What is the use of tackling the problem of human-caused catastrophic climate change through shifting to clean energy if one is just going to trade it for the ecological disasters of drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive areas–or in places where one cannot shut off the pump if the worst happens?

I could say, “I told you so.” I could point out, as others have, that certain Southern governors are not decrying “socialist” big government, or threatening to secede, now, but are standing in line for federal disaster relief money! I could, but my Schadenfreude is as exhausted as my anger.  Watching the ecological disaster in slow motion in the Gulf is simply leaving me depressed.  I grew up in Florida and I know those fragile waters all too well.

One of my childhood heroes was the French-Canadian explorer and environmentalist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventer of the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” or SCUBA gear.  In my house we had strict rations on the number of hours per week we could watch television and I would save up time for one of ABC’s two-hour specials, The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau.  I learned so much from those TV programs.  I fell in love with the oceans even more than I already had.  Too young to know much about early environmentalists like Rachel Carson until later, it was, instead, Jacques Cousteau who made me an early environmentalist.  Even at 8 years old, I berated a guest-evangelist at our church for littering on the beach!

I saw no tension between faith in God and care for God’s good Creation.  Scripture is clear that humans have responsibility for the created order.  I can still remember reading 2 of the earliest examples of environmental theology as a child, Eric C. Rust’s Nature: Garden or Desert? (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971) and Henlee H. Barnette’s The Church and the Ecological Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1972).  (Later, I found that the conservative Francis A. Schaeffer, who was a major voice in the founding of the U.S. Religious Right, had also written a pioneering environmental theology, Pollution and the Death of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971).  Sadly, that work had little effect on the Religious Right as a whole.)  So, it took me some time to realize that many U.S. Christians did not share my ecological concerns–and longer to figure out why.

One day in college (so it had to be the early ’80s), I was watching the TV news and saw a brief interview with James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under then-Pres. Ronald Reagan (R).  Watt was arguing for the privatization of much of the public lands of the Interior–including lands that had been set aside as public parks since the days of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt.  Watt wanted to lease much of this land out to oil companies and other major polluters. Asked why, he made it clear that his Premillenial Dispensationalist eschatology led him to have little concern for the environment:  After all, Jesus was coming back soon, so what did it matter?  A light dawned on me. I began to see why so many Christians could be so indifferent to the poisoning of God’s Creation.

The problem is a faulty eschatology–a faulty view of the future.  Instead of seeing the future hope as a motivator for ethical action, for what our Jewish brothers and sisters would call tikkun olam, “the healing or repair of the world,” too many conservative Christians believe that God’s Creation is expendable.  They believe that Creation is only a stage for the drama of salvation (which involves only the souls of individual humans) and will be destroyed at the Second Coming of Jesus. (This is also why they dismiss Jesus’ commands to be peacemakers or to feed the poor and clothe the naked. If you believe the world MUST continually get worse before the End, then action for social justice is useless at best and at worst delays the Second Coming!)

Theologians from many parts of the spectrum have been rethinking this view since the early 1970s. If one punches in “environmental theology” in the Amazon.com search engine, the titles will go on for 100 pages or more. If I were to list just the GOOD works in this area, it would be a long bibliography.  Yet, somehow, not much of this is finding its way into the average pulpits.  I met an environmental lawyer last month who is a fellow Baptist–and told me he has never heard a sermon on care for the Creation!   Some conservative evangelicals are actually anti-environmental because they believe that all those who are concerned for the environment are Wiccans or some other form of neo-Pagan.  Yes, Native American, Wiccan and other “new age” spiritualities do lend themselves to environmental concern, but I would argue that Scripture provides as much or more ecological resources. A knee-jerk reaction of “they are for it so we should be against it” seems terribly shortsighted.

John 3:16, the favorite Bible verse of evangelicals, does not say that “God so loved humankind,” but God so loved the cosmos,” the created universe “that He gave His only Son.”  Christ’s saving death was not on behalf of humans alone, but on behalf of the entire Creation.  “All things in the heavens and on earth, both visible and invisible, have been made through [Christ] and for him. He himself is before all [ta panta] and in him all holds together.  . . . [T]hrough him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20.  Salvation is COSMIC, including the entire Created order, not just human beings.  In light of this, we need to see the “new heavens and new earth” of the Book of Revelation as a renewed heavens and earth–in continuity with our current order, not de novo after this order is destroyed. And since humans were given the task of stewardship over God’s earth, should we not tremble when we think of God’s judgment on how we have treated this Creation?

How could we have EVER thought that God was only concerned with us humans? Sure, in both Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, humans are called the “image and likeness of God” and no other part of the Creation is given such an honor.  But that hardly means that the rest of Creation has no intrinsic worth, but only worth as far as it is useful to humans–as I have heard so often.  In Genesis 1, every part of Creation is pronounced “GOOD” by God before humans are even around.  In Job, God portrays God’s self as finding food for hungry baby lions, roaring in their dens.  The Psalms are full of the praise of God’s creation.  How have so many churches missed all this and more?

I ask this because I believe God is weeping over the creation we are destroying.  The oil volcano flows onward, BP is not even sure it knows how to stop it, the fishing industry will be destroyed along the Gulf coast for decades–and still our churches are silent.  Where is the Christian outcry on behalf of God’s wounded planet? Where are the church leaders demanding that offshore drilling be stopped and DEMANDING a shift toward a Green Economy? 

Big Oil and Big Coal have big bucks and many lobbyists to look after their interests on Capitol Hill.  But we have the prophetic voices of the churches (and other faith groups).  Can we not lift those voices on behalf of God’s Creation and tell our elected officials to put the planet ahead of the profiteers?  For the sake of God’s wounded world, I hope so.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | environmental ethics, environrnmental theology, eschatology, ethics, theology | 7 Comments

Was Calvin a Greenie?

I’ve contended for some years that the classic Christian tradition(s), while having some anti-environmental dimensions that need re-thinking and reform, are far more eco-sensitive than the conservative/capitalist Christian tradition that developed in the West after the Industrial Revolution–and especially more eco-sensitive than the Religious Right in America.  Well, one of my favorite Aussie theo-bloggers, Byron Smith, who has written extensively on theological and ethical dimensions of climate change, peak oil, suburbia, and related matters, has just given a gem of a quote from Calvin’s commentary on Genesis:

“The earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation… The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that, being content with the frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.”

– John Calvin on Genesis 2.15 in Commentary on Genesis (1554).

Byron’s “Jesus and Climate Change” series begins here.  His blog is called Nothing New Under the Sun and I suggest you read it regularly, especially for, but not limited to, his many blog posts on the environment.  He also regularly has the best photographs to go with his posts.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | blog series, environmental ethics, ethics, history of theology | Leave a comment

Environmental Theology–Byron Smith’s Contributions

I hope one day to write something significant concerning environmental theology and ethics.  In the meantime, Byron Smith, an Australian doing doctoral work in theology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), has written some excellent series that you should read on his blog, Nothing New Under the Sun.  Each of the links below is to the first post in a series.  They are worth your time and attention.

Jesus and Climate Change

.Would Jesus Vote Green?

Peak Oil and the End of Suburbia

And these are single postings that should not be missed:

Corporate Growth: What is Wrong with the World?

Copenhagen and Climate Change: Hope and Hopelessness

What do we do with what we know? A story

Comments should be directed to Byron at his blog, of course. He blogs on much else that is worthwhile and I think it a public  service to make his blog known to any of my readers who haven’t discovered him.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | blog, blog series, environmental ethics, environrnmental theology, ethics, theology | 4 Comments