Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Waiting for Jesus
distributed 7/26/02 - ©2002

Remember James Watt? In the early 1980s, as Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, he stirred up enormous controversy by linking his faith and his environmental policies.

He wrote that he viewed the earth as "merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life...The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on their way to the hereafter." There was no need for long-range management of oil reserves or forests because "we don't know how much time we have before Jesus returns."

Mr. Watt provided a remarkable convergence of an extreme theology, an influential political position, and a lack of judgement about when to speak up. But his statements express -- both then and now -- the beliefs of a substantial number of people, including many movers and shakers in government and business.

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Last week, Eco-Justice Notes took a look at the fallacy that God will intervene in history to save us from our environmental catastrophes. (Short version: God provides us with lots of scientific and moral instruction to guide our personal and collective actions, but don't expect God to do something magical to fix it.) I put off the different and difficult question of whether we can trash the earth because God will soon bring an end to history.

The eschatological hope, the joyous expectation that God's realm will be fulfilled, is an essential part of the Christian faith. That eager anticipation should transform our lives.

But focusing on the timetable for the Second Coming (how soon?) obscures the more significant question about how we are to live in this world. As people of faith, how are we are to conduct ourselves in relation to God, to other people, and to the creation?

Living with an eschatological anticipation calls us out of a fearful and self-centered life. It serves the same function as the realization that any one of us could die tomorrow. If the end is near, then we are motivated to live to the fullest extent in the time that remains, doing those things that are grounded in our deepest values.

If you are told you have 3 months to live, you won't worry about climbing the career ladder, and you will spend more time with your family. You won't worry about buying into the latest fads, and you will put more effort into getting your faith life in order. A sense that the end could come soon has a clarifying and focusing effect.

Now, there are some who would take the news of 3 months to live and go in a different direction. They would rob a bank and blow the millions in a surge of riotous living. If the end is coming, and you don't have to live with the consequences, why not splurge and pamper yourself?

That seems to be the James Watt perspective. If Jesus is coming soon, we don't have to be prudent. We can rob the bank of nature and hope that the end comes before we get caught.

The real question is not about the validity of eschatological hope. And it is not about the timetable. (Jesus said that we won't know "the hour or the day.") The real question is about how that hope should shape our ethics. Does the rapidly-approaching End Time allow us to do what would otherwise be immoral or irresponsible? Of course not!

The hope in the Second Coming allows us to set aside the anxieties that might hold us back from the richness of a faithful life. It calls us to do our utmost to live out our ethics with love and compassion.

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Here is what would make me wrestle with some difficult theological and ethical conflicts.

Imagine a group of influential citizens convinced that the Second Coming of Jesus is just around the corner. Driven by the passion of their faith convictions, they give away their personal wealth to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. They flood the courts and the prisons seeking justice, repentance and reconciliation. They swarm into the capitals of nations, demanding peace. They buy up blocks of prime-time TV, and preach against violence and consumerism as they call folk to accept the Prince of Peace. And, because they believe the coming of Christ is immanent, they advocate non-sustainable harvests from oceans, forests and cropland, and an intensive use of oil, all for the sake of providing just resources for the poor of the world.

I'd wrestle with that situation, because the motives are righteous and the cause is just, and the advocates are not seeking their own wealth and power. In the face of those claims, I'd struggle with the risks to nature and to human communities if (once again) the anticipated coming of Christ does not happen on our schedule.

But until I find that sort of selfless, justice-seeking, compassionate motivation, confirmed in acts of personal charity and righteousness, I'll have no problem rejecting the Second Coming as an excuse for plundering nature.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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