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

It's Obscene!
distributed 10/4/02 - ©2002

There are pieces of Jesus' ministry that can make us very uncomfortable. They go against the grain of the gentle, accepting, compassionate man that we love to love.

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." (Mark 9:42) "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Matthew 12:30) And then there is that scene in the Temple with the money changers.

In the realm of liberal Christianity where I am most at home, those notions of judgment and exclusion don't sit well. We pride ourselves on being tolerant and non-judgmental. But I wonder, can such a profoundly open-minded church live out the fullness of being both faithful and effective? I struggle deeply with that challenge.

The matter comes to mind because of a resource that I recently offered to congregations and church leaders.

A few weeks ago, we mailed a newsletter to 600 of our closest friends and supporters. (Let me know if you didn't get a copy!) Included in the newsletter were the materials to "make your own 'obscene' poster."

Those materials include blocks of text that can be paired with striking newspaper articles or other reports of modern culture to make a poster. The large heading announces:

It's OBSCENE! The values and behaviors illustrated here are so far from the call of our faith that that it is just obscene! Let's remember that God calls us away from this disgusting sort of excess, and toward shalom -- peace, justice and harmony for all of creation.
Admittedly, it is a provocative approach, to be used with some discretion and care.

The first time I put it to use, I stuck up a "lifestyle" page from the newspaper that profiled children's playhouses. The prominent picture was of a $30,000 playhouse -- brick and stucco, with cherry floors, a kitchen sink in the loft, and slate shingles. An interior designer had been hired to coordinate the curtains with the furnishings.

Those who saw the poster all commented: "I saw that, too. And you're right, it is obscene." Frequently, we had conversations about our own consumptive lifestyles, which may not be obscene (to us!), but are problematic as we seek a just and sustainable society.

But one recipient of the mailing wrote back about that resource. She said: "I was pretty disturbed by the 'make your own obscene poster' suggestion. It felt pretty darn judgmental and rather arrogant, to presume that because we hold a certain set of values about certain things, we're automatically right, and 'they' (whoever happens to disagree with us and our world-view) are automatically wrong."

As we continued our correspondence, she referred to her experience with some offensively self-righteous protesters at an event that she attended. She wrote: "I found it pretty difficult -- in fact, I found it impossible -- to listen to them, because of their judgmentalness and arrogance about having the handle on 'truth.'"

My friend lifts up a great deal of wisdom, and has caused me to do quite a bit of soul-searching over the last few weeks. I've realized that our differences touch on matters of both theology and strategy.

Theologically, I believe that there are times when we are called to announce moral judgments that are grounded in the ethical norms of our faith. Some things are a moral obscenity. I would suggest that nuclear war, genocide, slavery, pornography and child abuse fit that category. The poster could be used for those subjects. In mailing the resource, I had invited people to name the most flagrant cases of wasted resources, or the most extreme disparities between rich and poor, as obscene.

But theologically, too, we need to remember that "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8) Even as we label the behaviors of others as "obscene," we must be confessional about our own failures and shortcomings. Our ability to see dramatic wrong in others does not confer some moral righteousness on us. (This is a lesson that also needs to be heard by Mr. Bush, most of the members of Congress, and a majority of US citizens in the self-righteous rush to war against Iraq.)

The strategic question accepts that some behaviors can be labeled as obscene, and asks when it is effective to do so. I envisioned that the poster would be used, for example, on a pastor's door as a conversation starter. I didn't see it being used in a harsh we/they conflict at a public protest.

The Christian faith has a lot to say about morals and ethics for both individual and social behavior. Few, if any, of the things that we do can be labeled as morally pure. Lots of things are morally mixed or questionable. And some, on the basis of long-standing and widely held ethics, are flat-out wrong.

The "obscene" poster provides one strategy to name some of those flagrant moral violations. Whether or not that strategy works well for you, I pray that you will consider when and how to give voice to your moral judgments -- in that sometimes judgmental spirit of Jesus.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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