Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Ministry of Reconciliation
distributed 5/11/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brookings, South Dakota. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

In three succinct sentences, Ethicist Larry Rasmussen names a critical factor in the struggle to get churches to deal with "creation care".

Until matters of eco-justice are seen to rest somewhere near the heart of the Christian faith, the environment will be relegated to the long list of important 'issues' clamoring for people's attention. The proper subject of justice is not the environment. It is inclusive creation as Earth -- the other-than-human and human, together.

In far too many churches -- including a lot of congregations that are doing fine things with energy conservation and other "green" behaviors! -- the gospel that is proclaimed doesn't have much to say about creation and Earth community. From my experience, it is rare for the theology that flows through liturgy and sermons, hymns and prayers, Bible study groups and mission committees, to be steeped in a sense of "inclusive creation as Earth."

I know that difficulty first hand. In a presentation to a large conference several years ago, I made this confession:

I sometimes have a hard time expressing care for the creation as central to Christian theology. I find that I'm usually drawing on Old Testament sources. It seems that the New Testament is not a rich field for ecological insights.
Of course, I made that confession as the lead-in to an extended discussion about how I do see care for creation as absolutely central to Christianity.

At the heart of the Christian faith, the very heart of it, is the declaration that Paul writes to the bickering church in Corinth: "In Christ God was reconciling the world" -- the cosmos -- to God's self. (2 Cor. 5:19)

Reconciling -- what a powerful word. In Christ, God repairs and restores broken relationships. God brings healing and restoration into a world filled with sin, injustice, exploitation and brokenness. That astonishing forgiveness, that grace, that reconciliation is the distinctive message of the Christian faith.

The New Testament does not have a lot of passages that spell out an explicit message of ecological sustainability, but there are sublime passages about the reconciling work of God in Christ which speak in terms of the whole creation. (In addition to 2 Corinthians 5, note especially Colossians 1:15-23.) The centrality of reconciliation as God's gift is spelled out in Romans 5:10-11 and Ephesians 2:15-16. Jesus stresses the importance of acting for reconciliation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:23-24).

"In Christ God was reconciling the cosmos," the whole creation. God's creation is inherently relational, from the interaction of atoms to the gravitational tug of galaxies. Our planet is ecological, sustained by a complex web of relationships among species and habitats. Humans are a part of that ecological web, and -- especially in recent years -- our species has damaged, depleted and destabilized this fragile planet.

This brings us into the core of the Christian message of sin and reconciliation. Individually and collectively, intentionally or unintentionally, we have broken and distorted relationships with God and our neighbors -- and our "neighbors" include all people, now and into the future, and all the rest of creation.

In the presence of such sin, we need forgiveness and reconciliation that is spiritual, personal, social and ecological. That's a message that comes from the heart of the Christian faith.

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I've often looked to the verse, "In Christ God was reconciling the cosmos", as central to an Earth-aware theology. This spring, my eyes were opened to a part of Paul's message that hadn't really hit me before. His words to the Corinthians are even more compelling for us than I had realized.

Paul shifts the good news of God acting in Christ from reconciliation as something that we receive to something that we do. "God has given us the ministry of reconciliation." God is "entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making [this] appeal through us."

We are to be doing the work of healing and restoring broken relationships -- reaching out into all the world, into all the creation, embodying and expressing and proclaiming the good news of reconciliation. That is our mandate in human relationships, and ecologically. We are given the ministry of reconciliation, of healing, wherever sin has distorted and fractured relationships.

Bringing about that reconciliation involves working for justice, for eco-justice. It will bring us into contrast and conflict with the exploitative values and systems of our world. If we encounter that which is broken, and go about the work of making it new and whole, we will also be creating a human culture that is new and in right relationship with the whole creation. In Larry Rasmussen's words, the proper subject of justice "is inclusive creation as Earth -- the other-than-human and human, together."

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Some churches have taken on environmental issues for purely practical reasons -- saving energy saves money in the church budget. Lots of churches have dealt with some form of the calling "to be good stewards of God's creation" -- which is generic enough to justify almost anything! Deep commitments to human justice motivate some Christians to deal with a wide range of problems: climate change, toxic chemicals, and access to water. These are all good and appropriate, but it seems to me that all of these fall short in being rooted "somewhere near the heart of the Christian faith" -- although the commitment to justice certainly goes the farthest in that direction.

At the very heart of the Christian faith is the good news of reconciliation, and the charge for us to be agents of that holy work. We are "ambassadors for Christ" when we take on the ministry of reconciliation that God has given to us.

Why should churches get involved in creation care? Why should we enter into this difficult, conflictual realm that challenges so many of our values and expectations? Why should we bring a passionate concern for the health of all of creation into the very heart of our mission and ministry?

A generic sense of stewardship won't take us there. We must be agents of healing for all creation because "God has given us the ministry of reconciliation." We must do it because it is one of the central gifts that we have been given.

Let us go about that ministry of ecological reconciliation with joy and with passion.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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