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

Binders Full of Nature
distributed 10/19/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Barbara Peter of Lake Forest, Illinois. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

One of the most lampooned lines from Tuesday's political debate is illuminating about churches, worship and scripture. Stick with me while I draw out the connections, because I do think that this is important stuff.

Here's the clip from Mitt Romney, hearkening back to his time as Governor:

I had the chance to pull together a Cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I -- and I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men.' They said: 'Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' And I said: 'Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?' And -- and so we -- we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said: 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women.

The fact-checkers have now made it clear that the Romney team did not reach out to women's groups. The infamous "binders full of women" were prepared well before the election, before anybody was pulling together a cabinet, and the women's groups took the initiative on delivering the bundles of resumes to the governor.

What is most amazing to me, though, is the clear and unapologetic way that Mitt celebrated an affirmative action program -- the intentional, concerted search for people who could add diversity to his cabinet. In a setting with a strong, systemic bias, it is morally (and politically) appropriate to engage in recruiting efforts to balance the odds.

All the applicants "seemed to be men" -- which does not reflect any gender confusion about the candidates. All the applicants were men, because "those are the people that have the qualifications." And the qualifications that Romney had defined favored members of the guys' network.

It helps to be a golfing buddy of the state's power-brokers, or to belong to one of the (historically men-only) "service clubs" like Rotary or Kiwanis. Credentials that include a prestigious (boys-only) prep school, or daring combat experience in the military, or being an Eagle Scout all add points in the search process. On the negative side, the selection committee apparently presumed that women with young children would not be available for full-time work.

Romney seemed to be surprised that his hiring criteria produced a list with no women. To his mind, all of the qualifications made perfectly good sense. But in practice, the rules were completely biased toward men. I'm glad that Romney's team eventually used the lists of women, and hired qualified folk of both genders. I'm astounded, though, that he was so cavalier about describing the situation where his initial cut included no females. (It is not just a sharp political jab when Obama said that they didn't have any trouble finding qualified women. That really does speak to a different list of job qualifications.)

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Eco-Justice Ministries sees the need for an affirmative action program to correct a bias in the way many churches select scripture for use in worship and preaching. As I wrote about a month ago, in "'Fair and Balanced' for Churches", the Revised Common Lectionary "represents a strong theological perspective that -- I believe -- is not adequate or relevant for today's world of ecological crisis."

Building off the image from this week's presidential debate, when the lectionary's selection team set out to pick candidates, they used qualifications that left out lots of superb passages. The Romney team didn't find any women. The lectionary's team didn't find passages that speak powerfully about the integrity of creation, Earth community, harsh judgment and collective repentance, or multiple ways of experiencing God.

What are some of the lectionary's selection criteria?

  • You need a good recommendation from somebody in the Gospels. The lectionary starts with lessons from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and then finds other passages that connect with those verses. If the first four books of the New Testament don't talk about a theological theme -- and they are painfully sparse about creation care -- then good and meaningful topics from the rest of the Bible won't get read.
  • The passages that are selected have to be up to the heavy work of being preaching texts. The Psalms are treated like women with children for the Massachusetts Cabinet search -- lovely to have around the edges, but never used for leadership. In the lectionary, Psalms are never listed among the three texts that are the basis for liturgy and preaching. That cuts out some of the most honest and joyous celebrations of creation, and some of the most challenging expressions of both pride and confession.
  • You have to belong to the right political party. A Republican governor probably looked most closely at candidates from the GOP. In the lectionary, Christology defines the party line. Even though most forms of Christian theology express Trinitarian beliefs, the lectionary is (in William Willimon's powerful phrase) "relentlessly Christological." The God of creation who sustains the web of life, and the life-giving Spirit of God don't mesh with the lectionary's priorities, so they are rarely present in the Sunday readings.

When the lectionary's criteria are applied to scripture -- and when countless congregations follow the lectionary's three-year cycle of readings -- then we don't get the whole story. Important messages, relevant theological themes and powerful stories from the Bible "don't get hired" for Sunday morning readings. And the Church is weaker because we don't have the texts and topics that allow us to speak to the devastation of God's creation.

We need "binders full of nature" -- listings of well-qualified passages that bring a different experience and a different perspective. We need an affirmative action program that takes the initiative to seek out and promote the texts that have been marginalized and excluded.

Worship professor Lisa Dahill of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio published one such list of "creation passages not included" in the Revised Common Lectionary in the journal Liturgy last winter. Eco-Justice Ministries is working at developing a more expansive list of eco-justice texts that are absent in the lectionary, or that are diminished by the way that they are paired with other texts. (NOTE: we will deeply appreciate suggestions about texts, and volunteer assistance from folk who are well-versed in biblical studies and theology!)

With "binders full of nature texts", with a rich collection of passages that affirm Trinitarian theology and eco-justice ethics, pastors and congregations can do affirmative action in their worship and education. The parts of the Bible that have been excluded because of biased selection criteria can be recovered, affirmed, and brought into the full life of the church.

Mitt's cabinet was strengthened by the presence of women, and churches will be strengthened by a wider reading from the Bible. When we hear a richer and more diverse testimony from scripture, we will be far better equipped to be faithful and relevant in our mission and ministry in this time of environmental crisis.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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