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

Advent and the Realm of God
distributed 11/30/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

The Christian season of Advent begins on Sunday. Pondering the start of the church year while being attentive to the current headlines places me in a painful spiritual condition.

I am forced to ask: When we are honest about the state of the world, is Christianity utterly irrelevant, or is it absolutely essential? I don't think there's any middle ground.

Advent pushes me to wrestle with this question when I try to honor the season. The theologians and liturgy experts who guide us through the church year insist that Advent is not a feel-good time to anticipate the baby Jesus and to do our Christmas shopping. Advent looks forward, not back, and anticipates the coming realm of God.

Theologian Gabriel Fackre, unpacking the season's lectionary texts, names two aspects of Advent hope. There is a this-worldly anticipation of justice and peace, bringing liberation and a righting of wrongs. Beyond that historical hope comes the ultimate eschatological promise, bringing "the Day of Shalom when final freedom is secured, full justice is done and a lasting peace made among God, nations, persons and nature."

In history or beyond it, the realm of God promises right relations and abundance of life. The challenge of Advent is to take that promise seriously, and not to dismiss it as metaphor or mythology. The church year begins by affirming the intention of God for shalom among all creation, and by insisting that this realm of God is actually coming.

I ponder the Advent proclamation while at the very same moment hearing fresh news about the world's trajectory away from the realm of God.

Partisan conflicts and war seem intractable, whether in Washington DC, in nations across the Middle East, or in countless other settings that don't demand headlines. Exploitation and poverty seem more widespread than liberation. But war and injustice have always been a challenge to faith. Indeed, that sort of persistent bad news is what makes the promise of good news so appealing.

My Advent agony this year stems from the unprecedented unraveling of creation that is now taking place. Nature itself -- the essential shape and structure of God's creation -- is being devastated by human impacts. Advent looks forward to the coming realm of God, but as I look forward, all the indicators show loss and devastation, not hope and healing.

A series of reports this week, released in connection with the almost-invisible UN climate conference being held in Doha, Qatar, tell us that conditions are worse than we had thought, that the impacts of global warming are coming faster and harder than predicted. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar. Temperatures continue to rise. Ice is melting at the poles, and around the planet, at accelerating rates, triggering feedback loops toward even greater warming . Sea levels are rising even more than expected, inundating island nations and putting coastal communities at greater risk. Weather patterns are becoming more extreme, bringing both droughts and floods.

Other changes are also undeniable. The planet's biosphere is losing species at an alarming rate, impoverishing and destabilizing the web of life. The world's oceans are becoming much more acidic, upsetting chemical and biological balances that are foundational to life in the sea. The list of ecological carnage goes on, and on, and on -- all tied to our "modern" way of life.

Advent calls us to anticipate the realm of God, but I see the collapse of God's creation, instead. When the evidence so clearly shows the undoing of creation, the promise that God's wonderful realm is fast approaching seems ludicrous. When business-as-usual has us careening toward global destruction, a pleasant promise of God's good news is a denial of reality, and is irrelevant to making honest choices.

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If Advent -- and by extension, the entire Christian faith -- is to have meaning, then we have to go far beyond pleasant promises. We have to see good news in the idea that God's realm overturns business-as-usual. The faithful proclamation of Advent jumps from irrelevance to essential when we take seriously a transformation of the institutions and systems which now cause death and destruction. Fackre writes:

Because the biblical vision is not the fantasy of the diviner and the soothsayer, hard facts as well as bright hopes are disclosed by its light. In history, in messianic expectation, and at the consummation, judgment awaits those who resist the vision. ... Let there be no illusion that Shalom means an undisturbed peace for the unrighteous.

We have to be as revolutionary in our anticipation as Mary was in the astonishing words of the Magnificat: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:52-53) When God's realm comes, things are not just a bit nicer. They are utterly different. The essential challenge for Advent, for all days, is to honestly believe that such profound transformation can come, and come in time.

When I anticipate God's realm in the historical, this-worldly context, I know that it must include a flourishing of life and a spreading of well-being. That is a revolutionary, transformational vision. I confess that I am so steeped in the current reality that I find it hard to envision the details of what such a world looks like.

I can, however, be clear about what a planet exhibiting God's shalom does not look like. It is not a world of such economic disparity that the seven richest people have such wealth that they could end all global poverty out of their own current assets. God "sent the rich away empty."

It is not a world where carbon is belched into the atmosphere from power plants and factories and jetliners and cars, and it is not a world where mountains are flattened to strip out coal, and communities are turned into pin cushions as gas and oil wells are jabbed into any available deposit, and where ghastly tar sands are melted down to provide cheap gas and corporate profits.

It is not a world where we see ourselves first and foremost as consumers, and where we seek fulfillment through "black Friday" sales of instantly obsolete electronics. It is not a world where we are willing to sacrifice wondrously diverse rain forests for sterile palm-oil plantations, or where innocent creatures are subjected to the torture of factory farming, or where impoverished garment workers die when they are locked inside sweatshops making T-shirts for discount stores. The realm of God overturns what we know, and does away with what we have assumed is essential.

This fall, I have been part of a small group seeking a "Fossil Fuel Free Denver". As we begin to envision what such a dramatic change in our home city might look like, there is realism (what available alternative fuels can power the community?) mixed with a realization that our goal demands a thorough re-shaping of economics, politics and community life. This new group is not "religious", but much of its vision and passion comes from people of faith who do believe that such transformation is good and possible.

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Any honest look at the world must fill us with grief and pain. So many things are so deeply wrong, and the scope of global environmental change is unprecedented. Sober and realistic predictions tell us that business-as-usual is not sustainable. It is the road to death.

If churches gathering to begin the Advent season simply place a happy gloss on this news, if they pretend that everything is going to be OK because God loves us, then the church is irrelevant, and even dangerous. I cannot be a part of such a "Christian" community.

If, however, the church can be serious about proclaiming the realm of God as a real and immediate gift, if we can speak the needed words of judgment about the horrors of the world, and if we can proclaim the goodness of a different way, then -- and only then -- the church is the bearer of essential good news. That is the sort of church and the sort of promise where I have placed my hope.

I don't think there is a middle ground. Either we are complicit in the destruction of God's creation, or we commit ourselves to the inbreaking of God's realm. The Christian faith is either irrelevant or essential. May this Advent be a season where you wrestle with that choice.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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