The Feast of Epiphany

The Feast of Epiphany
January 6, 2020
Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet #1 – by David R. Weiss

The season of Christmas has ended. What comes now, after those quiet moments at the manger? First, perhaps we need to remember that while the manger might have seemed a quiet holy place in many of our church sanctuaries—even a cute holy place when populated by our own children in pageants—that first manger was holy in ways quite other than quiet.

Its holiness was because it was musty, dusty, filled with the smells and sounds of animals (and likely people, too—most first century mangers were a bit like open bay windows linking a living area for humans to the adjoining stable). Its holiness was because in this place—in the very midst of poor peasants and their livestock—came the claim that Here, too, is God. That’s Christmas.

Now we turn to Epiphany, which means “manifestation”: to appear or to become apparent. It’s often linked to the visit of the Magi. Led by the star, their visit to the infant Jesus signals his “manifestation” to the wider world via these sages from the East. No longer known only to his family, shepherds, and those who follow the local gossip, with the Magi Jesus is thrown open to the world.

But don’t get tripped up by historical questions. (If Jesus was really visited by astrologers at his birth who gave him precious gifts, then wasn’t his specialness evident to everyone from then on?) These tales reflect truth cast backward into the story from its end. And the truth is that the ripple of Jesus’ life longs to reach outward from Bethlehem and Nazareth, from Galilee and Jerusalem, to the ends of the earth. The Magi tell us that.

But Epiphany also is about the “appearance” of Jesus into his adult years. In this season we’ll recall his presentation in the Temple as a child, where he is blessed (made manifest to others) by the elderly Simeon and Anna. We’ll hear about his baptism in the river Jordan, where along with others he chooses to immerse himself in the repentance John calls for. We’ll see him collect his first followers, and hear him offer the Sermon on the Mount. Each act is a glimpse at Jesus becoming more and more himself—which is to become the whirlwind of God’s compassion moving in the midst of this world.

As we move into the season of Epiphany in 2020, our world is literally and figuratively on fire. From the bush fires of Australia to the incendiary unrest in the Middle East to the angry polarized voices in our news media and on our social media. We are wise to seek out moments of epiphany, glimpses of God’s presence in our midst today.

But where? I’ll hazard a few guesses. In the midst of the poor, including those displaced by or fleeing the bush fires made so much worse by climate change. Alongside the nearly 500 million animals killed by those fires. Because Epiphany begins with the declaration that in Jesus God’s presence reaches to the ends of the world. Among those of us who dare to immerse ourselves in acts of repentance for a wounded planet today. And among those of us who gather to follow Jesus still today, choosing to become the selves we are called to be. Daring to echo the Sermon on the Mount in our lives, willing to become the whirlwind of God’s compassion moving in the midst of our world.

Epiphany happens in the midst of climate crisis, reminding us that God is here, not as some hero, but as One stepping alongside us and calling us into discipleship here today.

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Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet is a series of occasional reflections linking Feast Days and Commemorations of the church year to the work of healing our planet. Find my 2019 collection of “Gospel in Transition” blogs and subscribe to my current writing at www.davidrweiss.com. Contact me at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Learn how you can support me in my endeavor to do Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Christmas means Revolution!

A Christmas Abecedary
David R. Weiss – December 20, 2019

NOTE: you can access a formatted pdf of this post here.

An “abecedary” is often a primer that uses key words arranged in alphabetic order. My Christmas abecedary follows the alphabet and uses a series of words—some familiar, some unexpected—to remind us (or reveal to us) that before anything else …
Merry Christmas means May the Revolution Begin!

Editor’s note: A couple quick words in advance.

I could have picked multiple words for each letter, but I forced myself to select just one to keep it as brief and focused as possible. I occasionally cross-reference to a word elsewhere in the abecedary, but although many of the words reappear in other entries, I only cross-reference where the meaning I offer is significant in another entry as well.

Some readers will worry about whether I believe the stories happened as Matthew and Luke relate them. (And some readers will worry that I DO believe. While others will worry that I DON’T.) I say, it doesn’t matter. The Christmas accounts carry weight as tales offering windows of meaning in the life of Jesus. Finally, where fact and fable start or stop doesn’t have one whit to do with the power of these tales. The meanings I explore here are truthful either way.

Lastly, the ironic “spark” for this piece was a concert of Christmas music by Billy McLaughlin and Simple Gifts. The music was ethereal in its beauty and certainly genuine in its good will. But I couldn’t help but wonder, as we enjoyed the songs whether that first Christmas had meant—and still means—to offer something more unsettling and more needful to our world. I pulled out my notebook and began jotting down words for different letters of the alphabet even as the carols played … and this is what grew from those scribbles. ~ David

 

A is for Annunciation. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary (Luke 1:26-35) to tell her that she will become pregnant and bear a child who will change the future, it is the announcement of an illicit impossibility … suddenly declared desired and possible. The fact that Mary has not yet slept with a man is the least of the difficulties. The far greater difficulty is that Rome occupies the people’s land and that fear and limitation occupy their minds and hearts. But annunciation declares that everything is about to change … because God is like that: revolutionary.

 

B is for Blessed. Specifically, “blessed are you among women,” which is how Elizabeth greets her cousin Mary (Luke 1:42). The phrase sounds innocent enough. To us. But in oral Jewish culture this phrase was dangerously evocative. Just twice in Hebrew Scriptures are women addressed this way, but the moments are memorable—and bloody. Jael earned the words (Judges 5:24) by driving a tent peg through the head of a general who was oppressing the early Israelites. Later, Judith received them (Judith 13:18) after beheading a general whose troops had besieged an Israelite town. These words hail heroines whose bravery helped overthrow oppressive power. Now Elizabeth’s greeting becomes unsettling yet clear: somehow Mary—not via a tent peg or sword, but by the child in her womb—would join in breaking through oppression. Far from simple congratulation, Elizabeth’s words affirm Mary’s role in the revolution. (Think I’m overstating things? Wait until we get to Q …)

 

C is for Christ. We sometimes think “Christ” is Jesus’ last name. It’s not. More title than name, Christ means “chosen one” (if you want to be neat about it). Christ identifies Jesus as a person chosen by God for a special purpose. Although we think of Jesus as the Christ, other persons in Hebrew Scripture were also called Christ, including Cyrus, a Persian king. Which just shows that when the moment is right, God will use anyone. But I said, “if you want to be neat about it.” Christ really means “anointed one,” which, going back to the Hebrew really means “one smeared with oil.” It hearkens to the Hebraic practice of the priest anointing someone chosen by God by pouring a flask of oil over their head. So to say that Jesus is Christ is to say that Jesus—having been smeared (figuratively, at least) with oil, is God’s chosen one. But also: any of us who’ve been baptized were likely also “sealed” with a bit of oil on our foreheads at the same time. That was our own anointing—marked as chosen by God. For many of us it will be years, decades even (Jesus, after all, was about thirty when he began to preach) before we begin to understand what being chosen means for us. But here’s the unruly thing about Christ: Jesus doesn’t keep it to himself. If Christmas means revolution, all of us are Christ.

 

D is for Dream. Three times God speaks to Joseph in a dream (Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19). Each dream guides a crucial choice for Joseph as he embraces Mary despite the potential scandal of her pregnancy, leads his family to safety from the murderous pursuit of Herod, and returns with them to Nazareth after Herod’s death. Also, as Matthew tells the tale (Matt. 2:12), all of the Magi seemingly had the same dream warning them not to return to Herod after their visit to the holy family. But dreams aren’t only for nighttime or when we’re asleep. At the end of his account of Jesus’ birth and all that was part of it, Luke adds that, unlike the shepherds who told everyone they could about their experience, Mary chose to “ponder all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). That, too, is a type of dreaming. Investing one’s imagination in the dream of God: which is always to protect the vulnerable, promote justice, and to remake the world as a place where all might flourish. Dreams are the womb of revolution.

 

E is for Emmanuel. It means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23) and this, the presence of Sacred Energy in solidarity with oppressed persons, is the dynamite—the power—that drives Christmas as revolution. Over against all the worldly systems that claim to have the first and last word over our lives, Emmanuel is the name that declares, at Jesus’ birth, “all bets are off.” Let the mighty mock or tremble. Black lives matter. Immigrants belong. Worker’s right are human rights. LGBTQ persons are holy. Because God is with us. Without Emmanuel, there can be no revolution. But with Emmanuel revolution is destiny.

 

F is for the Flight to Egypt. Sure, Herod was paranoid (look him up; he was!). But the truth is that even the barest wisp of genuine hope for freedom and dignity and flourishing for all—which is the revolution Emmanuel seeks—will be perceived as a threat to the powerful. And they will seek to stop it. So the flight (Matt. 2:13-14) reminds us this is no simple or safe journey; even revolutions sometimes take cover. And yet, like a meandering river, they flow on sure of their way, ultimately unstoppable on their course.

 

G is for Glad tidings. Like “Blessed …” these words are also loaded … for revolution. When a new emperor was born, couriers were dispatched to carry this excited news to every corner of the Roman Empire. Entering each town or village the herald would call out in the streets, “I bring glad tidings of great joy … that a savior is born today.” (“Savior,” by the way, means Protector, but just as easily Healer, World-Mender; it shares an etymology with our word salve.) The angel in Luke’s Christmas story claims the emperor’s birth announcement and offers it for a peasant baby (Luke 2:10-11). Because this revolution is about glad tidings that start at the bottom (see U).

 

H is for Heavenly Host. Right after the angel announces glad tidings “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13-14) appear singing “Glory to God … and peace on Earth …” We picture angels, but that Greek word (angelos) literally simply means “messenger” and says nothing about wings. It could’ve been a flash mob. Just sayin’. At any rate, those first heavenly host—holy messengers—remind us that the Christmas revolution is about us—all of us—declaring God’s glory and proclaiming peace for the entire Earth family. No wings required. We become part of the heavenly host every time we act (or march or vigil or sing or petition or strike or work) for peace.

 

I is for incarnation. It sounds like some heady doctrine or some mystical maneuver by God. But this is really simpler and messier than that. We’re talking enfleshment. The claim that God’s yearning for our well-being … and most especially the well-being of the least among us—the pushed down, brushed aside, bent over or broken-hearted—that yearning led God to leap from Beyond to right here in this moment right now. And while we see that leap with astonishing clarity in Jesus, incarnation is the revolutionary leap of God into our bodies—every last one of them—again and again. Asking to be born in each of our lives. Because this revolution includes all of us.

 

J is for Joseph. If you think of him as a sort of shadowy figure hovering in the background, that’s about right. He has not a single word of dialogue in either Matthew’s or Luke’s birth accounts. But he listens. We’re explicitly told he listens to the holy impulses delivered to him by dreams, and we might assume he listens to Mary as well. This is a quiet revolution right here. The man in this story holds his tongue, and holds space for both the holy presence of angels and the human needs of his family as well. Joseph listens and then acts decisively to protect the vulnerable ones at hand. That’s revolutionary.

 

K is for King. Except not. See, the only king in this story (Herod) is a villain. And, in fact, the only villain is the king (Herod). And while the baby Jesus is viewed as a future king by the angel Gabriel and the Magi, when he grows up it becomes strikingly clear he means to empty the word “King” of any worldly meaning. Jesus’ parables, healings, and boundary-breaking table fellowship (eating with outcasts) all work so hard against the worldly notion of kingship that he seems bent on remaking the meaning of the word into something entirely else. Jesus choreographs kingship AS kinship. In God’s beloved world there are no kings, only kin. And Christmas marks the beginning of that revolution.

 

L is for Liberation and Labor. I could come up with multiple words for most letters, but these words are entirely intertwined. In Exodus when Moses asks to have a name for the voice speaking to him out of the burning bush he’s told, “I am that I am,” or “I will be that which I will be” (Exodus 3:13-22). On one hand it’s a declaration of freedom and surprise. No boxes can contain this God. But it’s also an existential pledge: because God reveals it in the midst of commissioning Moses to lead the people out of Egypt it’s as though God is saying, “I will be whoever I must be to set you free—in fact, my very divinity rests upon setting you free.” Through the holy labor of liberation, God births Godself. And Mary, when she carries Jesus in her womb for nine months and then labors to birth him, that labor is the continuation of God’s pledge to Moses. At Christmas, labor is for liberation and in this world liberation means a revolution.

 

M is for Magi. We tend to call them “wise men,” (even “kings,” which they surely were not) because “magicians”—close kin to wizards!—hardly seems Christian enough. See, Magi “read” the sky, though not as astronomers seeking to understand what’s up there, but rather as astrologers looking for portents of things to come down here. Whether fact or fable (most scholars say fable), Matthew’s tale tells this truth: he sees Jesus’ birth as such a moment of turning that it must’ve been echoed in the stars, where, of course, magi would notice. We domesticate them in flowing robes and crowns. They were closer to mad men crowing about deep changes coming our way. (Hence, Herod’s reaction.) Across the safety of our years, we see their gifts as fit for a king (and they were!). But when such gifts are made to a peasant baby who will soon be hunted by royal death squads, those gifts signal the start of a revolution.

 

N is for Nipple. No, it’s not mentioned in the text, but this is where incarnation (See I) gets real. It’s too abstract to simply say God became human. The claim—which is less about metaphysics or theology than ethics—is that human flesh can cradle holiness. That, curled up and squirming, with eyes tightly shut inside Mary’s womb, is the hope of heaven. That, rushing forth in blood and water, serenaded as likely by Mary’s screams as by any angel chorus, is a child deemed divine. And that, wholly—and holy!—vulnerable, now held in human arms and sucking hungrily at Mary’s breast, is one who will later announce (right through his death on a cross!) God’s extravagant grace. And this child receives his first sacrament, his first communion, in the gift of milk from his teenage mother’s nipple. When we see this fleshy messiness as the miracle of incarnation, it changes everything. If God weds Godself to humanity so intimately as this, then that love has surely leaked, like warm sweet milk, all over creation. And from now on our lives must surely reflect that.

 

O is for Omen. Which is, after all, exactly what the Christmas Star was. We sing about a “star of wonder, star of light …” but in the ancient world such a “star” (likely a comet or supernova) was no cause for calm reverence. Omens were … ominous. Harbingers of tumult. Magi (see M) were regarded with some measure of dread precisely because they treated omens as objects of curious inquiry rather than cause for panic as the populace preferred to do. Here, too, Matthew’s choice to include the star is rendered almost quaint by all the carols we’ve sung. But in the narrative itself—in the world of his first readers—this star declares, “Anything might happen now!” If you’re a king, like Herod, that type of star might precipitate a murderous tantrum. If you’re part of the masses it will surely put you on edge. But if you’re part of the very least of these, you just might think, maybe that strange feeling of being on edge is a prelude to hope.

 

P is for the Peace of God. When the heavenly host sing “Peace on earth …” to those shepherds on the hillside, their words carry far more weight than the same words printed on many Christmas cards. Because the backdrop for the angels’ song is the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome. Bluntly put, that peace was Rome’s version of Donald Trump’s twisted dream to “make America great again.” Rome’s “peace”—like Trump’s “peace”—rested on authoritarian rule that oppressed anyone the empire deemed “other,” and that relied on military might (displayed and deployed) to bend the world to its will. Many who lived under the Pax Romana knew it as the least peaceful aspect of their life. That peace was for the favored members of the empire—and neither shepherds (see S) nor Jews in general were included. So to hear these heavenly voices announcing God’s peace, well, there’s a word for that: revolution.

 

Q is for Queen … and then some. Mary isn’t conferred the title until several centuries later, but she receives it on account of being Jesus’ mother, so it begins here at Christmas. As a non-Catholic, seeing Mary as Queen of Heaven wasn’t part of my upbringing. But if the tradition quibbles over just how “much” Joseph was Jesus’ father, it’s unequivocal in declaring Mary as the person who carried Jesus in her womb, bore him between her legs, and suckled him at her breast. So I suppose that counts as a sort of reverse royal pedigree. But it’s her platform that persuades me she merits the title. Have you actually read the Magnificat? This queen is Queer. The heavenly vision she sings of features radical reversal, overturned privilege, uplift of the needy, and impeachment of those who pretend to rule. This is the revolution that makes a new world possible. And that alone makes Mary queer enough and queen enough for me.

 

R is for Room—of which there is none at “the inn.” Interestingly the Greek word translated as “inn” usually referred to the “spare room” in most simple homes where guests were put up. Since Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because it’s where his family came from, he likely had relatives there. In that case, it’s also likely there was “no room in the ‘spare room’” because it’d already been filled by other relatives who’d also come to Bethlehem for the census. So Mary and Joseph were crowded into the family’s common living area, which would’ve had a manger at the very front where it met up with the adjoining stable. A whole different picture. Unproven, but probably more plausible—and no less compelling. This baby is still born on occupied land, in a house crowded because of an emperor’s edict, and still sleeps with the heavy breathing of animals nearby. The deeper question about ‘Room’ is whether we have room to set aside old inaccurate ideas despite their familiar comfort. Because revolution requires that.

 

S is for Shepherds. Granted, shepherds do get some positive biblical press. David was a shepherd-king; indeed he credits his time in the fields with shaping his young character. And in John’s gospel Jesus even calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” But in the grit of daily life shepherds didn’t fare so well. They were mostly at the edge—or just past the edge—of poverty in an already poor society. Many had lost their ancestral lands—think displaced farmers reduced to being hired hands on someone else’s estate. In a society where most everyone was scraping to get by, shepherds scraped lower, dirtier, and for longer hours than most. So to have angels deliver their “glad tidings” (see G) to shepherds is no mere hint that things are changing. It is the declaration that with this birth the revolution has begun.

 

T is for Toddlers. Undoubtedly the most tragic entry of these twenty-six. Matthew reports that when Herod realized the Magi weren’t coming back to help him pinpoint the child whose birth posed dread to his lust for power he flew into a rage. Sent death squads to kill every Jewish boy two years or less living in or near Bethlehem. Who knows—were Herod alive today perhaps he’d have dispatched those troops by tweet. Perhaps he’d cage them under the pretense of sorting out who’s a threat and who’s not. Whatever. In this story he simply slaughters them all. Determined to erase any threat to the world as it was (he had hundreds, including members of his own family, executed satisfy his own paranoia)—even if it meant killing toddlers. Make no mistake. Christmas is a dangerous time. It challenges the way life has (not!) been working so entirely that the powerful will lash out. Keep your children close in this season of revolution.

 

U is for Under. Which is where Christmas begins. Under the Emperor’s order for census—that is, under the thumb of Rome. Under the king’s radar (until the magi arrive). Under the notice of Bethlehem (until the angels sing). But more than this, Christmas begins from below. God’s name and liberating activity (see L) are indelibly linked to concern for the least of these. Those who are under are always—and I mean at all times and in all ways—God’s first concern. Emmanuel (see E) is not trickle-down theology. It is theology—audacious good news, glad tidings (see G)—that begins under. Where revolution always starts.

 

V is for Vigil. It’s what the shepherds were doing in the fields that night: keeping watch … against the dangers of the night. It’s also, no doubt what Joseph did on the journey to Bethlehem and on the much more perilous flight to Egypt. It’s what the Magi did on their wandering route across the dessert to find the baby Jesus. But no less, vigil is what Elizabeth did for decades before her baby John (later, the Baptist) erupted in her life (and ours). And vigil is what Mary did every day of her life from Gabriel’s annunciation to her Magnificat to the labor (see L) that brought Jesus into this world … all the way to the crucifixion that tried (unsuccessfully) to push him out and nail the door shut behind him. Vigil is remaining tenaciously present to both threats and opportunities. Because revolution will bring both in abundance.

 

W is for the World. As in “Joy to World,” the carol whose 300th anniversary is this Christmas. It refers to the earth, on which the angels have pronounced God’s peace (see P), on multiple levels. It’s the inhabited world, the world where people dwell. This is the world most hungry for peace as the vast majority of unjust suffering happens in this world, at the hands of other people and the systems they’ve put in place. But it also means the wild world. The untamed edges where the wild asses roam, the eagles soar, and where Leviathan swims. That world, increasingly, is also marked by unjust suffering as the impact of humanity reaches far beyond the ground where our feet touch. And it means the world as universe (in Greek the word for “universe” is literally “the all-things”). From this fragile green and blue orb to the galaxies spinning across the distant realms … and the elements that comprise all-things. If Christmas is joy to these worlds, it is only so because it heralds a new way of being with the inhabited world, the wild world, and the universe itself. Justice and awe are equally revolutionary—equally essential in this moment.

 

X is for Xmas. Only a tiny stretch here—and quite legitimate. We regularly see Christmas shortened to Xmas. Some people worry this shorthand crosses “Christ” right out of Christmas. But no need to fret. The X comes from the Greek letter Chi (written c), the first letter of the word Christ. So the X actually puts Christ at the heart of Christmas. And it reminds us that this season drips with oil (see C), smeared by God as it were with restless hope and joyful longing for revolution.

 

Y is for Yes! The exclamation mark is optional, though I think it’s implied, even when offered in a whisper. When Mary says to Gabriel, “Then let it be according to your word” (Luke 1:38) she’s saying, with all her being, “I’m in this, too.” Meanwhile, Joseph never says anything that we hear (see J), but from his quiet accompaniment of Mary to his fretful flight to Egypt, he, too, says Yes to everything the divine dreams and his wife and child ask of him. As do the Magi and the shepherds. Each according to their own vocation says, Yes! Revolutions will always encounter plenty of No!s, whether from those trying to preserve their power and privilege or those simply scared at the prospect of change and tumult. But revolutions happen because of those willing to say Yes! And, for Christians, Christmas is the season of Yes!

 

Z is for zeal. I suppose, like “Yes!,” zeal is present in most of the Christmas story. This isn’t a tale for the timid. But zeal is also the arc toward which this tale leads. If all the characters here need zeal to help launch Jesus’ life, as an adult that zeal becomes his life. His public ministry embodies Mary’s Magnificat, shredding the boundaries that kept oppression in place and announcing unconditional grace from the Author of all to the very least among us. When Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple for thinking to sell access to God (and make a tidy profit on the side) John’s Gospel explains it by quoting Psalm 69:9 “Zeal for your house shall consume me.” True. But don’t mistake “house” as the building. House is the family of God. You. Me. Everyone else. All creatures and all creation. The-all-things (see W). That’s where our zeal belongs. And that zeal is what makes Christmas a revolution.

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PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in public theology. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

 

David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach out to him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

Speaking of Christ … as King … or Not

Speaking of Christ … as King … or Not
David R. Weiss – December 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #52 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Okay, enough on sin. Of course, it’s far more complicated than the past couple essays could fully discuss. There are legitimate challenges to distinguish between those earth-wounding actions and attitudes in which we are entangled almost against our will … and those with which we acquiesce out of habit or selfish convenience … and those which we embrace with spiteful disregard for the ones who will be impacted. Likewise, there are real differences between choices at the individual/ community level and those at the corporate/government level.

I don’t underestimate the nuance needed to actually have thoughtful conversations in which we speak of sin as the rending of creation’s fabric. But whether these tears in nature’s web are outright spiteful or “merely” structural doesn’t really matter if they doom our collective future. There is no solace in making a time capsule marked “Open in case of climate emergency” that holds the message, “Sorry, mates, we didn’t mean it. We really hoped our actions wouldn’t lead to this. Oops.” Which is why it’s exquisitely important that we take our lives—and other lives across the globe, and other species, and lives not yet here—seriously enough to start speaking of sin in ecological earnest. Now.

But the conversation can’t stop there. That conversation gets us to the start of Transition. But the inward and outward transformation that is Transition will require something more than just repentance (more than simply “turning back”) from the dire not-rightness of our … whole way of life. Indeed, it will require such a thorough transformation, one might even say we’ll need to be reborn. That’s why I think religious language—in my case, Christian language—is not just helpful, it’s uncannily accurate and evocative. It may prove crucial in closing the gap between nagging/depressed awareness and committed/active responsiveness in regards to climate. And if it does, that won’t be a curious side-effect of a tradition supposedly focused on another realm. It will reveal the truth of Christianity all along: that God so loved this world as to risk everything to show us how to be at home here on Earth.

I started this year-long venture the first week of Advent 2018. Fifty-two weeks later, the last Sunday of the church year is the Festival of Christ the King. So I’ll close this blog with some ecologically provocative reflections on Christ … as king.

The festival of Christ the King was added to the church year by Pope Pius XI in 1925.[1] It was intended specifically to counter the rising ideologies that were seeking to assert their totalitarian reign in the world: communism in Russia, fascism in Italy and Spain (which soon after shape-shifted into Nazism in Germany)—as well as secularism in the West, which allowed capitalism to grow unfettered, in effect colonizing the minds of consumers and re-colonizing much of the world through the globalization of market forces. The impulse was perhaps noble—each of those ideologies has wrought havoc on humanity and the planet—but the messaging was also off the mark.

Even when invoked as a way to challenge other dangerous regimes, the church’s notion of Christ’s kingship has been deeply problematic on its own terms—shaped far more by the church’s own authoritarian aspirations than by Jesus’ actual life. The church has rarely had a problem with top-down or absolute power; it’s just preferred to have a monopoly on it. But Jesus’ own teachings and his lived practice stand in stark contrast to that preference.

Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus talked—a lot—about “the kingdom of God.” It’s recorded as the lead-in to quite a few of his parables and shows up elsewhere in his discourse. He never sets himself up as king, but setting that aside, it does seem that he imagines God as king—only big, better, more powerful than any earthly king. And if the church later saw fit to transfer that crown on to Jesus, that’s maybe legitimate. EXCEPT. To the extent we allow Jesus to reveal God through what he says and does, Jesus seems to be so severely critiquing the worldly notion of kingship as to announce that, when it comes to kings, the world has it ALL wrong.

Jesus’ focus on compassion, inclusion, humility, nonviolence, and radical transformative love as the manifestation of God’s kingdom suggests that earthly kings—almost to a person—are mere tyrants. They traffic in the sort of power rejected by heaven: power that belittles, exploits, excludes, others those who are different, and in general operates as though disconnected from all else. Omnipotence is NOT a trait of God; it is cosmic heresy (it flies in the face of everything the universe reveals about the nature of inter-related reality). It’s rather the sinful desire of humans who project it onto divinity and then think they have permission to image it themselves.

This archetype of kingship became the ideal for every person in their own sphere (even as the spheres were themselves misshapen by gender, racial, ethnic, sexual biases). Under the influence of this notion of kingship whole peoples have been colonized, Christianized, and decimated. The toll on other creatures and ecosystems has been no less devastating. Even when the church makes Jesus “King” for the “best” reasons, it betrays the message he brought—and it compromises the transformative power he sought to share.

When Jesus employed the phrase “kingdom of God” the way he filled those words with meaning exorcised them of all their royalty. The phrase is, in a sense, declared meaningless. From God’s perspective there is NO SUCH THING AS A KING. It’s a parasitic expression of humanity; a way of being that rejects the human vocation to image God … whose image IS compassionate liberating relationship.

I often shift the phrase “kingdom of God” into “kin-dom of God.” Jesus’ parables, healings, and perhaps most of all his boundary-breaking table fellowship (eating with folks that the social-religious rules of his day dictated he ought not even acknowledge) all work so hard against the notion of kingship, that he seems rhetorically bent on remaking the meaning of the word into something entirely else: choreographing kingship AS kinship. In the world God created there are no kings, only kin. Every corner related to every other corner, from microbes to mountains, from humus to human beings, and everything else as well.

We don’t need a festival for some Imperial Christ who only seems to challenge earthly rulers but ends up ultimately reflecting their own worldly dynamic made divine. No. Just as we don’t need (and the world can’t afford!) a merely reformed capitalism, we don’t need (and the world can’t afford!) a Christ who is King. Luckily, Jesus didn’t offer us that. He offered us a Christ who is Kin. A Christ who chose to be in relationship with all he encountered—because how else to embody the wisdom of God who wove the cosmos as one seamless garment? Let Christ be Kin—and let us follow his lead.

The Transition Movement is working hard to imagine, to experiment, to discover what it would look like to live from an awareness of radical kinship. It’s time for the church to join that work as its holy work. In truth, it always has been our work. Jesus didn’t come to save us. He came to heal us. (It’s the same verb for “save” and “heal.”) The difference is that we’ve assumed his goal was to save us to another life in another place. But I’m persuaded that his real hope, like most other great religious teachers, was to heal us so that we might dwell well (pursuing meaning, joy, and justice) as kin in this holy place. Earth. Our home. The place where all our relations are. May it be so. Amen.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] Frank Senn, an eminent Lutheran liturgical theologian, offers a concise helpful history of the feast here: www.lutheranforum.com/blog/2017/11/11/the-not-so-ancient-origins-of-christ-the-king-sunday

Speaking of Sin

Speaking of Sin
David R. Weiss – November 30, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #51 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I don’t harp on how entangled (GIT #49) we are in sin (GIT #50) to make us feel bad. I suppose at one level I do it to make us feel at all. Day in and day out our lives are profoundly out of sync with nature. Some of this is on account of the choices we make; much more is due to the myriad choices made for us by the way our society is structured. In either case, that out-of-sync-ness, that not-rightness, that SIN, is killing the very ground of our being. But we barely notice; it passes so easily for normal: for “the way life works.” And we won’t address the not-rightness of our lives until we feel it. So I harp.

By the way, “ground of being” is used sometimes in theology to name God: as that sacred presence that is the very foundation upholding us in all that we are. True enough. But at the mundane level of our flesh and blood bodies, it is Earth—its elements, ecosystems, and interconnected life forms—that physically-chemically-biologically upholds us as the ground of our being. And our current way of life (even if in ways mostly unseen, unknown, and hidden from us) is ripping asunder this web that upholds us. I won’t go so far as to say we’re killing God by our actions, but we ARE assaulting the wisdom of God woven into the fabric of nature … and doing so on a scale that threatens to render the planet unable to support us any longer, unable to ground our being. And still, we barely notice. So I harp.

Sunday, on the eve of the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that global efforts to address the climate crisis have thus far been “utterly inadequate.” He warned, “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us.”[1] In fact, some scientists warn that we may have already crossed that ominous threshold on several fronts. That is, we may have passed the first tipping points that would set in motion unstoppable and cascading changes leading to climate catastrophe.

Writing in the journal Nature (Nov. 27, 2019), they said we are on the precipice of “an existential threat to civilisation.” Earlier studies had suggested that these irreversible and interconnected “tipping points” (melting ice, rising seas, thawing permafrost, burning forest, drought, coral reef die off, ocean circulation, etc.) were only at play in a worst-case scenario—if temperature rise reached 5C. However, subsequent and more accurate studies now indicate we could pass these tipping points even before we reach 2C. We’ve already warmed the planet by 1C over the past century, and we’re currently on track to heat it by total of 3-4C within the next hundred years. One British climate researcher soberly commented on the piece in Nature, “The prognosis by Tim Lenton and colleagues is, unfortunately, fully plausible: that we might have already lost control of the Earth’s climate.”[2]

However, if you’ve watched the news as its offers “glowing” reports of record holiday buying-and-flying over the Thanksgiving weekend, you’d be excused for not realizing those very same records are driving us toward a glowing planet that will extinguish—or at least wreck—organized human society during the lifetimes of today’s children. I personally think that’s newsworthy, but somehow it never makes the cut for our ten o’clock news. That’s why I harp on sin.

But, again, the point isn’t to make us feel bad. It’s to wake us up so that we feel. Period. Walter Brueggemann, in discussing the Hebrew prophets described them as poets ransacking their language for words and images to evoke a spiritual-emotional response from a people who’d largely surrendered their capacity to feel.[3] Similarly, I’m not interested in using sin language to leave us wracked by guilt. We need, rather, to be wakened to perceive (viscerally!) the truth of our situation.

The Transition Movement is comprised almost entirely of persons who have already (largely) awakened to this truth. Churches, however, are comprised mostly of persons who have not. We might think we’re “well-informed,” but if we’re not ready to all-out weep, rage, and act over climate, we’re not yet awake. But as we awaken (and we WILL awaken—either quickly now or frantically in an over-heated future), sin language of the right sort, will help us link the not-rightness of the present moment to the tradition from which we get our wisdom and healing.

The right sort. Which is to say, sin language that is NOT focused on the risk of going to hell or the fear of pissing off God or even the need for personal salvation. Rather, sin language that is more directly descriptive of the earth-bound consequences of human action (and inaction). Sin language that speaks from the sacred-cosmic truth of absolute-relatedness and planetary-finitude. And sin language that declares simply, unmistakably, and (at least initially) without judgment, that we’ve stepped out of place with respect to the sturdy-delicate web of relations that is our home.

Perhaps there are good psychological-historical reasons for why we long ago hitched “sin” to otherworldly hopes or anxiety over divine anger. (Although I’d argue we should have also long ago grown past these linkages and refined our thinking. Instead, those holding power found ways to use those primal, but immature impulses to control others … But I digress.) Yet in this kairos moment, on this finite planet, sin is the welcome recognition that we’ve “missed the mark.”[4]

Welcome, because when we recognize Earth as our home, and as we become “literate” in the language of sin, we can use it to name “negative feedback loops”[5] that help us re-true our attitudes and behaviors (ultimately, our cultures and societies) so they “fit” our finite context. Well-declared, sin calls out the places in our lives that need attention—that need “repentance”: literally “turning back from”—so that our lives actually support the web of worldly relations and pursue meaning, joy, and justice in ways that strengthen the whole fabric of creation. That’s the original purpose of sin language. And, as Christians, we either reclaim it in this sense or we let it distract us (perhaps with deadly results) from doing the work to which God calls us: the healing of ourselves and the world.

To employ sin language in its proper role means that in our churches and in our daily fellowship with others we’ll actually ask together the welcome question of what constitutes sin today. And we’ll avoid the cultural press to indulge in holiday flying-and-buying—because that behavior is deadly to others. We’ll ask honest and restless questions about how much we drive, how we heat our homes, how we shape our diets, etc.—because those behaviors are directly related to a reeling climate. And, as faithful citizens, we’ll ask about plans for new pipelines, gas fracking, nuclear plants, etc.—because those societal-corporate behaviors drive the planet toward a dangerous future.

This isn’t about finger-pointing (in any case, most of the fingers would point back toward us). And it isn’t about making blanket claims (e.g. “Eat vegan or else”); it will require seasoned ethical nuance. It’s about recognizing that our future is in peril and we are wiser to ask about our behaviors with authentic earnestness now, rather than find our conversation driven by frenzied panic after a decade of sinful procrastination. Speaking of sin is essential as we seek to navigate finitude with grace.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] www.apnews.com/7d85d6d7b05c4436b6f4d162f6c06566

[2] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/27/climate-emergency-world-may-have-crossed-tipping-points

[3] See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, 1978, especially pp. 44-61.

[4] The biblical words for sin in both Hebrew and Greek mean “to miss the mark.” I might suggest, “to act off balance.” Another Hebrew word carries the stronger connotation of “rebellion,” as though to deliberately “miss the mark” … out of spite, vengeance, even desire for profit.

[5] See, for instance, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope (New World Library, 2012), pp. 66-68.

Sin: Ripping the Fabric of Creation

Sin: Ripping the Fabric of Creation
David R. Weiss – November 26, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #50 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

My last post (GIT #49) left us entangled. But if we’re so thoroughly caught in systems that pit us against each other, our fellow creatures, and even our planet, what hope do we have? We’ll get there (to hope), but the first step toward that hope is realizing how not right things are.

I used the word sin to describe our entanglement—the not-rightness of our current situation—but that’s hardly an uncomplicated word choice. “Sin” feels too religious for folks not connected to a faith community and too oppressively moralistic for many who are in faith communities. I could pick a different word, but I think sin is our word for a couple of reasons.

First, for better or for worse, sin is the word used in the Christian tradition to name the not-rightness that afflicts human experience. And if we’re going to leverage the wisdom of the Christian tradition to address the not-rightness evident in the climate crisis, we should at least ask whether we’re dealing with sin, since that’s the not-rightness that Christianity aims to address.

Second, sin is also the word misused in the Christian tradition to narrow down that not-rightness to matters of personal morality, sexual shame, rule-based obedience, and othering (disvaluing those who are simply different). While there are legitimate expressions of personal morality and times for rule-based obedience, overall in its misused form sin has largely reinforced power relationships without ever asking about the not-rightness of the relationships themselves. In this manner sin has actually distracted us from recognizing the not-rightness that really matters. Because of this, it seems wiser to reclaim sin than simply coin a new term and allow “sin” to simmer away in the background—pointing fingers, sowing shame, and otherwise making noise that doesn’t help us address the crisis in front of us.

Third, I’m convinced that a reclaimed understanding of sin can help us understand what we’re up against and help us see how our tradition can guide us in this kairos moment (GIT #46). That is, only by being clear on what sin is, can we begin to draw on Christianity as a faith with the power to transform us both inwardly and outwardly: this is the work of Transition.

Let me be clear: the Transition Movement does NOT require a background in any faith tradition. And I’m certain faith traditions other than Christianity can benefit from engaging with Transition. My assertion is more modest but important: for Christianity to engage Transition in a meaningful and constructive way we need to recognize the “touch points”—places where Transition and Christianity come together. And what Transition sees as the not-rightness of the current moment—the crises of peak oil, climate chaos, and a misshapen economy—are the result of what Christians name as sin. We have much to learn from Transition, and we begin with remembering what we know about sin.[1]

A mini-theology. Reality is relational. Nothing is on its own. (Perhaps not even God; that seems to be one core intuition in the doctrine of the Trinity: even God is intrinsically intimate before anything else at all is.) This begs the question of ultimates: who/what is God? I’m not going there. I’ll say this much. “God” is absolutely beyond our words. The very best we can do is seek words that capture shadows of the divine—God’s “backside” so to speak (Exodus 33:19-23).

I regard “God” as the name given across multiple faith traditions to the energy that pervades all that is: the “pulse” of the cosmos, the “spark” behind the big bang, the “impulse” to evolve, the “webbedness” that characterizes the very nature of reality. Our minds tend to personalize and anthropomorphize this energy. I’ll admit I’m agnostic-skeptical toward this. I doubt “God” is personal, but I’m inclined to affirm a purposiveness that comes right to the edge of sentience, and I’m adamant that I don’t really know. But, even if you prefer a fully personal God, my assertion stills stands: whoever/whatever God is, God’s creation—the cosmos—is relational through and through. This is, I believe, both a theological truth and an empirical fact; a happy place where religion and science simply concur.

This claim is the canvas for any serious religious cosmology. Cosmology (more/less in both its religious and scientific form, though I’m speaking religiously here) means the big picture of how/why things came to be as they are, where WE fit, and how WE ought to act in light of this big picture. In this sense, cosmologies are inescapably “self-centered” in that that they orient US—the ones who fashion them, toward the world around us. But they need not be destructively self-centered. It is possible (I’d say critical-essential!) for a cosmology grounded in a big picture of cosmic relationality to be self-centered in a humble, searching posture that places us within—interwoven with—a web of relationships rather than atop a pyramid. At its best, that’s what Christianity might offer.

In this cosmology, every facet of the cosmos from birth to death (both individually and as a whole) is naturally in ebb and flow with everything else. Life and death, renewal and rebirth, are the respiration of the universe. This is a far more modest picture than Christianity has often proclaimed, but it’s more consonant with what we know scientifically. “Paradise” may be a useful myth-metaphor, but there’s never been a time when any corner of the universe, least of all “Eden,” has been without the tumult that is nature. That tumult—which includes predator-prey relationships and lots of death—isn’t a moral problem. It simply is the way this universe works.

But at some point, on this particular planet, life evolved to the point that self-consciousness dawned. And with the notion of a self came the notion of an ended self—the anticipation of death; then anxiety over this finitude and then all manner of methods of trying to avoid death, many of which come at the expense others. As the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971) said, contrary to the “fall narrative” in the Bible, we don’t die because we sin; we sin because we die. Our failure to respond maturely to the challenges posed by finitude (and they can be mighty!) is the primal trigger for sin.

But it’s critical to note, this isn’t sin in the form of disobeying God. It’s sin in the form of acting against the cosmic relatedness in which we “suddenly” found ourselves, a cosmic relatedness in which our personal-communal finitude posed extreme anxiety. It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that self-consciousness caught us off guard in that primal past. But each choice to act or live against the relatedness of the entire cosmos threatened to rip us as a human species—as a human culture—further and further from the host of (finite!) connectedness that is our home.

The present crises of peak oil, climate chaos, and a misshapen economy are all distant but distinct echoes of that primal refusal to knowingly embrace our place in the (finite) web of life. By now that chosen refusal has been clothed so well in culture, myth (in fact, religion in its worse expressions), and systemic-corporate structures that we can barely imagine it as a dysfunctional choice. It passes so easily for normal. But it will kill us. All of us, if we don’t stem that anxious impulse.

Religion—at its best—has served since ancient times to help us navigate finitude with grace. And that’s an essential double entendre: “grace” as with humble poise and “grace” as with a sense of the sheer giftedness of life itself. From the earliest Goddess religions and aboriginal/indigenous traditions, on through the Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, and up through the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, religion in its wisest moments has offered us patterns for embracing this life as sacred in the midst of finitude. That’s the wisdom we need to plumb for today.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] People write entire books on sin; I have just a couple paragraphs. I’m most indebted to Sallie McFague (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Fortress Press, 1993, esp. pp. 112-129) and Carter Heyward (Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right, Fortress Press, 1999, esp. pp. 82-88) for helping me articulate my own intuitions more clearly.

This entry was posted on December 3, 2019. 1 Comment

Reckoning Where We Are: Entangled

Reckoning Where We Are: Entangled
David R. Weiss – November 22, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #49 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

You can find good news on climate concerns. Our solar panels are having the sunniest day since being turned on. A recent breakthrough in solar technology has shown that sunshine can be harnessed with sufficient intensity to drive industrial processes like making steel, glass, or concrete.[1] And Sweden, through a program based in one of its public research universities, has hired a Chief Storyteller to help craft a public engaging and inspiring narrative for their Viable Cities program.[2]

These are all remarkable things in their own way. And good news feels good. But I fear we also need a much stronger medicine, because remarking on the technological breakthroughs in the construction of the Titanic or even commenting on the inspiring music being played by the ship’s ensemble won’t keep you from getting sunk by an iceberg. And Transition reminds us that even while bits of good news trickle out—and are worth noticing and celebrating—the larger picture is undeniably ominous.

While Transition is absolutely about shaping a positive vision for a sustainable future, that future is only positive, only sustainable, if it reckons honestly the gap between our present and that future. And overall the news is not kind to us on climate issues—or any other facet of forging a sustainable future on the finite planet we call home. (And that last phrase, while colloquial, also betrays the very disconnect that betrays us these days. It doesn’t do any good to “call” Earth home if we don’t really mean it, or act like it. And, bottom line, it isn’t ours to “call” at all. “Call” suggests choice, as though we picked Earth from a list of options. But there are no other planets available. Earth IS our home. And a large part of the gap between collapsing present and sustaining future lies in that faulty notion.)

The latest IPCC report highlights the size of that gap.[3] These IPCC reports—because they represent the consensus of many studies and authors—inevitably present moderate assessments. And when moderate assessments sound alarming, it gets increasingly difficult to find a foothold for even cautious optimism. This last report, released in late September, looks at Earth’s oceans and ice regions as one key player in the climate crisis. It states soberly that if we do not hold temperature increase below 1.5 C, “the same oceans that nourished human evolution are poised to unleash misery on a global scale.” Remember, that’s the moderate angle.

And it echoes earlier IPCC reports in telling us that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C rests on making “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented” changes in nearly every facet of our lives. This is now so close to a political impossibility as to practically make limiting the increase to 2.0 C our best hope right now. We’re likely to crest 1.5 C in the next 10-30 years and we may well be flirting disastrously with 2.0 C before this century ends. Which means we should brace ourselves for the report’s somber (again, “moderate”!) predictions. Sea level rise will rewrite coastlines and submerge coastal cities, displacing industry and some 280 million people—quadrupling our already record-high refugee count. Political borders will be battered by waves, both watery and human.

The biggest change we need to make is to reduce our use of fossil fuels as swiftly as possible. Honestly, we need to do it, not without disrupting our economy, but (ideally) without crashing it. Disruption is the price of survival. Unfortunately, we’re not willing to pay that price yet. A recent report by the UN Environment Programme analyzed the announced coal, oil, and gas production plans of the world’s countries over the next decade. [4] As of today we’re still planning—HOPING?!—to extract more than TWICE the amount of fossil fuels that would keep us at the safest 1.5 C increase and 50% more than would even keep us at 2 C—the point characterized by the IPCC report above as “unleashing misery on a global scale.” We are planning, by 2030, to have locked in global catastrophic consequences.

Considering only our own fates, this is sheer madness. Considering all whose lives and wellbeing is at stake today and in the future, this is sheer evil. It matters little that this path toward chosen collapse is built into our societal structures and beyond our personal reach. When it reaches our doorsteps, our families, our grandchildren, our claims to powerlessness will mean nothing and save no one. Either we find ways to become persons with the power to act—which is what Transition Towns are all about—or we become complicit in the choice to assault the planet.

Of course, we already are. We were born into patterns of consumption, habits of living, assumptions of comfort and convenience that were misshapen long before we realized it. Long before we became aware of the threat. Or the extent to which those patterns entangle us with others beyond our view.

The worst consequences of global heating will (already do) fall disproportionately on “the least of these”—those living in less industrialized countries who are least responsible for carbon emissions and least equipped to respond … those in whom Jesus says we encounter him today. And it’s much more than just climate consequences. The searing inequities of the globalized economy are fundamental to the misshapen patterns that define our lives. Some of this, which Transition clearly calls out, involves the way that high finance drives down wages and makes employment more precarious right here in our communities. But it’s equally true that the consumer culture, driven by industrialized capitalism, weds us ever more deeply to injustice against our more distant neighbors.

Is “neighbors” the right word for those we never really see? Yes—given their intimate connection to our lives. Two examples suffice, drawn from the past week’s news. A BBC report describes a pair of villages in Indonesia where villagers practice subsistence “farming”: by sorting through mixed plastics sent by Western countries to be recycled. Only the best plastic can be “harvested”; the rest is burned as fuel by local industry. So these “neighbors”—after all, it’s the plastic we recycle from our consumer choices that ends up in their village—deal with respiratory ailments from toxic fumes released by the burning plastic and eat chicken eggs with dioxin levels 70 times higher than considered safe.[5]

Meanwhile, in Madagascar children as young four years old “work” long hours—day and night—in makeshift mines collecting shards of mica. Some of it winds up as the sparkle in the cosmetics on your face. Most finds it way to China and then to the U.S. in the hair dryers that style our hair or the audio speakers that play our music (though it also shows up in an array of products that populate our everyday lives—although they’d be unimaginable to the children crawling through the darkness).[6]

We are entangled in a web of relationships, a system of structures that expects us to use oil like there’s no tomorrow. To use people like they’re not human. To use the planet as though it were not our (ONLY) home. Christians have language for this, though as I said last time, we’ll need to reclaim it from those who’ve cheapened it. We are entangled in sin. And next time I’ll turn to that.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] www.cnn.com/2019/11/19/business/heliogen-solar-energy-bill-gates/index.html; to be sure, this breakthrough includes a measure of ambiguity. If it slows fossil fuel use without shifting the way we see ourselves on the planet, it will simply provide a “scorched-Earth” means to destroy the planet that doesn’t require oil.

[2] www.citylab.com/environment/2019/11/climate-change-news-solutions-per-grankvist-viable-cities/601597/

[3] See www.nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/leaked-un-draft-warming-oceans-could-unleash-misery.html; IPCC is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The full report is here: www.ipcc.ch/srocc/home.

[4] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/20/fossil-fuel-production-on-track-for-double-the-safe-climate-limit

[5] www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-50392807

[6] www.nbcnews.com/news/all/army-children-toil-african-mica-mines-n1082916

This entry was posted on November 25, 2019. 2 Comments

Kairos and the Core Convictions of Transition

Kairos and the Core Convictions of Transition
David R. Weiss – November 19, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #48 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

This essay builds on my last post (GIT #47) about the Transition Town Movement. As said then, I’m convinced this is a kairos moment (GIT #46) for humanity as a whole—a time when the choices we make, individually and collectively, at all levels and in all places—will decisively shape the future … for everyone on the planet … and for generations to come. Faith communities have a particular responsibility because the skills needed in this kairos moment are among those that faith communities are distinctly suited to offer (which is not to say we’re the only ones able to do so, or even that we’re actually offering them—only that we could!). And there are insights in the Transition Movement that faith communities can learn from. That’s why we’re here.

To pick up from where I left off last time, in 2004 as Rob Hopkins became aware of the intertwined threats of peak oil (see GIT #47 for more on this) and climate change, he saw his training in permaculture as offering a powerful resource in shaping a community response. [1] So he assigned his permaculture students in Kinsdale, Ireland (pop. 2300) a course project of developing an “energy descent plan” for Kinsdale. Recognizing that any response to peak oil and climate change would require that communities dramatically lessen their dependence on fossil fuel, he asked his students to put their minds to imagining how to do this over the next fifteen years. That is, to reduce Kinsdale’s reliance on fossil fuels to one fourth of its then current use. The project goal was to produce a vision for a post-carbon Kinsdale that would be an even more desirable community to live in—and to launch the Kinsdale community itself into conversation about its future.

Although this was not yet a full-blown Transition initiative, Hopkins’ first foray into fashioning a positive, inviting community response to the challenge of living sustainably on a finite planet was a crucial learning experience for everyone involved. The students’ final result, the Kinsdale Energy Descent Plan, was never fully adopted in its original 2005 form, but it planted seeds for countless conversations and eventually led to Kinsdale becoming a Transition Town the following year.

Meanwhile, in 2005 Hopkins himself moved to Totness, England (pop. 8500). There he built on his Kinsdale experience and partnered closely with Naresh Giangrande, a peak oil educator, to create a Transition Town process more intentionally from the ground up—and as a community project rather than a campus one. Beginning in fall 2005 they used a whole series of community events to carefully lay the groundwork for a community-wide “unleasing” of Transition Town Totness in September 2006. This was followed by an entire year of further community-strengthening events ranging from educational to transformational. Since that birth of the Transition Town idea, over a thousand Transition initiatives have been undertaken in countries around the globe.

The Transition Town Movement has certainly matured as it has played out over time and spread to new settings, but it remains remarkably true to Hopkins’ original vision, which was to bring the insights of permaculture from their largely rural setting into town, villages, and cities. His conviction remains that as people in all settings begin to awaken to just how “not right” things are, the principles of permaculture can do much more than guide us in how we tend the land; they can also inspire us to tend our communities—our entire cultures—with renewed earth-offered wisdom.

Transition identifies three major crises facing humanity today. (In truth, there are more than just three, but these three intersect with many more—both amplifying and being amplified by them—so I don’t want to get tripped up by asking whether these three are the “top” three. Each is decisive, multifaceted, and reaches far. The first is peak oil, which acknowledges the extent to which our lives are unsustainably swimming in fossil fuel—and anticipates the coming crash when those fuels become scarce and costly. The second is the climate crisis, which is, of course, driven primarily by our use of fossil fuel, but this crisis is concerned with the multitude of ways that a changing climate will wreak havoc on our lives and on Earth’s ecosystems and creatures.

The third crisis the economic crisis, which is hardest to capture in words. In its most abstract form, it names the dangerous extent to which money has taken on a life of its own today: as global economic relations exist largely independent of real world products and services. The sheer weight of debt servicing and speculative investments as a share of the economy make the economic foundation of actual lives more volatile and precarious. It’s as though economic growth is a Jenga tower built ever higher only by making the base ever more likely to fall. This plays out in rising inequality, excruciating poverty, unemployment and economic displacement, etc. When money takes on a life of its own, human life is diminished from every angle.

These crises, which conspire to pose an existential threat to countless species, human society, and humanity itself, reflect what Christian faith has called sin. They expose our profound alienation from creation/nature, one another, and the sacred. But such a claim needs to be explored with nuance because one wide swath of Christianity has twisted sin into mere personal (often sexual) morality and reduced the arc of God’s work into a fall-redemption plot where Jesus’ primary purpose is to be killed. I mean none of that, and it will take a post of its own just to begin that exploration. But Christianity HAS language to name the dynamics behind these crises, and that means Christianity might be capable of rousing its members to respond in this kairos moment.

Transition also holds four key assumptions. (1) Finitude (seen in both peak oil and climate crisis) means any future other than death requires much lower energy consumption—and, knowing this, we’re wiser to plan for it rather than crash the system. (2) Our communities presently lack the resilience (think: imaginative-practical agility-adaptability) either to make the swift shift in our lives that is needed or to respond to the crash when it comes. (3) Individual actions (while necessary) are insufficient and government actions (while also necessary) are politically tenuous and practically slow, therefore collective action—by friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens—to build community resilience and to plan for and move toward a post-carbon life is indispensable to any future in which human society (and some semblance of a “healthy” ecosystem) might persist. (4) If we “unleash the collective genius” in our communities today—ideas, skills, stories, visions, etc.—it would be possible, not only to weather the worst of what’s headed our way, but even to fashion new patterns of life together in which joy and justice flourish on a finite planet.

Each of these assumptions—again, to be explored in another post—can be embraced within faith communities. Although church membership today is far more geographically scattered than in earlier eras (especially in urban areas), churches remain communities where this type of collective action could find a natural habitat. And, because these assumptions speak to the salvation (that is, the healing) of the planet and its people, churches that choose to explore what it means to be faith-based Transition communities, have the opportunity to revitalize their internal faith and energy, while also recovering a sense of external purpose that the world actually needs.

Right now. Because a kairos moment demands nothing less.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

[1] The background here is from Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), especially pp. 122-145; supplemented by the Transition US website: www.transitionus.org.