Tag Archive | Climate Change

Inner Transition: Where the Given Meets the Gospel

Inner Transition: Where the Given Meets the Gospel
David R. Weiss – September 7, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #40 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I have to be honest. There are days when the latest climate news hits hard. Actually, there are weeks and months like that for me. The science is not encouraging. The math is simply unforgiving. And the physics has no empathy.

Consider: the lag time between releasing CO2 (and other greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere and when we actually experience the impact of those raised CO2 levels is 30-40 years. That means we are just TODAY experiencing a climate shaped by the 350ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere 30-40 years ago. And (maybe you’ve noticed) it’s NOT pretty.

And because current CO2 levels are now well above 400ppm, the next 30-40 years are pretty much locked in as a “pre-paid” immersive learning experience on the impact that raising CO2 from 350-400ppm will have on our world. We like to think we can (somehow) swerve back from the edge of disaster just in the knick of time. But the choices we make (or fail to make) today are not so much about the next 30-40 years but what comes after that.

In other words, my own (grown) children’s climate future is NOT at the center of discussion. Their climate future was settled over the past three decades. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like (because if/when the positive feedback loops kick in things will get precipitously worse), but wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, droughts, sea level rise, global food insecurity and political insecurity all seem certain to increase—accompanied by an unimaginable number of climate refugees.

That’s the given. Our choices today will not alter that. But they do matter in other ways. They will determine whether we manage to lessen the worst impacts of global heating, which are still 40+ years ahead of us. And whether we endure the coming crisis—the next 30-40 years a reeling climate that’s already bought and paid for—with integrity and compassion. But there’s a catch—and it inextricably links these two sets of choices. Even if we make all the right choices for that four-decades-off future we can barely imagine (but which will become our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s daily life), even if we act with supreme wisdom and restraint now, things will continue to get worse. For many of us, for the rest of our lives. Even if we do the right things. All the time.

Which means, both for our own well-being and for the sake of persons not yet conceived, we must resolve to cultivate compassion and nurture integrity without expecting it to save us. On the one hand, the emergence of such deep character is the only thing that will save us—preserve our humanity. But it will not have any significant effect on the increasingly hostile climate conditions most of us fifty-and-older will face for the rest of our lives. And the sooner we acknowledge that, the more focused we can be on the character we need to survive.

In a sense, this is what the Transition Movement has always been about: recognizing the extent to which our present lives are hitched to unsustainable—indeed deadly—practices, and choosing to transition away from them and toward truly sustainable practices before we are caught off guard, and as a matter of communal choice. And—with a measure of good spirit; because these deadly practices have not only been eroding the planet’s ecosystems, they’ve also been steadily eroding our humanity, so making different (albeit unfamiliar) choices has the capacity to re-humanize us.

At the macro level the window for orderly transition away from a fossil-fueled societal collapse is fast closing. (Indeed, a growing number of well-informed folks say the window has not only closed, it’s been padlocked shut.) And while Trump is a convenient scapegoat for this—his administration has gone out its way to damn future generations to a living hell—nonetheless our dilemma reflects decades of inaction by politicians of all stripes. Generations of fixation on profit/wealth/money/stuff as the measure of meaning in our life. And the collected energy of corporations, the wealthy, and those bought off or tricked into doing their bidding. There is plenty of blame to go around; our current president is only the latest, loudest, most brutish and clownish manifestation of a cultural infatuation with an ecocidal way of life.

In the face of this, the Transition Movement—without dismissing the value of street protest or political action—opts to place its energy in building fresh patterns of community. Because only by remaking our notion of humanity itself will we find patterns for living that can sustain us through the coming decades and (perhaps) sow the seeds of a fundamentally more ecological form of human life in the future. For all its practical focus on transportation, food, energy use, and the like, this is ultimately “religious” work—though by no means necessarily tied to a religious tradition. But beneath all of this it is about fashioning … inhabiting … a different cosmology, one that sets us more accurately and more compassionately within the web of creation. The immediate payoff—against the backdrop of the climate emergency—is that in the process we will recover the humanity that we barely remember was once ours.

This cosmology-crafting is at the heart of Inner Transition: tending to the neural paths and emotions that comprise the infrastructure of personal choice, shared community, and culture. It sometimes happens implicitly, the spontaneous result of pursuing outward habits that happen to produce corresponding inward life-giving rewards as well. And sometimes it transpires as the result of careful intent. Inner Transition is the place where—most directly—faith communities contribute to the character-shift, the cosmological revolution necessary in this moment.

The practices evident in how we hold and share power in faith communities (even in how we conduct our committee meetings) can easily echo the top-down power dynamics that are killing our planet. But they can also experiment powerfully with ways to embrace shared power, ways that echo, adapt, and amplify the model of Jesus. The shape of our worship, from the language, songs, and visual imagery we choose to the way we embody our rituals, these things, too, are cosmology-craft at work. Our willingness to endure (welcome) truth-telling in our midst and our commitment to fellowship that pushes past polite company into authentic relationship frame the crucible in which a new cosmology might be born.

We have largely and tragically imagined the Gospel—that declaration of God’s unconditional and unnerving love for every bit of creation—as a message-with-the-means to carry us from this world to the next. I am here to tell you that the only Gospel that is truly good news—that bears the message-as-means of God’s awe-full love—is the one that can carry us to the heart of this world. And inspire us to make it once again our home.[1]

And it is our home. No less so on account of the wounds we’ve inflicted on it. No less so on account of the decades of wounding that we’ve already loaded in the atmosphere. This IS our home. We die, endure, or heal right here. But our tradition is clear, God loves this world. Embracing that truth with all of our audacious creativity, courageous compassion, and practical wisdom—in every corner of our personal and communal lives is what Inner Transition looks like. It is Gospel wrapped in all manner of flesh. As it is always is.

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] I believe many—most!—faith traditions can support a cosmology in which we are fully wed to this world. My work is within the Christian tradition because this is the tradition I’m writing out of—and into.

Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home

Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home
David R. Weiss – May 27, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #27 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“Then the LORD[1] God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7) Forget Jesus’ breath in John’s Easter scene (GIT #26), this is the moment when the Judeo-Christian tradition first affirms permaculture.

In my last post, I said Christian communities were “commissioned” as it were to be permaculture communities all along. Of course, that’s a bit of a rhetorical claim—permaculture as an intentional movement appeared nearly 2000 years after the first Christian communities. But my point stands. John’s Gospel links Jesus so clearly with the Biblical figure of Wisdom (who the Bible links with the wisdom inherent within creation) that Christians ought to enthusiastically embrace the core insight of permaculture: that nature itself is a repository of lived wisdom useful in shaping human life as well.

Not that nature dictates how we live, but our capacity for reflection, self-transcendence, and choice doesn’t set us above nature any more than the capacity for flight, parthenogenesis, underwater breathing, or photosynthesis sets any other bit of creation above nature. Permaculture, the infrastructure for the Transition Movement, suggests it’s both wise to learn from nature and ethical to seek to live in harmony with nature because we are nature. We’re simply nature with elevated cognitive, emotional, cultural, spiritual capacities.

That most Christians find this idea quite foreign reflects how far we are from the truth of our own tradition. Worse, given the way scientific-industrial progress has raced forward largely unbridled by ethics in a culture self-identified for generations as “Christian,” the church has been (at least!) complicit in the reckless advances that now threaten to wreck the ecosystem that sustains us. Permaculture argues that other paths were, and perhaps still are, available to us. So does this creation account in Genesis.

As a creation myth it oozes truth (not fact) in a story about how creation came to be and where we fit within it. However, it’s a myth made for people in another time and place. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say to us, but it does mean we’ll need to listen carefully to hear across cultures, languages, and whole eras of understanding. Still, for those of us who continue to draw meaning and life out of this faith tradition, that extra care is worth it. And as we meet the climate emergency in front of us, there’s an added urgency to pay attention. Because some of the things we’ve often missed just may become lifelines in this moment. I’ll suggest several.

English translations have always told us “God formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The exact words vary, but every translation I’ve seen BURIES the truth of the Hebrew where God fashions an adam from the adamah. Later on, these translations render adam as the man’s name, Adam. But it is Hebrew for “earthling” fashioned from earth, or “dirtling” made from dirt, or “humus being” formed from humus. The truth intended by the original teller of this tale was that we are dirt. Enlivened by divine breath, but nonetheless still—forever and always—kin to the ground beneath our feet. The claim isn’t intended to humiliate us. Rather it tells us, on this ground we are home. No small truth for beings who have evolved our way into existential loneliness.

In this tale, God’s breath brings one particular bit of humus to life by breathing into it. We become humus beings—living soil. Later on the Hebraic Wisdom tradition begins to intuit what both science and permaculture confirm: we aren’t the only soil that is alive. Whether you call it the breath of God or the ferment of microbes, the black dirt under our feet is fairly crowded with animate energy. Permaculture begs us to honor it; this Genesis creation tale says no less.

This creation account goes on to describe Eden, the garden planted by God into which the humus being (adam/Adam) is placed. We do an injustice to the peoples who first heard this tale when we presume they regarded it as a divinely-relayed newspaper account of an anthropomorphized God, who acted like a supernatural botanist in setting up Eden. AND—we do an injustice to ourselves when we presume we’re either beholden to read the verses that way today—or entitled to be embarrassed by verses so unembarrassed about narrating divine activity. Ancient peoples were “fluent” in myth. They felt no need to decide between fact and fiction. Myth told truth—and it moved freely across these less important distinctions in telling its truth.

With the garden in place, we learn that God set the adam [that is, “the humus being”—as yet single and ungendered] in the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15) This, then, is the paradigmatic human vocation according to this account: to work the land and sustain its abundance—in other words: to practice permaculture. There is no talk of being imago Dei (“in the image of God”) or “having dominion” in this account—I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Almost as soon as the humus being begins tending the humus, God observes, “It is not good for the adam [the single “humus being”] to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) So God fashions all manner of animals, none of whom provide quite sufficient companionship, until God splits the adam itself into two: man and woman. (Gen. 2:19-23) One might consider a host of (worthwhile) gender issues here, but today I simply want to note that in this story God invites the humus being to name each creature. The invitation and the act are significant because throughout the biblical text names are not used to establish the power of ownership or exploitation, but to carry the truth of relationship.[2]

In Eden, naming is a vocational act alongside tending the garden. It is a prototype of ecology. Indeed, once we see the purpose of naming as placing ourselves and our companion creatures into appropriate relationship, then naming and tending become essentially one interwoven vocation. We cannot tend the humus well if we do not attend as well to the ways that all life is humus-borne.

From creation to Christianity, authentic biblical faith anticipates permaculture (and Transition). To understand ourselves as humus beings—“breathing earth”—places us firmly within this natural world. And not as punishment or burden, but as home and calling. We were not made to be masters of this material world. Rather, we were intended for intimacy with it. Facing a climate crisis of apocalyptic scope, that intimacy will mean allowing ourselves to feel unfathomable grief. But it will also mean catching glimpses of revelatory joy. Perhaps most of all, it will mean holding earth in our hands and feeling the goodness of home.

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] In many English translations of the Old Testament you’ll often see the word LORD printed in upper case letters. When you do, it indicates that behind this word lies the Hebrew word often viewed as the name of God: YHWH. Jews consider it too sacred to speak aloud, so when reading their scriptures they replace it, by saying the word Adonai, which means “Lord.” (It actually means “Lords”—plural—which is itself a fascinating detail, as though in the midst of Judaism’s strict monotheism, a bit of the God’s ineffable “moreness” leaks through here.)

[2] Just a few examples: “Eve” means “the mother of all living”; “Isaac” means “laughter”—the child whose unexpected birth brought laughter; “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” There are a number of ways to convey the sense of YHWH: “I am what I am”; “I am who I am”; or “I will be who I will be.” Because the most vivid account of God’s self-revelation comes in the scene with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), linked to a series of future promises, I find it evocative to hear the name as “I will be who I must be for your liberation.”

Permaculture: Becoming Friends with God

Permaculture: Becoming Friends with God
David R. Weiss – May 25, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #26 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22). This is the moment of “Pentecost” (the sending of the Holy Spirit) in John’s Gospel.

Luke’s much more vivid Pentecost narrative (rushing wind, tongues of flames, and speaking in other languages—in Acts 2) happens on the fiftieth day after Passover. (Hence, the name Pentecost: Greek for “fiftieth” and the Greek name for the Jewish harvest festival of first fruits celebrated on this fiftieth day. In John’s Gospel “Pentecost” happens about fifty seconds after Jesus makes his first resurrection appearance to the disciples on Easter evening.[1] Seriously, he appears in the room—seemingly moving through walls and locked doors—announces himself by saying, “Peace be with you,” shows the disciples his wounds, and then we go immediately into verse 20 as quoted above. Breath, Spirit, Pentecost. Bam.

I propose, though, that we call John’s version of Pentecost, the Permaculture Moment of Easter, because John shows Jesus establishing the post-Easter community of believers as a permaculture community. I can’t say whether those first Christians fully appreciated that, but I will say that the very meaning and purpose of the church today hinges on recognizing its call to be a permaculture community today as we meet the climate emergency on our doorstep.

Permaculture? You won’t find it in your catechism or creed; it’s not exactly a theological term (though I’d argue it ought to be). Permaculture is a design philosophy for thinking about agriculture … and human culture.[2] It emerged in the late 1970’s as a way of critically rethinking (and rejecting) the steady growth of industrialized agriculture. Seeing a multitude of problems connected with an agricultural model that was increasingly determined to enslave the soil by means of machinery and chemicals, permaculture, in essence, chose to listen to the land instead.

Permaculture begins with the presumption that most (if not all) of the challenges we face in producing food (or, ultimately, in the other aspects of our lives) have already been faced—at least analogously—by nature. And, having the benefit of a timescale far beyond us, nature has found solutions to these problems. Nature may think slowly, but it is utterly undaunted, and it holds within it, quite literally, the wisdom of eons. So permaculture developed twelve design principles—drawn from how nature approaches problem-solving—as a framework for our own way of being in relative harmony with nature.

Besides the twelve principles (which are more complex than we need to know for this column), permaculture has three core tenets: (1) Care for Earth—treating the soil (and really all ecosystems) in ways that promote flourishing for all creatures in the Earth community; (2) Care for People—that the necessities of life (both material and social) be available to all; (3) Return of Surplus—that we take not more than our fair share and reinvest the surplus back into the system or within our community.

Permaculture began as an agricultural movement (it was first known as “permanent agriculture”), but rather quickly became a way of thinking about the whole of human culture since all agriculture sits within a broader social-cultural context. I’m thinking about permaculture today because it’s the philosophical infrastructure for the Transition Movement. Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Movement, was himself a permaculture instructor, and, in many ways, he imagined Transition Towns as adaptations of permaculture principles to a more urban (or at least a village-neighborhood) context.

But where does Jesus fit in? We begin with the Hebrew Scriptures where Wisdom is acknowledged as a divine attribute (at times even a divine feminine person) present at creation. In Proverbs (8:22-31) and Sirach[3] (ch. 24), Wisdom is the presence of God that patterns Itself/Herself into creation. In other words, Hebrew Scripture affirms that Wisdom is at work in the patterns seen in nature. The language is far more spiritual than permaculture uses, but the intuition is the same. Moreover, the Hebrew notion of Sabbath rest for people-animals-land anticipates the holistic ethic of permaculture core tenets.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is deliberately likened to Wisdom. Described as “the Word” (Greek: logos) in John’s prologue, Jesus is linked both to God’s creative word at creation, and also to Wisdom present with God during creation. In Greek, logos means not simply “word,” but also the “wise principle” or pattern behind something. John 1:1-3 clearly aims to evoke Proverbs and Sirach in the ears of its Jewish audience. And when John writes (1:14), “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” his readers likely heard Baruch 3:37, “Afterward she [Wisdom] appeared upon earth and lived among men.”

Elsewhere Wisdom invites her followers to feast (Proverbs 9:1-5, Sirach 24:9-21); promising that she alone provides bread and drink that satisfies. When John has Jesus offer living water (Jn 4:13-14) and the bread of life (Jn 6:31-35), he is again telling his community that Jesus is God’s Wisdom in their midst. Finally, in his long Last Supper discourse, John has Jesus announce a new relationship with his disciples: no longer servants, he calls them “friends” (Jn 15:15). Which brings us back—almost, to the Easter-breath scene. In the book of Wisdom (likely written in the century immediately before Jesus lived) we read, “Wisdom is a breath of the power of God and … In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God” (Wisdom 7:25-27).

Throughout John’s densely symbolic Gospel, he is convinced that one way to understand Jesus is as the embodiment of the Wisdom of God. And in his “Pentecost” moment, John shows Jesus passing the breath of that Wisdom on to his followers and through this Holy Spirit making them friends with God.

Today’s climate crisis is the direct result of humans (many of them “Christian”) failing to discern the wisdom present in creation and instead choosing to treat nature as devoid of wisdom: mere raw material for meeting human desire. But—like permaculture—the Wisdom tradition in Hebrew Scripture sees nature as bearing Wisdom’s imprint. And, by linking Jesus to that tradition again and again, John’s Gospel tells us: to be a follower of Jesus is to become a friend of God, to recognize the echo of Wisdom in Jesus’ life, … and to discern the pattern of that same Wisdom in the natural world around us.

In John’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does in meeting his disciples on Easter evening is breathe on them—stepping directly into the Wisdom tradition and breathing his followers into friendship with God and God’s world (seeing God’s Wisdom writ within nature is inescapably part of friendship with God).

It would be our moral duty to embrace permaculture principles (and become Transition communities) in response to the climate crisis, if only because these things best position us to preserve what we can and to grieve for what we cannot preserve. But John’s Gospel makes clear that, for those who follow Jesus, something more than “mere” morality at stake. Permaculture is how we befriend God.

I cannot imagine a greater act of joy. So take a deep … breath, and let’s get started.

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 climate change, 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] John describes an encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden outside the empty tomb on Easter morning, but the evening scene is the first time John describes and encounter with the rest of the disciples.

[2] Rob Hopkins, a permaculture instructor himself, admits the concept is “notoriously difficult to explain in a single sentence.” My portrait here is drawn from Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook (Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008, pp. 60-61, 136-141), and augmented by www.permacultureprinciples.com/principles/.

[3] Sirach, Baruch, and Wisdom (both mentioned below) are apocryphal books: among a handful of ancient Jewish texts that are pre-Christian but are not considered part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Though not regarded as sacred by Jews, these writings helped form the context against which John was interpreting Jesus.

Threatened with Resurrection

Threatened with Resurrection
David R. Weiss – May 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #25 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“They have threatened us with resurrection.” The words come from a poem written in 1980 by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet-theologian and peace activist.[1] Penned in a time of fierce persecution of peasants, human rights activists, and church workers, the image evokes a holy irony: for Christians, to live under near constant threat of death is to be … threatened with resurrection.

This wasn’t glib optimism. During Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) some 200,000 persons were killed. Death squads were common, as were torture, assassination, mutilation, rape, and ‘disappearances.’ To suggest that living under such conditions was, in fact, to be “threatened with resurrection,” was an act of revolutionary inward defiance. It declared: Because we do not regard death as the end of our story—for it was not the end of Jesus’ story—therefore, even in times like these, “we go on loving life” (the last five words are drawn from the poem itself).

Climate change is NOT state-sponsored terrorism. But it will (in some places it already does) mean living in the face of daily unpredictability, chaos, suffering, and grief. And it will require a posture of revolutionary inward defiance (one aspect of the Inner Transition that is central to the Transition Movement goal of resilience) to cultivate both the inner and outer resources to embrace life in this new world. Which is why, especially after my last post summoning us to embrace ecological grief, it seems a good time to remind us that as Christians, climate change threatens us with resurrection. Which in turn invites … compels us to live in the holy irony of meeting the prospect of radical uncertainty with an undaunted love for life.

This, too, is not glib optimism. The science around climate change is too unforgiving for that. The media spin is often shaped alternately by a foolhardy thirst for one more round of profits, or a fear-laden denial convinced it can’t be that bad, or the naïve belief we’ll invent our way out of this without needing to deeply(!) re-work the misshapen appetites and assumptions that got us here. But once you push through the spin, BLEAK is what stares back at you. And bleak doesn’t blink.

Part of our problem, however, is that unlike in Guatemala, where Esquivel’s poem was read against the lived experience of brutality (no one doubted they lived under immediate threat)—today both society and church remain largely in denial of the peril still mostly unseen in front of us. Even as anxiety over climate change creeps into the background of our daily lives, the immediacy of the threat is seldom felt. Not here. Not yet. But it is inexorably on the way. So I tend to shout. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

I get it. ‘Bleak’ isn’t good for the market, for one’s career path, or for our widespread consumptive addictions, so we find ways to push it to the side. But ‘bleak’ is what science tells us today, so my task is to be unrelentingly imaginative in making that bleakness real.[2]

For some it already is. The Agenda, a Canadian public television current affairs show recently hosted a 30-minute segment on the emotional impact of climate change on those directly involved in the research.[3] Scientists, whose work places them before any spin, are increasingly wrestling with deep grief as they see an Earth unmade by human folly—sometimes first hand in habitats they’ve come to love, sometimes in climate models made by math they’ve learned to trust. While objectivity is crucial in collecting and assessing the data, when that objectivity announces existential crises for habitats and for humans even scientists are given pause.

It’s what comes after the pause that counts. Rob Law, a longtime Australian climate activist, writes, “to truly tackle the climate and extinction crisis we also need to give ourselves permission to grieve, personally and collectively.”[4] Why? Not as an exercise in self-defeat, but as a means to clear the way for action. Acknowledging our grief, Low continues, allows us “to create new ways of connecting to one another, to mourn for what we all love and are losing day by day … and to galvanize what is most important.” Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, agrees, commenting in the Agenda segment, “It’s not a matter of are we ‘effed’ or not [as though it’s a simple binary either/or], it’s a matter of how ‘effed,’ and that is left for us to determine—and that requires us to become active participants in reducing whatever carbon burn we can.”

We don’t gain anything by denying the bleakness of our present situation. In fact, denial—as well as a too-easy optimism—only heightens the risk for all of us … for all of Earth. But we need not be paralyzed by it either. As Christians, the more we dare to really hear the science, such as the IPCC report from last fall or the IPBES report from last week,[5] the more we will find ourselves threatened with resurrection.

Our response should be to manifest an undaunted love for life. The Transition Movement offers us uncanny (even providential) insight into the shape of that response, and I’ll explore Christian adaptions of Transition in a series of posts over the summer. But fundamentally, to be threatened with resurrection—as those living in Guatemala in the 1970’s and 1980’s knew firsthand—is to begin from grief. It is to recognize that the wellspring of our action (which must be manifold) is the grief we dare to feel for the whole of creation.

Moving into this grief, making it part of our faith and witness in the twenty-first century, is our foremost calling as Christian communities today. (And there is more that must be written about, too.) But calling for grief is, in a sense, good news. Biblical faith has never been afraid of grief. It is the ground out of which resurrection comes. And if there is hope for a restored future on the far side of calamity that is yet to be weathered, it will be because we dared to grieve.

If we believe in a God who works miracles with mustard seeds, then grief is the mustard seed we must sow today. We, who are threatened with resurrection.


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 climate change, 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] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Brethren Press, 1982). You can find the whole poem here: www.how-matters.org/2012/08/31/julia-esquivel/

[2] Walter Brueggemann considers the primary task of the Hebrew prophets as poetic. Initially (pre-Exile), that meant finding images—sometimes spoken, sometimes embodied—sufficient to carry the grief of God and visceral enough to break through the numbness of God’s people. Later (mid-Exile) it meant finding images able to awaken hope in God’s people in moments when their capacity to hope was all but extinguished by the circumstances of their lives. See The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978) and Hopeful Imagination (Fortress Press, 1986).

[3] www.tvo.org/video/burnout-and-despair-studying-the-climate.

[4] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/09/i-have-felt-hopelessness-over-climate-change-here-is-how-we-move-past-the-immense-grief.

[5] IPPC report: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report; IPBES report: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.

When the Gospel Comes as Grief

When the Gospel Comes as Grief
David R. Weiss – May 14, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #24 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

It’s been a week now since the United Nations released a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).[1] The Global Assessment Report, the result of three years of work by 145 researchers from 50 countries, reviews some 15,000 scientific and government sources and offers the most far-reaching appraisal to date of nature’s overall health. It is not encouraging.

The IPBES media release opens with a gut punch: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.” How do you quantify that? The report has a statistic to offer from almost every angle; I’ll mention just one. Of the approximately 8 million total species of plants and animals (including insects) on Earth, one million are in danger of extinction, each one a cathedral millennia in the making.

The threat isn’t entirely due to human-driven climate change. The report names the top two causes as (1) human impacts on land and water habitats and (2) direct exploitation (e.g., over-fishing). Then comes climate change, followed by pollution. But each cause reflects human activity that’s been repeatedly indifferent to the needs of the natural world. This is not “creation groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22); this is creation being relentlessly executed by the ecological inertia of our choices.

Whatever the author of Genesis meant by according us “dominion” over creation, killing off better than 1/10 of Eden’s abundance does not count. Indeed, a careful study of the word “dominion” in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that it always refers to power-exercised-with-wisdom-and-justice.[2] What we’ve done as a species—exemplified by certain “advanced” civilizations and cultures—is not dominion. It’s mere—sheer destruction. In fact, by biblical standards (and in the report’s judgment!), indigenous peoples living far more simply than us are perhaps the best examples of dominion on the planet today.

How do we respond to a report that is simply overwhelming in its bleakness? That catalogs so much life—habitats, ecosystems, and species—at risk? I recall a line in a film I saw decades ago (Mass Appeal, 1984). One character, a young seminarian, tells a story about his tank of tropical fish. One night the heater went bad and they all boiled. He recalls, “I woke up the next morning and went to feed them, but I found them all floating at the top. Most of them split in two, others with their eyes hanging out. It looked like violence, like suffering, but it had been such a quiet night. And I remember wishing I had the kind of ears that could hear fish scream.”

We need those kind of ears today. Neither undaunted optimism nor debilitating despair are useful now. We face a moment when, for people of faith, the gospel comes as grief. (I think this is true in secular terms as well, although it would be described somewhat differently.) Grief will be fundamental in any pursuit of the transformative change the IPBES report says is necessary: “We mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values.”

Yes, there is much to be done: changing individual choices, exerting political pressure, pursuing technological breakthroughs, and altering corporate agendas. But in the midst of all that doing, we need to root ourselves, as it were, in grief. And because our culture as a whole avoids grief, communities of faith may have a unique responsibility in this precarious moment: to work feverishly to facilitate grief.

Grief, by itself, is not nearly enough to save us, but it is a fundamentally spiritual undertaking (tapping into our emotions on an existential scale) and if we do not embrace it, everything else done by ourselves and others is little more than banter on the way to oblivion. Read that sentence again, if you have to. I’m not saying that politics and technology and industry (and more) have no role to play. I am saying—shouting if need be—that grief is the most important entry point and the most neglected one in addressing climate change. And every week of worship that we delay in giving voice to ecological grief as our primary work as the church today, we fail to be the people of faith that God and the whole of creation need us to be today.

But not just any grief will do. Professor Josef Settele, one the IPBES project’s co-chairs, observes, “The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world” (emphasis mine). I absolutely agree, but I worry his tone remains too anthropocentric. As though we must now care because WE are in peril. I disagree. For grief to be gospel, it must be larger than this.

In fact, grief expressed as our felt response to the threat now posed to human society and to our particular human loved ones, while still an honest emotion, is more like throwing an adult temper tantrum over a world whose physics and math have sorely disappointed us. It’s venting grief because the finite yet overall abundance of our home does not meet the baser appetites we’ve allowed to take root.

As a theologian, I have to say quite clearly: any response rooted in human self-interest is doomed. Many seem to believe the exact opposite: that we must somehow activate and leverage self-interest, our own survival instinct, to respond to this ecological crisis. I think that assumption makes two critical mistakes. It presumes we are somehow ‘separate’ from the rest of the world. But from the macro level of ecosystems to the micro level of intestinal biomes, to be self-interested is both theologically and scientifically dishonest. There is no human ‘I’ or ‘we’ that is not intrinsically more-than-me and more-than-human.[3]

Second, to regard it as overly idealistic (unrealistic) to call for grief on behalf of flora, fauna, and even terrain for its own intrinsic value is an error rooted in primal arrogance believing that our deepest energy comes from love of self rather than love of that which is other. If we grieve for the rest of creation only on account of its transactional value to us, we preclude ourselves from tapping into the oceanic energy of the cosmos, which alone might grant us the transpersonal power necessary for this moment.

On the other hand, grief that arises in response to our willingness to feel our connection to all that is imperiled, that grief—even as it threatens to undo us because of its intensity—can also connect us to the sacred energy that even now courses through the cosmos. In this sense, that grief is gospel, because it is born of our recognition that, along with all the rest of creation, we are at home on Earth.

But will even that grief be enough to save us? Quite frankly, I don’t know. But anything less will not save us; of that I’m certain. And whatever solutions politics, technology, and economics might provide, if they—if we—are not schooled by grief, they’ll be of marginal value. (Whatever short-term gains they offer us, will be only short-term if we have not done the deep work of re-rooting ourselves in the whole of creation, work that will be done first by waves of grief.)

I understand, we like our gospel to come with a ‘guarantee.’ As if anything worthy of the word ‘gospel’ must be able to produce news that is ultimately ‘good’ on our terms. But overall we have not yet done an honest cost accounting of the peril in front of us. Just this weekend the atmospheric CO2 measured Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii crested 415 ppm for the first time since … three million years ago. That’s since before our earliest, most distant, pre-human ancestors. As far as our future goes, all bets are off. To say that today visceral creation-wide grief is gospel doesn’t guarantee anything except a slender possibility of life with integrity. Which, if you really think about it, is all gospel has ever promised.

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 climate change, 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] May 6, 2019: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

[2] Lloyd H. Steffen, “In Defense of Dominion,” Environmental Ethics 14 (1992), pp. 63-80.

[3] See GIT essay #4 “Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger.”

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope

Doubting Thomas … Climate Change and Touching Hope
David R. Weiss – May 3, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #23 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

If you were in church last Sunday you probably heard the familiar story (John 20:19-29) of “Doubting Thomas.” John places it exactly one week after the original Easter account, and most churches use it as the Gospel text on the first Sunday after Easter. It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar (it’s even given us “Doubting Thomas” as a idiom) that it becomes easy to think we know exactly what it means—until we realize we don’t.

Here’s the way it unfolds in John. On Easter evening the disciples are huddling in fear in an upper room. Suddenly Jesus appears to them. Except Thomas misses it. And when the disciples report it to him afterwards, he replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” Sure enough, one week later Jesus appears again, this time with Thomas present, and he invites Thomas to indeed place his fingers into the wounds. He tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” (Thereby sealing his nickname for history.[1]) And the scene ends with Jesus seeming to make Thomas an example of how NOT to be: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

It seems pretty straightforward. But consider a couple things.

Nobody in this account believes without seeing, so Thomas gets more than a bit of a bad rap. All the other disciples saw Jesus the first time, so it seems a little unfair to single out Thomas as though he was the only one who needed to see in order for his belief to take hold.

Second, Thomas reacts exactly like any of us would. By now some of us have been so conditioned to believe Jesus was raised from the dead we affirm that without even thinking about it. But how many of us would be as quick to accept a tale told (even by a good friend) about a man who died last week in a near by town, and three days later was seen walking about? How many?! I thought so.

Third, even Thomas, while seemingly scolded for his need to see, still gets to see. But none of us do. And that’s who this passage is really aimed at. John’s gospel was written, at the earliest, around 90 CE (others date it 10, even 20 years later). So John is writing for people living now sixty years after Jesus did. In other words, everybody in John’s audience from his first readers right on through us, is in the same “predicament”: we all have to choose whether to believe or not—without seeing. Which only heightens the tension. Does that mean all John offers us is a scolding of Thomas—who still gets to see—and a “blessing” for the rest of us if we can manage to do better? No.

Which brings us to climate change. It often feels as though the more you know about the dire straits we’re in, the harder it is to muster hope. To actually read the reports and study the science—even as a layperson—well, you begin to feel like those disciples huddled in that upper room. The world as you knew it has ended. And the world opening up in front of you is fringed round about with fear.

For Thomas—who, after all, is our example in this text—the crucial thing is not that he gets to see, but that he gets to touch. And not that he gets to touch the arms, the cheeks, etc.—but the wounds. His hope comes from touching the worst that the world dealt to Jesus and realizing that there is still life to be had.[2]

In a sense this episode in John’s gospel is an “Easter echo” of Jesus’ words in Matthew about “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46). In that passage Jesus suggests the place where faith is found is precisely in deeds that meet the needs of others: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Here, in John’s gospel it isn’t mere sight that makes resurrection real for Thomas, it’s the tender touch of Jesus’ wounds. And John’s subtle wisdom to us—who can neither see Jesus in our midst nor light at the end of this climate crisis—is that if we wish to believe, it is less an act of will than a deed of compassion that will bring it to pass. Hope lives in the habits we form … provided those habits hold compassion.

This intuition is at the heart of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope,[3] an offering of practical wisdom for meeting this perilous moment. They distinguish between two meanings for hope. The first is hope rooted in likelihood. There’s at least a reasonable chance it will be sunny tomorrow; I sure hope so. That type of hope was beyond the reach of the disciples huddled in the upper room after the crucifixion—and beyond the reach of anyone who wades very far into the current data on climate change. Reasonable likelihood is no longer on the table.

The second meaning has to do with desire, independent of likelihood. The disciples knew he was dead and buried, but even in their fear, they could have told you they wanted him with them once again. So, what do you hope for, for your children? Push “pause” on “now be realistic,” and just ask, “What do you hope for, for them?” Chances are, the answers aren’t buried very deep.

But there’s yet one more distinction to make. When it comes to hope as desire, it can be either passive or active. Passive hope waits for outside forces to bring something to pass. As a result, passive hope can easily feel hopeless. Active Hope is participatory. It’s a deed. Macy and Johnstone call it a practice—a habit of deeds, if you will. They liken it to tai chai: a set of movements that may seem to accomplish very little, but are nonetheless done with focus and intent … and become like water shaping rock. Far from a disposition you try to “have” as a ground your actions, Active Hope begins as an action-by-action habit that eventually grounds our disposition. Perhaps most significantly for us, Active Hope doesn’t presume optimism. It simply asks that you honor the desire of your heart and act with sincere humble focus.

It’s worth being clear: Macy and Johnstone don’t claim Active Hope will turn things around. They do believe it will turn you around—especially if embraced as a communal practice. That is, by choosing to actively align our energy, in even small ways, with a larger story (vision) that matches the desires of our heart, we invest ourselves (and, ideally, it is a WE doing this) in actions that “help us restore our sense of connection with the web of life and with one another.” Broadly speaking they describe this dynamism as the Work That Reconnects. I think John might describe it as the Work That Resurrects.

As Macy and Johnstone relate, this work “comes from gratitude” (begins with awe at what is) and “honors the pain of our world” (feels loss: let grief have its way with us). During Jesus’ ministry his disciples learned to come with gratitude; we hear that in the stories of wonder and surprise that swirl around Jesus. After his crucifixion they’re overwhelmed by the pain of their world. Initially they’re too overwhelmed even to hope. But when Thomas, in spite of his dis-belief, dares to touch the wounds, he chooses to honor the pain in the pain rather than turn away from it. And in that choice, resurrection occurs. John offers wisdom to the first Christian on how to fuel their movement: by touching the wounds of the world.

It’s essential that we honor the world’s pain and touch it with tenderness—which may include full on anguished lament. Honestly, it may or may not “save” the world. But I’m willing to bet my whole life it can “save” us and our children come what may. Which is to say, it has the ability to root our lives in Active Hope—no matter what. That’s resilience. And that’s good news, even to people huddled in fear.

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 climate change, 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] Actually … Thomas never doubts. The Greek word for doubt is distazo. Jesus uses apistos; it means, rather more bluntly “without belief.” But it came into English as “doubt,” and that word got paired with Thomas ever since.

[2] I don’t think this is about physical resurrection. Maybe it is, but I think John is making a much more nuanced assertion here, one intended to spark our belief in the value of compassion, love, life itself.

[3] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012). In this post I’m drawing primarily on the Introduction, pp. 1-7; I’ll return to this book again.

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love

Maundy Thursday – Meeting the End with Love
David R. Weiss – April 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #21 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

John 13:34-35 – “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are followers of the Way: because you love one another.[1] Part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse in John’s gospel, these words have given us the name for Thursday in Holy Week: Maundy. The Latin behind “commandment” in this verse (echoed again in 15:12-17) is mandatum (from which comes our word, mandate. This is “Mandatum Thursday”: “Commandment Thursday.” It might better be called Love Thursday, since Jesus calls his friends[2] to love many times more than he uses the word “commandment.”

Overall John’s gospel is noteworthy on several counts. Considered by scholars to be the last of the biblical gospels authored, his telling is often regarded as the least historical and most theological (which is not to say that he ignores history, that the other gospels ignore theology, or that the others present history the way we think of it today). But, even a surface reading of John reveals no parables, multiple lengthy discourses, and a self-focused Jesus (as opposed to a focus on God’s kin-dom), all of which place him in stark contrast to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so-called “synoptic” because they view Jesus through the same lens).

One might make the case that John is thus less interested in historical fact, but he remains supremely interested in Truth. John’s gospel—which, like the other gospels aims to communicate good news to his original readers/hearers in a way that fosters the experience of good news in the hearing itself—is finely crafted and reflects both the lived experience of his community and John’s own nuanced theology. Of particular note is John’s commitment to “realized eschatology,” a fancy theological mouthful for saying that John believes that the redemptive/liberatory impact of Jesus on us and our lives begins right now—in all its fullness. Whether John regards another layer of fulfillment in an afterlife is not the point. He believes that the full power of the gospel is unleashed in the world through the Spirit moving in our lives today.

Two features of John’s Maundy Thursday narrative stand out to me. First, contrary to the Synoptics (and likely contrary to history), John does not have Jesus eat the Passover meal on Thursday night. He pushes Passover back by day: a small bit of “historical license” with theologically seismic implications. Not much is changed about Thursday evening, but the absence of a Thursday Passover means that on Friday afternoon throughout Jerusalem Passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the meal … a slaughter that aligns with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is John’s way of profoundly linking Jesus to the Passover lamb (whose blood, in the original Passover tale kept Jewish homes safe during the final plague in Egypt).

It’s a symbolic connection that (in my mind) has disastrous echoes in atonement theology for millennia to come: in assertions that say our forgiveness/redemptive hinges on the spilling of Jesus’ blood. Given the scandal of Jesus’ death on the cross—which surely rocked his friends’ and followers’ worlds in way we cannot imagine—John’s daring interpretation of the death is understandable. His logic, I suspect, is quite different from ours. We often begin the story of Jesus with the assumption he came to die and skip over the very messy theology that undergirds that assumption. The earliest communities of believers began with the inexplicable fact that he DID die—for which they were utterly unprepared—and then find themselves making daring efforts (that are hardly consistent across the gospels or the early church!) to reconcile the profound goodness of Jesus’ life to the irreconcilable(!) character of his death.

It’s possible—in light of John’s realized eschatology (where redemption happens NOW, among the living)—that he identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb not to make his blood key to redemption, but to include his bloody death in the redemptive power of his life. As though by finding a place for Jesus’ death within the Passover story of God’s liberating work, John insures that the cross cannot become a cause to doubt the power of Jesus’ life. Like the Passover lamb, his death is one piece of a much larger tale of liberation.

The other intriguing feature of John’s Maundy Thursday account is this. We commemorate Maundy Thursday as the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion at the end of his last supper and before his arrest and crucifixion. But, although Thursday in Holy Week gets its name from John’s gospel, in his telling Jesus never celebrates Holy Communion. He has a final meal followed by a famous foot-washing scene, but there is no lifting up and breaking bread, no pouring and sharing wine. How can it be that this meal—so emblematic of our faith … so sacramental … is simply missing in John?

No one knows for sure, but I’m persuaded by a suggestion I heard decades ago (alas, uncredited because my memory recalls the insight but not the origin): in John’s community they gathered to read aloud pieces of this gospel each week. And each week they did this while celebrating communion, themselves taking and breaking bread, pouring and sharing wine. John wrote for their lived experience, so he wrote a gospel to compliment the meal already at the heart of their gathering. No need to describe the meal itself.

Whether that’s the real reason or not will likely never be known. But it fits with how I see this night in this week intersecting with our experience of climate change. Put yourself, even if just momentarily, in Jesus’ sandals. He sees the end—his end—rapidly approaching. It’s not that he wants to die, but that he will not compromise the power of compassion that dwells in him. And he sees the rising powers of the world determined to preserve themselves at the cost of his life. This isn’t divine foreknowledge. It’s simply the sober commonsense insight accessible to most every person who’s been a prophet/martyr.

But Jesus’ primary concern on this night in this week is to ensure that the compassion birthed in and through him continues to be realized in the world after his death (that’s realized eschatology). And how does he do that? He tells his friends to love one another. Relentlessly. Fiercely. Even at great risk. Love. Jesus’ death would seem to undermine the usefulness of this counsel. But before we race ahead to the resurrection and see there some miraculous overturning of death, before we do that—just wait. Because on that first Maundy Thursday there is as yet no resurrection. No gospels have been written. No Sunday School lessons learned. No Hallelujahs hurled heavenward. No Easter lilies bought. None of that is “real” yet. There is ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward Jesus. And he meets that end by sharing a meal and asking his friends to persist in loving one another.

Perhaps that love is central to what happens on Easter morning. (I happen to think it is, though in a very unorthodox way.) But I want to hold us in the shattering uncertainty of Maundy Thursday for a moment. There is a strand of eco-awareness today that looks at the unnerving science and the damning math and assesses it with the same sort of sobering certainty that Jesus did on Maundy Thursday: we’re screwed. And who knows whether it is alarmist (as we like to hope) or just … inconveniently honest. But I ask you, today, to put yourself in an ecological Maundy Thursday moment. What if there’s ONLY a daunting, messy, chaotic end racing toward us? If so, how will we meet that end? Here is the thin, profound, powerful good news of Jesus: Let’s meet it gathered with friends, sharing a meal, and pledging love.

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 climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will 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. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] This is mostly NRSV translation, but I have replaced “my disciples,” which is certainly what the Greek says, with “followers of the Way,” which is what the church came to understand and which resonates with my sense that Jesus never saw himself as having a monopoly on “the Way.”

[2] There’s a whole theology behind this one word, which links Jesus directly to the Hebrew notion of God’s Wisdom. Jesus says his ministry will be (can only be?) carried on, not by followers or disciples, but by friends.

Palm Sunday Politics and Planet Earth

Palm Sunday Politics and Planet Earth
David R. Weiss – April 11, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #20 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

In just two days we’ll remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Often commemorated as a “triumphal entry” followed by the Temple “cleansing,” both frames understate the power of Jesus’ actions.[1] By seeing them for the richly provocative actions they were, we might also see them as suggestive for our response to climate change.

Jerusalem. Not just any place on Earth, in Jewish tradition the city—especially the Temple—stand as an axis mundi (literally: “Earth axis”), a point where transcendence and immanence touch; where Mystery and mundane meet. Such points are known in every faith tradition. That the events we consider today play out here makes them more than history: they’re holy drama.

Additionally, they’re located in time as well as space. Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem in a vacuum. It’s Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation, no doubt “celebrated” with bitter irony under Roman rule. Still, the memory of liberation is so fresh at Passover, that Rome dare not let it be celebrated under anything other than a watchful and well-armed eye. Thus, Pilate (Rome’s appointed governor for Jerusalem) would’ve ALSO made his entrance into Jerusalem around the same time Jesus did, though coming from the opposite direction.

And his entry would’ve been triumphal in the most militaristic way: soldiers on foot and on horseback, weapons, drums, banners, and poles bearing a golden eagle—symbol of Jupiter, the god of Rome. His procession and presence during the week was meant to remind Jews that the Passover meal would be the only liberation they could expect to taste anytime soon.

Once we realize Jesus’ palm-strewn pathway into the east side of city happens over against Pilate’s procession from the west, it becomes evident that Jesus is making a visibly anti-triumphal entry. He comes, mounted on a donkey in a deliberately embodied echo of Zechariah 9:9-10. His “kingship” is marked by humility … and the promise of genuine (that is, just) peace. As with his parables on the “kingly activity of God,” his Palm Sunday procession makes an intentional critique of Rome and its regal pattern of domination. Though some of his listeners may have wished otherwise, Jesus presents no call for violent revolution, but offers an unmistakable summons to a whole different way of life.

But Jesus wasn’t just taking issue with Rome or with Pilate. In 6 CE (during Jesus’ youth) Rome made the Jewish Temple authorities responsible for collecting imperial taxes and maintaining the debt records frequently invoked to foreclose on Jewish land. Even prior to this, the Jewish Temple had been twisted to serve those holding religious power and economic wealth, but from 6 CE onward it also became the religious edge of Rome’s political-economic oppression. Even if they did somewhat begrudgingly, the Temple elites were chaplain to Empire. (How deeply the Jewish public resented this is shown at the start of the Jewish Revolt, when besides driving out the Roman army, they immediately burned the records of land debt kept at the Temple.)

So when Jesus clears the Temple on Monday, he isn’t just temporarily displacing money-changers and animal vendors. Something much more decisive is playing out. He’s pronouncing a judgment against the Temple for having allied itself with the forces that are stealing both land and life from God’s people. As much as the Temple was seen as the very throne of God, a whole string of Hebrew prophets spoke out in the harshest words possible whenever they saw Temple rituals carried out in the absence of justice in Jewish society. They knew God wanted nothing to do with worship cut off from justice.

Some 700 years before Jesus, Jeremiah accused the people of presuming the Temple somehow guaranteed their security despite rampant social injustice, saying “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14 || 8:11) Thus, when Jesus invokes Jeremiah’s words about “a den of robbers,” (which, his original hearers knew, culminated in the threat that God would destroy the Temple), there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone present: this is no mere “cleansing.” It’s a prophetic action that symbolically destroys the Temple. Not the building itself, but the systemically twisted relations it had come to divinely authorize. If you’ve heard Black Lives Matter protesters shout “Shut It Down!” as they move on to an interstate highway, you’ve heard the same tone of protest that Jesus used to shut down the Temple that day.

It’s hard to overstate the provocative depth of Jesus’ action at the Temple. No doubt, even some of his own followers were uneasy. It was a symbolic act that reached DEEP into primal emotions, not unlike burning an American flag. Or, to “bring it home,” like pulling the vestments off your local church altar and burning them if your church has been silent (or, worse, complicit) in any of Rome’s more recent deeds: caging immigrants, bashing queers, killing black bodies, or belching CO2. Most of us would hesitate to go there. Jesus does not.

Let’s be clear. Palm Sunday was no innocent pageant of Jewish peasants lining the road with palm branches as Jesus rode through on a donkey. There was, I’m sure, genuine joy in the air. But every cheer of “Hosanna,” every cry of “King,” every salute to “Son of David”—these were all dangerous words. No wonder some of the Jewish leaders tried to get Jesus to quiet the crowds. But recall his reply: “I tell you, if these people were silent the rocks and stones would cry out.” (Lk 19:39-40) Earth itself longs for a rule other than Rome’s. And that scene in the Temple? It isn’t a judgment of someone else’s religion. Jesus is calling out our religious tradition anytime it offers even silent complicity to rulers or systems that plunder land, impoverish people, imperil ecosystems, or promises “Peace, Peace,” while catastrophic climate change comes at us. And there’s plenty of both of those going on in churches today.

These two events at the start of Holy Week remind us there are real choices in front us, too. And they don’t show up out of nowhere. From Jesus’ first announcement that God’s kin-dom had come near, his ministry consistently posed a stark alternative to the politics of Rome and the Temple. One grounded in compassion toward and reverence for all life. That alternative asks for our allegiance still today.

Palm Sunday’s politics long to be good news for planet Earth. But it will take more than a few half-hearted Hosannas while we wave our palm fronds to convince the rest of creation we’re ready to show up … for all of us. So if you find yourself feeling a bit foolish, limply waving a palm frond in church just a day before our President’s “triumphal” visit to Minnesota, remember, for Jesus, Palm Sunday was neither triumphant nor tame. It was confessional and confrontational: the communal enactment of pledging loyalty to God and, on that account, withholding it from Caesar.

For Jews, eating the Passover makes that experience present to them right now. For New Zealanders grieving the mosque shooting last March, the Maori haka dance joined the mourners (across their diverse cultures) to New Zealand’s deepest past. Our Palm Sunday worship ought to have the seriousness of a Jewish Seder and the resolve of a haka dance. Dare we? The rocks and stones will be waiting.


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 climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will 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”; my aim is 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!

[1] The texts are Mk 11:1-22 || Mt 21:1-21 || 19:28-48. For a full treatment, see Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperOne, 2006, pp. 1-53.

Resilience – Without Waiting for Permission

Resilience – Without Waiting for Permission
David R. Weiss – March 28, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #17 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

From catastrophic flooding in the U.S. Midwest[1] to Cyclone Idai’s devastation of southeastern Africa[2] to the recent confirmation we’re living in the warmest decade since records have been kept,[3] the reality of climate change is hitting us everywhere these days. Except in Congress, where we continue to be regularly embarrassed by politicians who take the floor to mock climate science and ignore the suffering being multiplied all around us.[4] Taken together, these two observations explain the fourth core insight of the Transition Movement: that we should (1) enliven imagination, (2) tap into deep agency, (3) reclaim and share earthbound skills … (4) without waiting for permission from the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us.[5]

Convinced that climate change is already upon us—and that any livable future will necessarily look different than the past-present that brought us to this point—Transition believes that the faster we embrace that different future, the better off we and all future generations will be. And Transition affirms that the fastest, healthiest way to transition is local. Local transition leverages the energy available among people in neighborhoods and communities as its own natural resource. Resilience in the face of climate change arises not only by changing how we live but also by strengthening the bonds the join us to each other as we work for a human community more in harmony with the planet. Resilience is as much a social deepening as it is a technological transformation.

Transition’s fourth insight is critical because the “governing” (political, corporate, and cultural) forces around us are often conflicted—so entangled in profit interests or the preservation of power that they actually become tools in preventing the changes needed for our survival. Only rarely do they actively foster positive change. And if we wait for their permission to transition, our worlds—both social and natural, both local and global—will be in a shambles before we’re officially “permitted” to change. This is yet another place where Christian origins can inspire us today.

The Jesus movement unfolded in a society … without permission. In Jesus’ day, Roman society espoused values that ran wholly contrary to the radical hospitality and compassion that Jesus taught and practiced. Even the dominant expression of Jesus’ own Jewish tradition—deeply grounded by the prophets in hospitality and compassion—was persistently tempted to seek ways to preserve a measure of its own power under Roman rule so that it also worked to suppress its best impulses. Indeed they both exerted enormous political, social, and religious pressure to conform to values designed to keep society fragmented and stratified between a variety of in-group/out-group divisions that left no room, no permission, for community that didn’t come at the expense of some “other.”

For Jesus to announce the good news of God’s grace—radical acceptance-welcome-affirmation—as the basis on new community could only happen by not waiting for permission. Across my last four essays I’ve given just the barest glimpses into some of the ways that the ministry of the historical Jesus and the earliest patterns of the Christian church were far more this worldly in their focus than many of us grew up thinking. This is not to say that Jesus and the earliest Christians did not have truly deep convictions about an Ultimate and Gracious Reality they knew as God. But it is to be clear that they experienced God as impinging graciously in this world: redeeming … renewing … altogether remaking the conditions in which human life found possibility. And that aspect of Jesus ministry and the early church is profoundly worth reclaiming today.[6]

A few snippets. In a classic exchange with the Pharisees (Mk 12:13-17 || Mt 22:15-22 || Lk 20:20-26), Jesus is asked whether it’s lawful to pay tribute to Caesar. It’s a trick question. To say, Yes—as Roman law demanded—would break Jewish law by paying the tax (as required) with a coin that proclaimed Caesar as god. To say, No—as Jewish law demanded in its strict rejection of any actions that gave even the appearance of idolatry—would break Roman law. Jesus’ good options are reduced to none. But in a move that perhaps anticipates James T. Kirk’s response to the Kobayashi Maru dilemma in Star Trek,[7] Jesus … cheats. Well, he alters the frame.

After asking whose image appears on a Roman coin, Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The catch is two-fold. First, for a Jew all things are God’s, leaving—in truth—nothing that belongs to Caesar. Second, for a Jew, because every human being bears the image of God—and together in our common humanity and infinite diversity we bear witness to the unity and infinity of God—and therefore, that paltry Roman coin, with its cheap attempt to replicate the very finite image of Caesar endlessly across the empire … well, actually it just shows how far short Caesar falls of the greatness of God. So if you must pay the tax to survive, you will not be judged for that. In fact, your payment might even be made as something of an insult to the Emperor.[8]

But that is not to say that every hard choice has an easy out. When we consider new mining initiatives in Minnesota’s northlands or the Line 3 pipeline project: whose image is reflected in the boundary waters? Whose life-giving nature appears in the aquifers beneath the land? Whose sacred presence is known in the wild rice? Whose character upholds the weight of treaties (even if we choose to break them)? These questions do not resolve on so neat a turn of wit. But to recall that Jesus reframed dilemmas to reveal both their stakes and our other options is critical for us today.

Walter Wink (among others) reveals the extent to which the Jesus’ famous words (Mt 5:39-42 || Lk 6:29-30), about turning a cheek, giving a cloak, or walking an extra mile are all exhortations to not simply trust in the long arc of the moral universe, but to bend it with nonviolent human action.[9] Perhaps because, if the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it will be because of those who bear the image of the God of justice jumping on it with all their might. With all their hope.

Perhaps that’s the place to pause today. More about Wink’s discussion—and how we jump—next time.


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 climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will 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”; my aim is 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!

[1] www.thinkprogress.org/deadly-flooding-midwest-nebraska-climate-impacts-ac8865fd6160

[2] www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/19/cyclone-idai-worst-weather-disaster-to-hit-southern-hemisphere-mozambique-malawi

[3] www.truthout.org/articles/were-living-in-the-warmest-decade-since-record-keeping-began

[4] www.commondreams.org/news/2019/03/26/if-guy-can-be-senator-you-can-do-anything-progressives-mock-mike-lees-climate-speech

[5] I introduced these in GIT #13, “Redeemed for Resilience.” They were identified by Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

[6] There are multiple sources for this. I’ve found Marcus Borg particularly insightful and compelling—across all his writing, but most clearly presented here: Jesus: A New Vision (HarperSanFrancisco, 1987) and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

[7] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobayashi_Maru. Far be it from me to call Kirk a messianic figure, however he does seem to share with Jesus the confidence that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario.

[8] www.theshalomcenter.org/content/god-caesar-image-coin. There’s a lot more going on here than I discuss above.

[9] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (NY: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 98-111.

Resilience – as Deep Agency

Resilience – as Deep Agency
David R. Weiss – March 17, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #15 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As I begin week 15 of my yearlong pledge, I’m keenly aware that each post I write begs for further development. Many of these short essays contain the seeds enough for an entire book chapter in them. Perhaps eventually I’ll come back to selected posts and fill them out further. For now the discipline of weekly blogging is helpful in getting a wide array of ideas out of the table, and I trust that as I devote myself further to this work, next steps will present themselves.

In this post I want to consider the second of four key facets to the Transition movement: that we must tap into deep agency, both as individuals and as local communities.[1] Transition names the necessary commitment to shift away from the dominant expression of modern life insofar as it depends on intensive fossil fuel consumption. It seeks this transition because it recognizes that fossil fuel use is directly tied the catastrophic climate change currently occurring around the world, and also because it asserts that we can actually live fuller lives when we choose social patterns that are more in keeping with the planet’s natural limits.

Such patterns will produce lives that are overall necessarily (and rewardingly) more local in meeting the whole range of human needs. Precisely because these transitions will succeed only to the extent they fit their context, they require deep agency. Part of Transition movement’s wisdom is to trust that there is no central monopoly on environmental wisdom. Almost by its nature—indeed, by the planet’s nature—all environmental wisdom is local. Each place has its own unique eco-character and if human communities are to live in harmony with the planet that will happen place by place by place.

In transition, no one size fits all. No top-down hierarchy calls the shots. Yes, there are a number of requisite principles and skills. But beyond them, improvisation wins the day. And the hallmark of improvisation with integrity in one’s own ecological context is deep agency. It is knowing who we are, where we are, what’s needed in this place (both for Earth and for community)—and then making real choices toward transition from this knowledge. Imagination, creativity, vision, knowledge—these are foundational. But the energy to animate all of them in coordination rests in deep agency: the near miracle of taking charge of our lives within worlds that profit by keeping us consumer-cogs of the status quo. Deep agency involves becoming citizen-architects of the world that awaits our fashioning.

Citizen-architects. Who knew this could be such a high Christian calling? Well, Jesus and Paul, for two. And the author of Luke-Acts as well. Not that it is much in evidence in most churches today, where personal-communal-religious-civic agency are often a buried legacy, covered over by the multiple powers of clergy, money, tradition, and fear, all of which tend to erase the deep agency that is our vocation and Christian birthright. I’m not anti-clergy, though I might make an exception in a few specific instances … and I’m not anti-tradition, though I’m decidedly wary of traditions that too easily become more focused on self-preservation rather than anchoring vibrant responses to the present and being open to self-transformation in that process.

However, the vocation of citizen-architect—part of the church’s earliest tradition—is one tradition essential to fostering the deep agency needed for transition. It begins in Jesus’ ministry, where time and again Jesus himself shows far less interest in being atop a hierarchy than his later followers imagine (which they do more to their benefit than to the gospel’s). Jesus, for his part, sends the disciples out in pairs (Matt. 10:1-15 || Luke 10:1-20) telling them to share with those in need the same energy that swirls within him—and to do so freely. In fact, Jesus promises them (John 14:12) they will ultimately do things beyond what they’ve seen Jesus himself do. Not because they become greater than Jesus, but because the Spirit’s empowering energy within the community of his followers will ripen over time.

This commissioning as veritable equals becomes yet clearer when Jesus extends the “keys to the kingdom” to his disciples (Matt. 16:9). He tells them their authority is now sufficient to “bind or loose” (to forbid or permit) which, I’d argue, is less about establishing rules than it is about charting the way forward into uncharted territory. In a similar scene in John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on the disciples as a way of sharing God’s Breath/Spirit with them (John 20:22). It is about conferring deep agency. And doing so, not so much in his absence, but in his ongoing though invisible presence (John 14:15-28). Matthew captures this in the closing words of his Gospel, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

So Jesus establishes a community committed to a new way of being together in the world grounded in a notion of God’s radical grace and manifest in the practice of compassion toward one another. And he tethers them not to a fixed set of rules but to the living presence of Spirit, confident that the Spirit will guide the church as it exercises deep agency. When Luke extends his tale of Jesus from the Gospel into the Acts of the Apostles, he continues to show prayer as intentional opening to the Spirit. Just as Luke’s Jesus carries out his ministry persistently grounding his actions in prayer, Luke offers a portrait of the early church similarly drawing its life out of prayer. Its devotional life, to be sure (Acts 1:14; Acts 2:42), but also its socio-economic life (Acts 2:44-45). The early church was not simply (perhaps not even primarily) a movement driven by beliefs about the next world, but a daring, Spirit-driven movement about life in this world.

Still, citizen-architects? Yes, exactly. When St. Paul exhorts the early church at Corinth to “exercise bold speech” (2 Corinthians 3:12, often rendered—domesticated!—as “acting with boldness”) he is, in fact, using the Greek word (parresia) that is the specific term for the “free speech” exercised only by the free property-owning men who gathered in the assembly of Roman cities to chart their community’s future.[2] The Christians to whom Paul was writing would have known this—precisely because it was speech forbidden to many of them: women, aliens, and slaves. Yet, emphatically for Paul, it was the baptismal birthright of every person in the church (free, slave, male, female, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile) to have parresia. Such bold speech was none other than the deep agency that guided the unfolding future of the church.

Once again we see why biblical literacy is a progressive Christian value. Our roots run back to a church in which agency was granted to—indeed commissioned to—every member in the community. This deep agency was fed by the gospel announcement of grace and the gospel praxis of compassion, and guided by the Spirit. Our Christian vocation is to be citizen-architects of a different world. In each generation we are called to envision the world that is needed—and then to bring that world into being. In this generation the world needed is one in transition. We’ll need to learn much from those beyond the church to better understand the world that is needed. But the breadth of empowerment that can help bring it to life…that lies within our own heritage, if only we dare to reclaim it. I say it’s time to take that dare.


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 climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will 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”; my aim is 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!!

[1] I introduced these in GIT #13, “Redeemed for Resilience.” They were identified by Rob Hopkins and Sarah McAdams in “The Transition Movement: Past, Present, and Future,” roundtable discussion, 2018 Transition US Tenth Anniversary Online Summit: www.transitiongathering.org/videos.

[2] David Fredrickson, “Free Speech in Pauline Political Theology,” Word & World, 12:4 (1992), pp. 345-351.