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Yesterday I found a forgotten essay that I wrote for a class I took over the summer. The class, Poverty and Restorative Earthkeeping, explored the intersectionality of race, class and gender in relation to poverty and the environment. This short piece was written as a reflection on a theme found in Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics.

Are there other metaphors or avenues for engagement that you have found to be particularly helpful for dialogue between Christian practice/ethics and care for the Earth? How does our being embedded in and embodied on the earth influence or shape our theology?

The essay is embedded below, but if you’d rather read it as a pdf, you can do so here: Earth as Oikos

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Final Reflection 1

Final Reflection 2Final Reflection 3
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For a couple decades now, Sallie McFague has been an important and insightful voice in the conversation regarding Christianity and ecological deterioration. Our theologies are far from innocent when it comes to the issues of environmental ethics, caring for creation, and seeking justice for those on the receiving end of environmental and systemic oppression. Christian theologies regarding the material and spiritual, humanity and creation, nature and history, systems of power and authority, and both creation and the eschaton all deeply influence the praxis around human and non-human life. Within the ongoing conversation of ecological theology, McFague takes Christology to task. How do the ways in which we approach Jesus’ life, death and resurrection influence the way that we approach all of creation?

“The task now,” writes McFague, “is to embody in praxis the ecological Christologies that have been developing over the last several decades. Further refining Christology is less critical than putting Christology into practice. The problem is not that we need to know more Christology; rather, we need to know more about nature and how to live out these Christologies in relation to nature.” [1]

She implies that our theology–if not coupled with thoughtful, ecologically influenced praxis–is disconnected and ineffectual to embody God and enact justice in our earth-context. I feel like it is appropriate to play with Aquinas’ words to summarize: a mistake about Christ will lead to a mistake about Creation.

Of course, remembering what we say about the Christ is essential to moving beyond simply knowing “more Christology.” To begin, the creedal confession at Nicea affirmed Jesus’ co-equality and metaphysical oneness with God, “by whom all things were made.” It affirms that there is a uniqueness and salvific purpose in the incarnation. The later Chalcedonian commentary on Nicea cemented the dual nature of Jesus’ being, characterized as “fully God and fully human.” Chalcedon preserves tension, paradox, and mystery in describing God’s blending of the spiritual and material in the incarnation event rather than dualistically subjecting one to the other. This is critical for contemporary ecological theologies in their fervent resistance to dualist tendencies in Christian thought that elevate the spiritual over the physical.

The Situation

McFague takes to defining our situation as such:

The climate change case calls Christology into immediate practice. For affluent Christians, it demands a different view of the abundant life, one that includes cruciform living, the practice of restraint, diminishment, the death of unlimited desire, and control of ecological selfishness. Ecological Christology defines sin as the refusal to share the necessities of life with others, both other humans and other life forms. Sin is insatiable greed, wanting to have it all. Acting justly toward nature and other human beings demands sacrifices from Christian elites. Sustainable living involves acceptance of finite limits, such as how we drive our cars, emissions controls, and carbon taxes on industry. it includes “free trade,” the policies of the world Bank, and stock market investments, as they affect the natural world and poor people. When we see where Christology, economics, and ecology intersect on an issue such as climate change, the need for different practices at personal, professional, national, and global levels becomes apparent. [2]

Sacramental Christology

So, how does the incarnation influence us communally and individually to enact care and love and justice for the entirety of life? This is a huge question that I don’t pretend to possess an answer to. However, I think that a sacramental Christology is a door to a helpful and appropriate ecological theology for our present time. Its focus is a divine immanentalism and the affirmation of God’s presence in all of creation. Inherent in this approach is a challenge to the transcendence of classical theism, something McFague has written about extensively. Nodding to the humanity of Jesus, this approach is deeply incarnational and affirms the vibrant presence of God in both nature and Jesus, a shift that embraces bodies and the physical world around us. These ideas stream through Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed reveal ecological concerns to be of deep importance to theology and the Christian tradition. For example, Dumitru Staniloae writes, “The economy of God consists in the deification of the created world, something which, as a consequence of sin, implies also its salvation.”[3] He continues, “Salvation and deification have an ontologically unified humanity and nature as its aim.”[4]  John Chryssavgis states that “we are a part of the cosmos and are less than human without creation.”[5] Yet, McFague wonders, “while sacramental Christologies find God in nature, do they respect nature itself? Do they pay attention to the other or do they use it, however subtly, as a way to God?”[6]  It is up to us to live the answers to these questions. The following are some of my reflections on a sacramental Christology and questions that point towards praxis, a lived Christology.

Metaphysical Fusion

The mystery of the Incarnation itself, as Jesus embodies the God/Man and possesses the full nature of God and the full nature of humanity, highlights the fusion between the spiritual and the material. This is in stark contrast to Platonic thinking that has deeply influenced Christian thought and swayed us into certainty that the soul is in competition with the body. The Incarnation teaches us that matter and spirit, or body and soul, are not separate, but as Fr. Richard Rohr says, “two sides of the same coin.” This mystery reveals to us that it is inappropriate to elevate the spiritual as superior to the physical––that our souls are more important than our bodies, or that non-human life is ultimately not important to redemption and reconciliation because it lacks a soul that can be saved. Jesus forces us to reconcile that tension and be present in holistic ways.

Location

As the biblical story unfolds the theme of place is absolutely central to the story. The Incarnation continues this pattern of revealing God to be uniquely interested in place. Jesus encounters the full range of his geographical setting by engaging socio-political and religious life. While Jesus certainly was not stationary, he was very much rooted in the community life of a particular region. Though anachronistic, it may be appropriate to understand Jesus as committed to his bioregion. Jesus found himself among both the elite and poor subsistence farmers and revealed the interconnections between religion, economics and production, community and justice. How does the natural world interact with religion, economics and production, community and justice in our own contexts?

Healing

On a broad level I’ve been critical of stories depicting Jesus healing, but the importance that Jesus and the gospel writers placed on physical healing is not lost on me. Through these stories of healing the gospel writers are challenging socio-cultural boundaries regarding clean and unclean which more often than not tend to fall along class distinctions. The healing stories also foreshadow the resurrection, the ultimate transition from broken to whole.  The re-incorporation into community life seen through healing stories is a critical component to any ecological Christology. What are the broken pieces of our natural world that have been splintered from community and reduced to objects or means? How can we attempt to make them whole and re-introduce them to community? Or more likely, what are the broken pieces of our natural world that we need to see with new eyes and allow ourselves to recognize as a part of our vitality and abundant life? What is our responsibility to nature?

Salvation

If we submit to McFague’s definition of sin within an ecological theology stated above, salvation is “neither solely human nor spiritual. It must be for the entire creation. and it must address what makes different creatures and ecosystems flourish.”[7]  These may be abrasive words to many, but traditional concepts of salvation reflect Platonism more than the redemption spoken of in the Hebrew Bible or of the Cosmic Christ that reconciles all things to himself (Colossians 1). Salvation entails repentance to God and to the entire earth community.

Prophetic Criticism

Because of his embeddedness within a particular context, Jesus not only witnessed abused power but was also affected by it. His own experience and his solidarity with the oppressed led him to be outspoken when persons in power used religion or status or law to dehumanize others and/or esteem themselves. Such dehumanization toward the unclean, the sinners and various Others by persons in power failed to recognize and respect the imago Dei within them. This creates a culture of blindness to the image and presence of God all around us. Similarly, when those in power mistreat forests, fisheries, rivers, the atmosphere, and the people that surround them and depend on them, they are failing to respect the imago Dei pulsing through creation. Do we see God present in creation? What do we do when power is used for exploitation rather than blessing? How do we reveal God through creation for justice?

Resurrection

Lastly, the resurrection is crucial to an ecological Christology because it promises hope. “The resurrection will not solve our ecological crisis;” writes McFague, “it will not tell us what to do with regard to either small or large problems.”[8]  However, what the resurrection does accomplish is the symbolization of the “triumph of life over death.”[9] That death has the final word is not something that Christianity affirms. We live into and participate in a story that affirms and hopes against hope that there can be new life, different life, and better life in the midst of brokenness and even death. This must propel us beyond despair and helplessness.

So…

Discerning the proper response to the environment, as well as defining the role of nature in redemption is still a hotly debated issue within Evangelicalism. How can these categories be better elaborated on and better pointed toward community praxis and toward moving this conversation forward in Evangelicalism? What would you add or edit? Are these concepts true to orthodoxy vis-a-vis early creedal statements? Do you agree with the definitions of sin and salvation, or rather, do they cohere with the biblical categories of sin and salvation?

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1. Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have it?” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 39.

2. Ibid., 41-42.

3. Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, The World: Creation and Deification (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 1.

4. Ibid.

5. John Chryssavgis, ed., Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eeardmans), 24.

6. McFague, “An Ecological Christology”, 32.

7. Ibid., 38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

1. Christologies for the 21st century

Both Sallie McFague’s writings on metaphorical theology and feminist theology’s commitment to expanding the imagination in regards to our God-talk by challenging monolithic metaphors and imagery that favor patriarchal religious expressions have influenced me significantly. Sallie McFague’s article “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have it?” in Christianity and Ecology (Cambridge, Mass: Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000), addresses a plurality of Christological approaches (prophetic, wisdom, sacramental, eschatological, process, and liberation) and weighs them against their validity and appropriateness to our global condition, their orthodoxy, and their practicality. Her attention to Christological praxis is crucial, speaking to the necessity of dislodging our doctrines from the realm of intellectual assent and allowing them to transform community, culture, and world, and giving the Incarnation a multivalent ability confront oppression and injustice in a variety of contexts.

Hope for our world lies not only in what Jesus tells us to do, but also, and more deeply, in Christian belief that God is with us as we attempt to do it. 1

It is important to move beyond “fully God and fully human” and expand on what that means for all of creation rather than what it means for salvation, as well as making use of the various metaphors and implications present in these approaches rather than pitting them against one another as doctrinal correctness tends to emphasize. More on this to come.

2. On the use of prophecy

This morning I read an article by Susan Ackerman about Dr. King’s recurring usage of Amos 5:18-24  in his orations and writings. There is far too much to say about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to do him or his legacy any justice in this short space, but I want to share some of Ackerman’s thoughts. She points out how quickly and easily any of us can (and do) point toward passages from the biblical text to support or condemn any number of issues, often gravely misusing the text and using it for abuse. What would the writers of these texts think about our application of their words to our modern situations? Ackerman believes, and I agree, that Amos would approve. Themes of injustice and oppression, economic and social inequalities flow throughout the prophetic voices of the Hebrew Bible. Ackerman ends her article with these words:

The challenge that follows for us as readers and hearers of the text, is to consider more ways in which Amos’s imagery might be transformed for our times yet still be consistent with Amos’s original message. THe waters that Amos evoked have so far proven mighty and everlasting. Our task, if we are to use Amos’s text in this new century, is to make sure they run clear to the prophet’s vision. 2

The reduction of prophetic texts to future-casting specific historical events or persons also reduces the power of the texts to continually speak to communities again and again. When prophecies are fulfilled we feel that can stop looking for and creating answers. Dr. King realized this.

3. More on Amos…

By now I’m sure that even my internet-challenged mother has stumbled onto the “Why I hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video that is making its rounds right now. Many have weighed in on this video, so I’ll just share a little bit. The poet is certainly makes some spot on critiques and observations, albeit none of them are new. In fact, they have been present for a few thousand years. Again, Susan Ackerman:

Yet because of the moral failings of Amos’s day, YHWH proclaims in Amos 5:21 that the festal celebrations have been despised. Similarly in Amos 5:22, the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of well-being that elsewhere in Israelite tradition are said to be pleasing to the depth (e.g., Lev. 23:18) are, amidst a climate of social injustice and unrighteousness, rejected by God. Music making in a religious context is also associated elsewhere in the Bible with rejoicing before and, by implication, with God (e.g., 2 Chr. 5:13). But Amos again turns the common idiom on its head to suggest that, in a society mired in discord, sacral music becomes discord as well (Amos 5:23). 3

The prophet Amos strongly criticizes religious business as usual in the midst of injustice and suffering. Amos disrupts tradition to call attention to the oppressed and to proclaim that tradition has the potential to dominate progress.

Both Justin McRoberts and Mike Morrell have offered helpful insights on this viral phenomenon. Check them out.

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1. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000), 29-43.

2. Susan Ackerman, “Amos 5:18-24”, Interpretation 57 (2003), 193.

3. Ibid, 192.

Many voices have expressed their concern over texts of the Bible that lend themselves to oppression, exclusion and sexism, violence and colonialism. There is no denying that there are many problematic passages in the Bible, but one particular instance of exclusion has been lodged in my mind for a few weeks now. It is a passage from the Holiness Code section of Leviticus (chapters 12-26) and addresses the topic of disability among priests. I am not disabled, nor do I intend to speak for persons with disabilities. It is my goal here to explore an often overlooked passage and the implications it carries through the biblical text and a way that biblical attitudes toward disability have taken on a new life today.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and say: ‘No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. (Leviticus 21:16-23)

Amos Yong claims that is is “important to note that persons with disabilities were not barred from the priesthood or from eating the priestly meals, but only from offering the sacrifices.”[1] He cites a rabbinic tradition that interprets the restrictions in terms of disabilities “being so obvious or as causing behavioral peculiarities such that the people are distracted from the solemnity of the liturgy.[2] Yong goes on to claim that

…persons with physical blemishes were not only a specially segregated class in regard to the sacrificial offering, but were also subject to the laws of uncleanness . . . At best, persons with disabilities were marginalized from central aspects of ancient Israel’s social and religious activities; at worst, they were excluded altogether.[3]

This at worst mentality is often the one that we encounter when the text introduces individuals with illnesses or disabilities. Where are these individuals? How are they portrayed? What is their demeanor? These persons who are sick or live with a disability are deemed unclean and become outcasted from the dominant community (a beautiful exception to this is 2 Samuel 9, which emphasizes the elevated status of Mephibosheth regardless of his physical condition). Generally speaking, persons with congenital diseases or disabilities were understood to be bearing the physical and visible effects of sin. The Second Testament reinforces this negative view of disability through the destitute recipients of Jesus’ healing. Forgiveness of sins and physical healing go hand in hand as outcasted and socially dislocated individuals with disabilities become restored both physically and socially. The late Nancy Eiesland points out the “sin and disability conflation” in passages like John 5:14, where Jesus is recorded as telling the just healed man not to sin anymore so that nothing worse will happen to him.[4]

From universal to particular, erasing normativity

Deborah Creamer states, “Some people have their disabilities from birth; others acquire them later in life. Disabilities may be attributed to accident, illness, or genetics.”[5]  In the pre-scientific context of the gospels, disability was generally attributed to personal or generational sin or disobedience. This helps to explain why Jesus is recorded as forgiving sin in conjunction with healing disability. However, in the stories of healing performed by Jesus, the themes of both pity and rejection of diversity float to the top of the text.  Rather than Jesus challenging the community regarding their negative views of the other (as he does for the woman caught in adultery), he dis-otherizes the outcasts by restoring them to a state of being physically abled, or “normal”.

Does Jesus heal the ones who need it most? What does the healing of individuals say about discrimination and group exclusion? Please do not hear me–a fully abled male–saying that I do not see hope or value for persons with disabilities in the stories of healing. What I am saying is that there is more going on in the text, and other valid readings present us with problems that should not be avoided. I think a case can be made that the Jesus-following community that develops is also the community of normativity. This conclusion is one in which dominant Christianity still operates, and a conclusion that must be dismantled.

Personally, I have been strongly influenced by the work of Sallie McFague and her formulation of a theology of embodiment. Deborah Creamer puts McFague’s work into conversation with a theology of disability. If you are familiar with McFague, this may excite you, too. Creamer writes:

The notion that experiences such as disability (or any individual particularity) are part of the whole of life and are to be accepted as such does, in fact, make for a powerful theological starting point. Rather than seeing disability and other particularities as an exception to some norm this viewpoint can help us begin to see that all instantiations of human embodiment are aspects of the realm of the body of God . . . Rather than overlooking or dismissing particularity as part of the randomness of life, McFague’s model ought to lead us to a perspective where we embrace particularity as part of the relation or revelation of God in the world. Particularity ought to be a significant datum for theological reflection. Following McFague’s claim that “the body of God is not a body, but all the different, peculiar, particular bodies about us.”[6]

She argues that the particular experiences of human beings––in all their diversity and differences––must be included in our God-talk and our understanding of the God-human relationship. What does this mean for how we do theology or imagine community and praxis? As I have been reflecting on disability in the Bible and reading theologies of disability, it is impossible to miss the glaringly obvious parallels between the language of disability theology and the experience of LGBT persons in the church. I am by no means associating same-sex attraction with disability––please don’t read that into this––but I am observing similarities in the way that Christianity approaches both the particularities of disability and the LGBT experience. Creamer exemplifies this trend:

Consideration of disability has found consistent treatment in the realm of pastoral care: how do we take care of people with disabilities, support their families, and address issues of suffering and healing? This pastoral focus may be influenced by the modern medical model (where one’s life is referred to by diagnostic category) which is deficit laden.[7]

One page later, she writes:

While many people with disabilities have found welcome in the church, many others still wait outside the gates . . . The community of faith has failed to honestly engage with people who have disabilities, to seek out and listen to their stories, and instead tends only to speak to or about them or does things for them. If they are not ignored altogether, people with disabilities have been talked to or talked about, not not included as key partners in the conversation of faith.[8]

The dominant Christian tradition approaches the LGBT community in the same vein. They are talked to or talked about without being included in the conversation, and they are viewed as in need of healing because they do not embody the heteronormative experience.  Some are indeed welcomed, but many more are still waiting outside the gates. In the foreword to Eiesland’s book, Rebecca Chopp notes that “from codes of purity to acts of Jesus’ healing, the implicit theological assumption has equated perfect bodies with wholeness of the spirit.”[9]

Carrying the analogy further, the refusal to acknowledge the particularity of the LGBT experience and instead operate under the universal notions of heterosexuality denies the body in the same way the particularity of intersex persons challenges binary concepts of gender. To identify outside of heteronormativity is understood as a blemish, to borrow from our Leviticus passage. Following the pattern of Jesus, instead of learning to love the LGBT (Other) community or the disabled (Other) and heal our discrimination and exclusion, the Church attempts to dis-otherize them. This happens by mitigating disability and not engaging it theologically and by reducing same-sex attraction to a disease that one can be healed of and consequently be accepted by those who are “normal”. That is, to heal them and make them acceptable to church communities and ultimately, make them acceptable to God because they are blemished, imperfect, abnormal, broken. The body of God becomes the idealized abled body of normativity rather than the broken-yet-resurrected body that all of us live into in our particular bodies and experiences. These two groups of Others differ, however, in the ways each is currently perceived by the dominant population in the States and in the Church; the disabled are viewed with pity and LGBT persons are viewed with fear. In light of these perceptions, I’d say that socially speaking, the sick and disabled of the Bible are close relatives with the LGBT community today on the grounds of fear, exclusion from society at large and, to borrow Eiesland’s terminology, disability-sin conflation.

Toward praxis

How do we read new life into the healing passages that affirm our differences and make room for wider inclusion and mindfulness of persons who fall outside our socially constructed norms? What images in scripture can we look to in order to affirm the Other? Further questions arise for me. Is dis-otherizing (taken as an action performed to or for an other so as to make an outcast acceptable) inherently bad? Are there instances where dis-otherizing someone is a positive thing, as opposed to challenging our own understandings of inclusion, relationship, power, and privilege within the realm of acceptability?

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1. Amos Yong, “Disability, the Human Condition, and the Spirit of the Eschatological Long Run,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 11:1 (2007), 7.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 9-10.
4. Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 72, 74.
5. Deborah Creamer, Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 7:3 (2003), 61.
6. Deborah Creamer, “Including All Bodies in the Body of God,” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, Volume 9:4 (2006), 11. 
7. Creamer, “Toward a Theology that Includes the Human Experience of Disability,” 5.
8. Ibid., 6.
9. Eiesland, The Disabled God, 11.