Category Archives: Genesis

The Myth of Human Difference

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

Sustainability is one of those words in our culture that have been so thoroughly abused as to almost lose all meaning. Like the words “green”, “organic”, “natural” or “eco-”, sustainable is often appended to a wide variety of terms such as “sustainable growth”, “sustainable development”, “sustainable design”, “sustainable travel”, “sustainable style” or even “sustainable websites”. This is particularly unfortunate as it is one of the words we most desperately need to understand, if we hope to have a viable future for the continuation of our species. Sustainability, most simply, is the state in which a process or system is able to continue indefinitely without depleting the resources on which the system or process depends.

Many of our problems related to sustainability stem from some basic assumptions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Most of us in the Western world have been enculturated into some powerful myths that continue to prevent us from understanding sustainability and our place in the world. The myth of human difference, the myth of control, the myth of technological salvation and the myth of scarcity all conspire to keep us committed to a framework that has set us on a trajectory toward ecological disaster. In this chapter we will explore these myths and their impact on how we think about sustainability, who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Continue reading

Born Against: The Way of Jesus as Protest

A.J. Swoboda recently wrote a very thoughtful piece on how the Christian faith relates to the occupy protest movement. I want to make sure at the outset that I acknowledge the article said many positive things about the movement including,

Protest isn’t new. The prophets protested endlessly against evil, injustice, and at times the institution in the Hebrew Scriptures…Jesus protested too. His entire existence was a protest against death, sin, and evil.

However, Swoboda also says, “We are not born against. We are born again. We are born for.” While this was written as a critique of protest movements, I think it fundamentally misunderstands this particular movement. In some ways it may also misunderstand something fundamental about the Christian narrative.

I previously wrote about why the Occupy movement’s position is not primarily (or only) against something (Occupy This Blog?!). Certainly there are some basic grievances that the movement has made clear. However, Douglas Rushkoff has said that the Occupy protests are a “beta test for a new way of living”, not just a way to be against something.

If we take seriously the idea that the Exodus narrative is at the very core of the biblical narrative, fundamental to the identity of the Israelites and paradigmatic for understanding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus (the Last Supper was after all a Passover meal), then we must wrestle with the basic character of this narrative. The Exodus narrative does not begin with a vision for the future. It begins with a movement of protest.

First, comes the creative resistance of the Hebrew midwives rescuing the Hebrew babies that Pharaoh tried to kill. Moses is born and left to die, but his sister manipulates his rescue into the hands of the powerful. As a man torn between his position of power and Hebrew roots, he lashes out in violence at the injustice of oppression murdering an Egyptian. But this violent resistance will not be the way of YHWH. His own people condemn his actions and Pharaoh puts him on his watch list (there were no airplanes so he couldn’t yet be on the no-fly list). Then Moses disappears. As we know, he will be a reluctant leader. It is not his charisma that sparks this movement of liberation. It is the people crying out against.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2: 23-25 ESV)

God acts on behalf of the Hebrews, not by giving them a vision of what they should be for, but because God is inherently against the injustice and oppression they suffer. The ensuing plagues ultimately demonstrate, not what God is for, but that God is fundamentally against, Pharaoh. Certainly the wilderness is a liminal space in which God begins to unfold God’s vision for an economy of gift, grace and abundance (think manna and quail). Yet, even then the people grumble about the circumstances and long for the “good life” they had under Pharaoh. Forgetting what they are against leads them to romanticize their own oppression, because after all liberation is hard work. A new way of living requires sacrifice and letting go of our previous life, even though there was some stability and certainty (even if false) in the old order of things.

So, perhaps the idea that the Edenic narratives in Genesis provide a blueprint for how God intended the world to be is less helpful than the very clear reality that God’s mission in the world begins fundamentally by being against certain things. This is true also in the patriarchal narratives, where God is against Cain and later the rest of humanity in the Noah story because of their propensity for violence (Genesis 6-9). There are certainly glimpses of what God is for, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is an idealistic vision that qualifies. The prophets sometimes hint at this other way of living, but more often than not they were first against the Pharaoh-like actions of Israel’s own rulers.

Clearly these are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, how can one be against something without some vision for the way the world should be? The prophets’ outcry against injustice was certainly motivated in some way by a vision for how God intended Israel to live. My point here is not to say that we should not discover what we are for and what God is for. The point is that God does not begin with the same starting point that Swoboda and others seem to require of ourselves. In many ways I think that we are uncomfortable being against things, because it is that prophetic stance that gets people killed and inspired the violence of Empires throughout history.

The way to be for a different order of life is to begin to live it out together, as Occupy Wall Street is attempting. What makes us squirm is the way that living out the way of Jesus inevitably forces us to be against some things and the actions of some people. As liberation theology points out, the God of justice is necessarily against the wealthy for their own liberation and salvation. God cannot be just without being against those causing the people to cry out for help. If we could be for the kingdom of God without having to be against the injustices ad systems of oppression, we could have liberation without any struggle or need to deal with the reality of the world we have created. It would be like the question Julie Clawson recently posed, “When does speaking of liberation actually enable oppression?” on her blog. Real liberation involves being against the order of this world and hopefully embodying what we are for in our churches and communities which inevitably makes the Powers (and often ourselves) nervous.

Does Capitalism Need an Upgrade?

Peter Barnes book Capitalism 3.0 (which is available as a free PDF under a Creative Commons License at onthecommons.org) is a thought provoking and interesting read about the future of capitalism and the future of our world. Barnes vision both of what went wrong in the past and for how to create a more sustainable future within a capitalist structure are compelling. That’s coming from someone who tends to be pretty skeptical of capitalism’s potential to sustain us in the long term. The main idea of Capitalism 3.0 is that we have left the commons out of our economic equation and therefore need to create a commons sector to balance out the private sector that dominates our current model. Capitalism needs an upgrade.

The one-two punch of enclosure and externalizing is especially potent. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatize it. With the other hand, they dump bad stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss of value for the commons. (20)

One of the main points Barnes hits again and again is that private corporations are already using the commons for their own profit. The commons includes nature, community and culture. Nature is the example everyone thinks of when they hear “tragedy of the commons”, but streets, playgrounds, libraries, museums, laws and other shared gifts make up our communities. There are also cultural commons. One example of corporate abuse of cultural commons is all the stories in the public domain that Disney has turned into movies and profited from (Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella to name a few) without adding anything back to the public domain. So, the commons is generally unaccounted for in our economics (except in the case of a few trusts and permanent funds which is, in large part, Barnes’ solution to the problem).

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I found Barnes’ history of the evolution of capitalism very helpful in thinking about how we might move forward within the current system (see chart on the right).

Demand, in other words, exceeded supply, and we lived in what might be called shortage capitalism. We could also call it Capitalism 1.0. After the change, we shifted into surplus capitalism, or what I call Capitalism 2.0. In this version, there’s no limit to what corporations can produce; their problem is finding buyers. A sizeable chunk of GDP is spent to make people want this unneeded output. (23)

Understanding this evolution of capitalism puts our current problems in perspective. The scarcity in shortage capitalism of aggregated capital led to the formulation of the modern corporation. This made it possible to aggregate more capital, but there were limits because of other factors. Modern corporations with abundant credit and seemingly infinite aggregated capital were not the more limited entity that were intended under shortage capitalism. By overcoming the limitations of credit and aggregated capital under shortage capitalism, surplus capitalism was able to create our global economy. However, this also created new problems and exacerbated others.

Almost all of the property rights under capitalism so far have been allocated to individuals and corporations. Federal management of forests and other natural resources has fallen heavily on the side of permitting corporations to extract resources for private gain without giving back or caring for the commons. There are some examples of trusts that function in the long-term interest of future generations on the state level. At the heart of this shift is another way of thinking about ownership, property and rights. Barnes’ description of trusteeship sounds a lot like the first chapters of Genesis.

First, ownership isn’t the same thing as trusteeship. Owners of property—even government owners—have wide latitude to do whatever they want with it; a trustee does not. Trustees are bound by the terms of their trust and by centuries-old principles of trusteeship, foremost among which is “undivided loyalty” to beneficiaries. (45)

Beneficiaries include future generations, which don’t factor in to our current economic system. Beneficiaries should also include non-human animals and ecosystems in terms of the natural commons. We all claim to value community, nature and culture. So, why haven’t we included the commons in the economic equation?

Capitalism and community aren’t natural allies. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual acquisition and consumption is usually antithetical to the needs of community. Where capitalism is about the pursuit of self-interest, community is about connecting to—and at times assisting—others. It’s driven not by monetary gain but by caring, giving, and sharing…It’s rarely imagined that community can be built into our economic operating system. In this chapter I show how it can be—if our operating system includes a healthy commons sector. (101)

I’m working on a post about Stephen Jay Gould’s book Ever Since Darwin. Even when he wrote that book in the 1970s it was becoming clear that competition was only part of the Darwinian equation describing the adaptation of species to their environment. We have selected only (or at least primarily) the mutations related to competition as we have developed our capitalist system. Without further adaptation this system will cause its own extinction and possibly our own. Barnes illuminates the possibility of including the altruistic aspects of our human nature through trusts, permanent funds and rights delegated to a commons sector.

As a final note, I was very struck by the idea and possibilities of “predistribution of property”.

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between predistribution of property and redistribution of income. Under income redistribution, money is taken from “winners” and transferred to “losers.” Understandably, this isn’t popular with winners, who tend to control government and the media. Under property predistribution, by contrast, the playing field is leveled by spreading property ownership before income is generated. After that, there’s no need for income redistribution; property itself distributes income to all. According to Rawls, while income redistribution creates dependency, property predistribution empowers. (105)

In my mind this changes the whole conversation about a more equitable distribution of resources. It frames the question of inequality of wealth in terms of property rights. It also transforms the concept of property rights into the right to property which is what we find in the Jubilary laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. The obvious question is what the mechanism would be for creating such a predistribution.

The answer lies in the commons—wealth that already belongs to everyone. By propertizing (without privatizing) some of that wealth, we can make everyone a property owner. (105)

Barnes goes through a lot of detail about how all of this would work including specific trusts and permanent funds at local, state and federal levels, how they might function and what they would manage. I would encourage my economically-minded friends to read more of the detail and give me some feedback. As I said before, even though I tend to be doom and gloom about capitalism’s track record and future possibilities, I don’t have much negative to say about Barnes’ upgrade. It answers many of my questions and the historic problems of the capitalist experiment. The main question seems to be whether or not the current system has the capacity to make these kinds of changes. Barnes is hopeful, but cautions that the window for action in implementing these rights is narrow. I remain skeptical, but Barnes challenged me to envision possibilities I hadn’t imagined and that’s always a good thing.

A Conservationist Manifesto

On the Agroinnovations podcast there was an interview with the author of A Conservationist Manifesto, Scott Russell Sanders. He had some interesting ideas and thoughts. Here is a smattering of them with my own commentary, as usual.

Get On the Boat!
Sanders says that the ark in the biblical story is a profound ecological parable that “represents a vessel that carries through troubled times those things that absolutely must be preserved”. There is a profound value of biodiversity in the story, even if there was no obvious purpose or they were a nuisance. Sanders idea that the biblical narrative of Noah and the Ark is an apt metaphor for modern catastrophe certainly caught my ear. This idea has also been mentioned in the comments on this blog. The thought is that there should be lots of little communities that are living out the kinds of practices that can lead us through potential ecological catastrophe. He read this quote from his book,

Those who try to live more simply are harder to see… They go about learning the skills and mastering the tools necessary for meeting basic human needs. They grow food. They build shelters. They make clothes. They draw energy from sun and wind and wood. They get by with fewer possessions and learn to repair the ones they have. They create much of their own entertainment with homemade art, music and stories. They derive pleasure from good work, human company and the perennial show that nature puts on. So far as possible they rear their children away from television and advertising. They buy as little as they can from the global economy and instead they support local economies based on cooperation, barter and sharing. They protect and restore woods, prairies and swamps making room for wildness.

He calls these people “Ark builders”. They are the keepers of the kinds of knowledge that is “necessary for meeting basic human needs”. When asked the question, “Are we facing catastrophe?” Sanders points out that we are already in a catastrophe, a billion people going hungry every day, a billion people lacking access to clean water, the exponential rate of species extinction, the loss of topsoil, etc. The catastrophe is already here. We have just made it possible for some of our human family to ignore this reality. In other words, the wealthy have created their own arks to insulate themselves from catastrophe. The question that really faces us is not whether or not we face catastrophe, but which boat we will get on, the flashy big boat that is poorly constructed underneath that shiny veneer or the humble ark made of humble materials that requires us to row and work together.

First Church of the Consumer
Sanders quotes an advertising executive in a trade publication from the 1950s summing up the need to promote more consumption to get the economy going,

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The economy needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Wow! I have been arguing and pondering the notion of consumerism as a religion, but never heard it put so explicitly from the mouths of the high priests of advertising, the bishops of the consumer religion. Sanders then points out that in order to fulfill the evangelistic mission of this consumer religion we must trash the earth in order to serve the economy. As I’ve said before this is exactly backwards, the economy exists to serve the earth and human beings as part of it, not the other way around. I hope sometime to take on this idea of consumerism as a religion in more depth, not as a metaphor, but as a deadly serious reality.

Hope or Optimism?
Sanders’ son challenged him to not just point out how bad everything is, but recognize that we need hope to push us forward. I found Sanders’ definition of the difference between hope and optimism both profound and helpful. Optimism is the confidence that everything is going to turn out just fine, no matter how bad it looks. Hope, on the other hand, is the conviction that despite how bad things look there is good work to be done right now to build the kind of world that we want. While I might modify this definition of hope, the contrast between the simple-minded ignorance of optimism and the hard work of hope is insightful.

I often feel cornered as a pessimist because I am not particularly optimistic about the prospects for our modern civilizations and see catastrophe looming on the horizon. This duality of pessimism and optimism is once again an exercise in missing the point. It only tells us the particular mood of an individual given a particular question. Hope tells us infinitely more. Hope reveals both the dire situation we face and draws on deep wells of faith, tradition, intellect and wisdom to pursue a better future, not on a global scale, but in the smallness of our own lives. This makes change not only more possible, but more grounded in reality of both the problems we face and the practicality of what we can do now to bring about something other, something new, beautiful, hopeful and small.

I’ll Fly Away: Why Caring for the Earth Matters for Eternity

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Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt

My economist friend recently commented that while he certainly believed that we were called as Christians to care for the earth, this was somewhat akin to polishing the Titanic (apologies for any liberties my paraphrase took with the actual comment). At some time in the future God is going to do away with the earth and create something new in its place that will be perfect and not subject to the death, decay and problems that we face, in a word “heaven”. This way of thinking about the earth, creation care and heaven is often prevalent among Christians. So it prompted me to try and sum up why I believe that creation care matters for eternity and why this attitude toward the planet is dangerous spiritually and environmentally.

I owe a lot of my thinking on this subject to two gentlemen named Wright (though not brothers and not involved in aviation), Christopher Wright, who wrote an excellent book called The Mission of God, and N.T. Wright, who (even though he seems to write books as often as Roger Olson) wrote a small article for The Green Bible called “Jesus is Coming–Plant a Tree!” (I did find a couple articles online that touch on some of N.T. Wright’s points in the aforementioned article from which I quote.) Certainly other scholars have written a lot on this subject, perhaps some better than either Wright I mentioned. These happen to be the two that influenced me.

There are three questions that frame how we understand this issue: 1) What does the Bible say about the earth? 2) What does the Bible say about heaven? and 3)What does the Bible say about the relationship between heaven and earth?

What On Earth?
The first and most obvious thing is that the creation is “good.” Although brokenness enters the picture when Adam and Eve trust the serpent instead of God, there is no declaration that now creation is “bad”. In Genesis 3:17-19 God tells Adam that the ground is cursed because of him and that “through painful toil you will eat of it” revealing that creation and humanity’s relationship to it are affected by this brokenness. The fact that creation is affected by (or maybe participates in) the brokenness of sin is important to remember when we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19). Lest we think that by this Paul meant that God reconciled all of the atomistic individuals in the world (which he certainly did), he goes cosmic in what N.T. Wright considers the apex of Romans.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)

This passage clearly refers to nature (in contrast to human beings) being involved in the work of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It might help to think about what the work of redemption means for human beings as we are transformed into “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). While there is a transformation that takes place in which we can contrast the “old person” from this “new creation”, the newness is not completely discontinuous with the old. We maintain our unique identities even though our relationships are also transformed (Lk 20:2740). If the creation is also involved in Christ’s work of redemption, why wouldn’t it also be transformed in a similar manner? The “new heavens and new earth” envisioned by Isaiah and later picked up by John’s Apocalypse (Isaiah 65; Revelation 21) are not necessarily discontinuous with the earth that we know today. Nothing in the text demands that this be the case. On the contrary, as we will see, there is evidence that the vision of the future kingdom is one that is intimately connected to this earth.

Since I won’t have access to the internet soon, I will stretch this into a four part series.

Next… Heaven Help Us