Here is the sermon I gave in chapel for the Krost Symposium on Environmental Justice.
Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!
So, I was sitting in my backyard the other night staring up at the stars. Sometimes I am struck by the fact that I live in the Southern Hemisphere, in South America, in Bolivia, in the Chaco, in a little town called Charagua. It’s very far from where I have spent the majority of my life, Central Texas. As I was staring into the night sky I was struck by the fact that as I sat still in my chair I was actually hurtling through space in orbit around the sun and as the earth spins.
Maybe meditation and quieting ourselves is really a way to notice the energy of the world around us that we mask by our activity. Crickets chirping, air moving, birds flying, the world is never still. As Heraclitus first posited, It seems that the very nature of existence is change. The underlying elemental force is fire according to Heraclitus. The world is dynamic, alive and buzzing. Yet we barely notice. For modern humans, being still mainly involves turning off the television, taking off the headphones, closing the laptop, and unplugging the phone. This only gets us to the point where we ourselves are still and silent. That is when we begin to notice that the world is not silent. There are engines, motors, cars, people, planes, lights, power lines, computers and lots of machines that constitute a low buzz of man-made noise that fills our lives.
Yet, if we were to find a place where these things were absent we would notice that the world itself is alive with noise, activity and life. There’s a constant flow of change, growth, birth, death, eating, pooping, playing, singing, yelling, fighting, crying and laughing going on all around us. Some of it under our feet, in the soil or the water, where it is invisible to us. Some of it in trees, on the ground, in the air or hidden in holes of caves. One of the most profound moments of my life was on a tiny island in the middle of the Boundary Waters, where engines were not allowed. I spent 45 minutes alone observing, thinking, praying and listening. It was certainly the closest I have felt to nature.
I had a thought on that island that has stuck with me over the years. I suddenly realized that all the activity and life I witnessed around me continued all the time whether or not I, or anyone else was there to pay attention. This is not a philosophical statement about the nature of reality, but a realization about the nature of nature. In our own place of stillness and quiet we are able to feel connected to that which continues without us, without our constant attention, care and maintenance.
In the oft-quoted verse above there is a connection between stillness, knowing God and God’s revelation of Godself through nature. We have a very Greek understanding of what it means to “know” something or someone. In Hebrew the idea of “knowing” something or someone connotes a relational way of knowing. We don’t know the thing in itself. We know it as we relate to it. Knowing God is relating to God and being in relationship. One of the ways we do this is through nature and the kind of stillness that creates an awareness of our connection to the earth, other humans and therefore God.
The purpose of meditation, contemplation, centering prayer or whatever you call it is not to escape from the world and push it away, but to remove all of the obstacles and noise from our lives and minds that keep us from experiencing the world and knowing ourselves. There is no stillness. There is no quiet. We are always hurtling through space around the sun. There is always motion, change, growth, death. What we call stillness and quiet is our attempt to reconnect with this truth and this reality.
I’ve been emailing back and forth with a good friend of mine, Justin Tapp, who studied economics at Baylor about this article from Jesus Radicals. He finally wrote a post summarizing his thoughts on our conversation about private property and the Bible. I’m not an economist and he’s no biblical scholar, but I think the exchange of perspectives is healthy.
The article uses Augustine as a lens to talk about how the Christian tradition (Augustine in particular) views economics in general and the notion of private property specifically. My friend is somewhat skeptical of this approach, preferring to stick to sola scriptura. Unfortunately, I think this remnant of Reformation theology is not so helpful, because it has never existed. We all come from a tradition. No one reads the Bible alone.
With that said here’s where we’ve found some common ground:
- God’s intention in creation was not for private property. The original intention was a creation in which the idea of private property is not necessary, because there is not scarcity.
- “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) According to Scripture, God is ultimately the Creator of all things and holds ultimate claim to all of creation, including material goods. Our view of possessions should keep this in mind.
- Christians should hold possessions loosely. There are many cautions against the dangers of materialism in Scripture and our calling is to serve others with what we have been given.
First I’d like to say that I agree with the main point that Scripture does not advocate one person (or many people) taking property, because they believe it is being used unjustly. The application of that idea sounds like a nightmare. However, I think this one point causes Tapp to miss the forest for the funny-looking knot hole on that one tree.
I would like to respond to a few points that Justin makes in this post. Mostly places I think he misuses and misinterprets Scripture (probably mostly minor and obscure problems because I’m a theogeek). Then in the next post I’d like to make a case for another way of understanding the roots of property rights in the Bible.
Tapp uses Exodus 20:15,17 to talk about property rights. Among the things listed that belong to your neighbor in this passage are his wife, manservant and maidservant. In the world that this text was written in, the idea that women and slaves were property that could be stolen or coveted were assumed. Based on Scripture (Gen 1:27), we have decided that possessing human beings is not just and it is not a right. The BIble clearly justifies it based on the passage Justin mentioned (and others), but we have collectively decided as a church over time that the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God trumps the idea that women and slaves should be considered property. This verse certainly cautions against stealing and acknowledges that people “own” things in some sense, but the idea that this is the same as our modern concept of “absolute ownership” is another leap.
The author of the article at Jesus Radicals makes a distinction between “Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice” and “the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution.” The author does not really do a good job of clearly describing this distinction and then uses it later to claim “Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation.” I hope to spend some time unpacking this distinction in another post. It should not be assumed that our modern conception of property rights is exactly what we find in Scripture. That would be reading into and imposing on the text our own beliefs, eisegesis, which is a big no-no in biblical interpretation (but, I confess, sometimes difficult to catch, especially in myself).
Tapp mentions Leviticus 25, the Jubilee, as one possible place where Scripture outlines how we are to use poperty and possibly redistribute them. Tapp states,
“However nowhere does it state how big a person’s property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn’t a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people’s ability to trade and make those choices.”
Now, I certainly don’t believe God is communist the way that the term “central planner” implies, but in the context of the Jubilee the Israelites were to return “everyone… to his own property” (Lev 21:13). How is this possible if the land is bought and sold for 49 years? How do they know where to return? God divided up the land in Deuteronomy 3:12-17 among the twelve tribes of Israel. So in a very literal and real sense the Jubilee did place a restriction on the amount of land one family or tribe could own within a generation or two. I think the Jubilee both affirms “people’s ability to trade and make choices” while also placing very real limits on the amount of property and possessions (land being the only source of wealth at the time) people could accumulate.
Many scholars believe the Jubilee was likely never practiced by the Israelites. So, why not let it fade away with all the other impractical, idealist notions that have come and gone? Because Leviticus 25 is not an isolated passage. It is part of the Sabbatical Laws (Gen 2 and Deut 15) all of which concern the proper use of land and our relationship to creation and each other. It is picked up by Isaiah 61 to describe the coming perfection of God’s reign and then quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 when he gives his mission statement in Nazareth. This is not some obscure passage that we can simply write off as an anomaly. It is central to the good news proclaimed by Jesus.
Tapp also uses the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) to illustrate the way the Bible talks about use of property. No matter what you’re trying to argue, you should always be careful using parables to support your argument. They are notoriously slippery things. Parables are meant to shock us and make us uncomfortable. If we think we know what they mean, we probably are not paying enough attention. Both this parable and the oft quoted following parable are both disturbing and upsetting when read fully. The moral of the parable seems to directly contradict the Great Reversal found through the Gospels and the Hebrew Testament, the last shall be first, the rich sent away empty, the valleys lifted and mountains leveled. So, much more careful exegesis and interpretation should be done before applying it to our conversation about property. It seems to open a can of worms.
Now that I’m done nitpicking… I hope to outline another view of property based on the agrarian worldview of the biblical text.
Getting something, words, art, portraits, symbols, permanently etched in your flesh is a momentous occasion. A lot of tattoos happen because of inebriation and impaired judgment. Others happen after long deliberation and careful thought. Most happen somewhere in between. I’m not sure where mine falls on the spectrum, but I know it’s on the more thoughtful end of the spectrum. I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on tattoos, why we get them and why I got the one that I did.
One of my ideas for a tattoo was to get the verse from Leviticus 19, which many people use to say Christians should not get tattoos, actually tattooed. The irony was too good, but I thought the joke would get old after a while and therefore not make a good permanent fixture on my body.
For me getting a tattoo marks a passage, a momentous time, an important milestone that I don’t want to forget. Living at the farm in many ways makes living simply easy. There is a community that does most of the work for you. Composting toilets are the only choice for where to relieve yourself. Growing food in a sustainable way is part of my job description. There’s also a community that values, simplicity, skill sharing, creativity, producing what we use and dumpster diving.
What will life be like when I’m not around these people who care for me and encourage me?
I know what life is like outside of this farm. There are mortgage or rent payments, insurance payments, school loans, groceries, doctor’s visits, car problems and more. Will there be time for a garden? Or backyard chickens? Will I hold to the values and principles that are easy to do in community, but harder when you have to choose them every day?
The reason I chose a tree is partly because of its rich significance in the Christian tradition. Psalm 1:1 describes the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water. The tree of life is a symbol of our lives hidden with God, but also the abundance of that first garden and God’s intentions for our lives on this planet. So, there is a spiritual and religious significance.
I wanted the tree to have a large root system. The design I found included the mushrooms poling up from the roots. It would be easy to assume this was some drug reference or hippie posturing. That would be selling the life beneath the soil and all of the fungi kingdom way short. The mushrooms represent resurrection. They grow out of the death and decay in the soil. They are often one of the first things to pop up after a forest fire. Certain fungi also make nutrients in the soil accessible to the root systems of plants that they would otherwise be unable to use.
Roots and the life beneath the soil are so important. They are the unseen foundation of life on our earth. A beautiful green plant that puts on a lot of growth, but does not have a root system will fall over and die at the first gust of wind. A strong, well-established root system is essential for the health and longevity of plants. The roots are unseen, however. If they do become exposed there is a danger that the plant will die.
People see our fruits. They see what we do and hear what we say… in public. The real test is what we do when no one is looking. How do we treat our wife or kids at home where no one sees? What do we say behind people’s backs? What goes on in our inner life, our thoughts and feelings? How do we deal with our emotions or desires? These are the roots that make us who we are. The kinds of roots we have determines how fruitful we are. John and Jesus both said something about the axe being laid at the root of the tree that bears bad fruit.
I also think of the way trees put down roots, compared to the way modern (American) humans live such transient lives. We are often scared to put down roots, to stake a claim and commit our lives to a career or cause, much less a place. That’s what a tattoo is in many ways. It is a permanent statement, a claim staked, a flag planted. It’s scary to get something permanent etched in your flesh. What is worth looking at every day for the rest of your life? What would your statement be?
The tree and roots is also a reminder of my interdependence on nature and my fellow human beings. For that reason, and the others I mentioned, I feel confident staking my claim here. This is where I plan to put down roots. This is the hill I wish to die on.
I’ve been interested in getting a tattoo for a while. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Piercings and tattoos mark rites of passage for a lot of people my age. The main things holding me back have been the price and finding the right tattoo. Since my wife recently got her nose pierced, I’ve been thinking more seriously about it.
Tattoos are an interesting phenomenon. Some happen on a whim. Some are intensely thought out and designed. Some are just meant to be cool or project an image. Some have deep meaning and significance. Some are ridiculous and silly. Some are thought provoking and intense. Some will need modification later on. Some will stand the test of time.
That last one is the one that interests me. What would I be willing to permanently etch in my flesh? What would I not regret 30 years from now? What will stand the test of time?
For me I think I’ve settled on a tree. It combines the things that I try to combine here on this blog, a love for God, a love for the earth and a love of real food. The tree as a symbol has a long history in the Christian tradition. The editors of the Green Bible put a tree on the cover, explaining that this is actually an ancient tradition in the church. The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are central to the creation narrative. Psalm 1:3 says,
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in season,
and their leaves do not wither.
I haven’t found the perfect tree yet or exactly where I want it. The one pictured is close, but I definitely want there to be color involved signifying life. I’ve never had any piercings or other tattoos and I’m not eager to get just anything. I do think that this is a mark I would always want and would never regret, a permanent reminder of my connection to the earth, to God and to my food.