Fireground, Adelaide Hills

Don't Paint the Station Green

A new piety
One area where the church causes many of its people great frustration is the insistence on private piety, seemingly at the expense of social justice. We all agree about Jesus love and compassion until someone points out that this might mean Mr. Howard (Australian Prime Minister 2006)  is wrong... "Oh but you shouldn't get involved in politics..." I think this is not simply an avoidance and denial mechanism. Neither is it simply that people are sold out to the ruling political system. I hear it from people of devout, sincere, and self-sacrificing faith.

I suspect this attitude has a long and very understandable history. For much of Christian history the only action has been local and personal. Most people had little understanding of what was happening even 50 miles away, let alone on the other side of the world! And little or nothing they did would affect the other side of the world. In a class ridden, non democratic society, there was also very little one could do beyond personal piety and care for one's immediate neighbour. The political action and lobbying we take for granted was the preserve of the very rich until very recently, and is often still very dangerous. Personal piety was, in fact, discipleship par excellence.

It's not that people are unfaithful. There has been a dramatic change in the way the world works; a great deal of it in living memory. In the western world we have unprecedented political opportunity and freedom. And we suddenly have a worldwide influence; eating California oranges or wearing NiKe shoes is a global issue that did not exist for me as an Australian kid in the 1950s.

So we have to learn a new discipleship and piety. We need first to remember that personal piety is as important as it ever was. What kind of Christian are we if we call for social justice, and yet we are a drunkard, or beat our wife. If we cannot be just to those who are close to us, how can we pretend to be just to those who are far away? And "personal" piety is a misnomer. It never was true. We all know being Christian means love and compassion and respect of our neighbour. We have always known that posturing and polite language and church attendance means nothing if we steal from the village shop. The very conservative little hills church I once attended, knew exactly what was happening when the local member began to attend church just before the elections. And their scorn was appropriate.

Christian piety now means that we see the neighbourhood has grown. When we buy our fruit, or our shoes, we do not merely affect the local farmer and the village cobbler. We influence the lives of factory workers in Beijing, and farmers and poor immigrants in California. The transport of our goods, and their production, affects the sea level in The Pacific, and the very survival of neighboring nations. What will we buy and how will we live?

To begin
To begin any eco-friendly theology we must begin at the beginning.
And the beginning is that we are all complicit in the looming disaster. We in the west have profited by the burning of oil beyond measure, the raping of the seas, the hollowing of other countries mining resources, the slave labour of prisoners in China... the list is long. Slavery funded a massive industrial growth which benefited a few. We have grown up in this world. Our schools, our churches, and our comfort has rested upon the losses of other people. It is we who have used resources too quickly, who have despised the old industries based on organic material we grew, and literally burned that which we cannot re-grow. We here, are reading the screens built by the lowly paid electronics workers of whom some will go blind. Our internet runs on the copper mined from the river-killing open cuts of Ok Tedi ,and the oil based optical fibres, that have supported the corrupt regimes of the middle east.

I did not ask to do this. It was happening when I was born. It will happen when I am dead. I live decently and accordingly to the law. I wish no one harm. I do not steal. But I am complicit. I have benefited for all of my life, and the benefit has increased while others starve. If I would not have let my neighbour starve in the English villages from where my forbears came, I can not do it now.

Also at the beginning, is the fact that I stand in Grace. I too am human. I too am loved by God. I too am forgiven my sin. What has been is not what defines me and my future. It is what I choose to do now and in the future which will define my future. Even in disaster, and in the face of overwhelming pressure, I can be willingly or uncaringly complicit, or I can turn and live in the knowledge of, and with compassion for, all my neighbours. This turning is the meaning of the Christian doctrine of repentance. It means to turn and live in the way God desires, as we say. It means to treat all people as equal and equally deserving. It means to treat our planet with respect. In Christian theology, to live green is good even if there is no global warming. Living green is to worship God.

So at the beginning we must remove the rationalisations and live honest to what is. We are complicit. We cannot avoid this. We cannot excuse it; we need not excuse it, it just is. The question is: what we will do?

Some principles
In our doing, some things should be clear in our minds.

  • There is no sacred and profane.
    By this I mean that there is no place that our faith should not reach and affect. We may not be in church in our work, but even in an environment hostile to the Christ, we will still seek to live as Christ would. Sunday church may be far from the place we work, but the hymns and prayers and preaching should speak to the places and struggles in which we work. To healthily be Christian, we cannot worship in a way that denies where we live, and we cannot live in a way that denies what we say in worship.

We must also include all of life in our theological thinking. We cannot ignore science, or psychology, for example, simply because they challenge aspects of the faith we have received. This does NOT mean we are to accept all that these disciplines say. Often they are driven by agenda which are not disinterested, but which reflect values which are profoundly anti Christ.

  • If God is in all, and Lord of all, then there is no sacred and profane. All is sacred, and so we must respond. Some people and some things are not less important because they are less important to God, for they never are.

    There is no "spiritual wealth" compared to "material wealth." I believe the dichotomy between ‘spiritual wealth' and ‘material wealth' is a false dichotomy. I think there is only one wealth and that its measure is dignity and human flourishing. I owe this wonderfully succinct statement to Elenie Poulos. Asked what it means to be "spiritually rich" she says
    This is a terrible question to ask someone who is rich because it is all too easy to mouth platitudes about the real (aka ‘spiritual') meaning of wealth being about love and family, good health, self-fulfilment and happiness. It is too easy for me to ignore my relative wealth by claiming I know that money doesn't make one happy and that being truly ‘rich' is about being happy on the inside. It is too easy for me to ignore that for at last two billion of the world's people wealth is completely irrelevant: only survival matters.

We need to acknowledge, along with our complicities, that we in the west are often obscenely rich. It is not enough for me to quip that when a client, who got me to do some work at his home, bade me go first up his marble stairs, I had to stop at the first landing because I didn't know whether to go left or right, or fling off at the boss's $6,000.00 barbecue- with fridge!

I am rich.

Straight up, flat out, no question.... I am overweight. I choose my food. I own my house. It is warm or cool as I require. My water is clean. My clothes are new. I have three pairs of shoes, plus a pair for gardening. My street is safe. The cops are generally honest. I can buy what I need, and most of what I want.

I am rich.

Elenie says that the message of Jesus is that riches means responsibility. I believe she is correct. It is my calling to use the riches well- not to feather my nest and increase my retirement nest egg to obscene proportions- but for the good of all. Whilst people suffer around me, my riches condemn me if they remain at home. When I consider my wealth, I am not to look at the advertisements in the paper, or compare myself to the comfortable who live in the Eastern suburbs. I am to look at the malnourished and sick on the train. I am to look at the poor in the Anangu Lands, and like our mothers used to say, think of the starving children in India. Then only can I know what I need instead of what I want. Then only can I know if I am living green and living fair, or simply falling for a romantic feel-good, guilt appeasing fantasy.

  • All of this suggests to me that we are not called "to live green." We are called to live green and fair.

To live fairly and justly we must begin to live more according to the tempo and capacity of the planet. We must live green. Otherwise it is never fair to those who are far off.... let alone what may happen to our country.
To live green we must live fairly and justly. Otherwise our green is still the rape of other's resources. Our solar panels will be at the expense of other's health. Our small footprint will simply be a large sop to our egos and selfishness. We will drive our green Prius down Jericho road ,and leave the beaten man lying in the gutter.

There is a slow train coming... it's coming round the bend... and we need to do more than paint the station green.

Posted April 9 2006

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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