Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Bible and Ecology (Richard Bauckham).

Preacher: Veronica


From Genesis 6

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

From Genesis 9

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

An old man was working in his garden, and a passer by began to admire it. ‘Isn’t it wonderful’, she said, ‘what God and you have achieved together’. ‘Ah,’ replied the old man, ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it to himself’.

This is the second of our sermons on the environment, and the first based on Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The main thesis of the book, is that the concept of ‘stewardship‘ which Christians often use to talk about our responsibility for the environment, is too narrow and takes too little account of the wider Biblical picture. Instead , Bauckham proposes the concept of ‘the community of creation’, a phrase I’m sure will come up frequently as we study the book.

For various reasons we are looking today at the second half of the first chapter, focusing on Genesis 2 and the Flood, and we’ll look at the first half, and Genesis 1, in the next sermon. Genesis 1 and 2 are of course alternative accounts of creation, but Bauckham thinks they harmonise with each other, rather than contradicting each other.


The first point Bauckham makes about Genesis 2 is that it affirms human solidarity with the rest of creation. The man, or to translate it literally, the ‘earth-creature’ is made from what you Americans call the ‘dirt’. In fact there is a linguistic link made in the Hebrew : the (at this point genderless) man is called Adam, and the name for the earth is ‘adamah’. One commentator rendered it as ‘God made humans out of humus’ (not hummus, I hasten to add!). Human beings are intimately linked to the ground we stand on.

If we read on we find that the animals too are made out of the ground, and presumably God breathes life into the animals just as into Adam. This chimes in with Bauckham’s interpretation of Genesis 1, where the structure suggests that humanity and the land creatures, made on the same day, are of the same kind. Humankind is ‘of the earth, earthy’ and there is nothing to suggest that there is anything wrong with that - in fact we know from Genesis 1 that it is ‘very good’.

One of the problems Bauckham sees with the stewardship model is that it sets humanity over against the rest of creation, with a special right to make use of it. This can easily lead to a human fantasy of taking complete control of creation. Indeed some modern scientists talk exactly in these terms, of being able to create artificial life, intelligence and even food, so that humanity is no longer dependent on the rest of creation but it is dependent on us. Genesis on the other hand sets out a situation in which human beings are intimately tied to the rest of creation, with God beyond both and keeping control of both.

This emphasis on our ‘earthiness’ is a valuable corrective to excessive ambition about controlling creation. I think it also speaks about what it means to be fully human. Nowadays we live largely divorced from the processes which bring us our food and our clothes. We have begun to live virtual lives - I now don’t even go to the supermarket to buy my food, I order it online. Genesis 2 tells us that it is inherent in humanity to need a relationship with the physical world around us, to feel its soil and to breathe its air. Not to do so is literally ‘unnatural’.

Job creation

Bauckham’s second point, and this is where we come back to the joke at the beginning, is that humans are given a task to do: to ‘till and keep’ the garden of Eden. There are two terms here, one meaning to cultivate, and one meaning to preserve. So humankind has a mandate to develop the land, but also a duty to keep it from destruction.

Adam’s task of tilling the earth, Bauckham says, gives him the right to usufruct - and no, I didn’t know what that meant either, so I looked it up. Apparently it means the right to derive profit or benefit from property belonging to another. So that’s your word of the day: usufruct. .If you remember nothing else from this sermon you can remember that.

Adam is mandated to enjoy the fruits of the land. But he is also to ‘keep’ it, and that means maintaining it in its fruitful state, and not exhausting it. To put it in a popular slogan, ‘Please leave this earth the way you would like to find it.’ You could almost say, if you only had Genesis 2, that the ‘earth-creature’ or human is created for the sake of the land, not the other way around (and this is my thought rather than Bauckham’s, so I hope I haven’t pushed it too far).

Man gave names

The third point is to do with Adam’s naming of the animals. This has often been interpreted to mean humanity has authority over the other animals and is allowed to use them for any purpose. This is the aspect of the biblical concept of ‘dominion’ that some environmentalists have a big problem with.

Bauckham however says that this is not the only and inevitable way to understand these verses. He sees it rather as the human recognizing the animals as his fellow creatures with whom he shares the world. The ‘dominion’ or rule that humans are given in Genesis 1 (and I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the next sermon) is a role of responsible care, rather than one of exploitation. Remember that at this point in Genesis we are still in the situation where God has given every green plant to both humanity and the animals - meat eating is not in view. Eden is unambiguously a vegetarian state.

So we could see in these verses an acknowledgement that human life is inextricably bound up, not only with the soil we cultivate, but with the other animals - mammals, birds, fish, reptiles - who live on it with us. Our Genesis 1 task of being fruitful, multiplying and subduing or taking possession of the earth, is not meant to be undertaken at the expense of other creatures, but in harmony with them. Again we 21st century humans are quite divorced from this - for many of us the nearest we get to it is having pets in our houses and caring for them. And perhaps this too can be seen as an unnatural state.

Another try

This brings us neatly to the story of the Flood, which is a story of salvation not just for humans but for the animal creation, and indeed the plants that provide both with food.

We are used to defining the Fall as a single event described in Genesis 3 - whether we take that as a historical event or a mythical story expressing truths about the world. However Bauckham points out that as we read through Genesis 1-9, there is more of a gradual descent into sin, as human culture evolves with all its benefits but also its corruption. So by the time we get to the story of Noah, asour reading said, ‘the earth was filled with violence’.

‘Filling the earth’ was one of the commands, or you might call them blessings, given to humankind in the Genesis 1 account of creation. However instead of being filled with people, caring for the earth and enjoying its benefits, we find that what the earth has become filled with is violence. (This of course is very interesting from the point of view of a peace church, since it pinpoints violence as the core of disobedience to God. ) As Bauckham observes, one of the kinds of violence that has filled the earth is the killing of animals for food. This includes the animals killing other animals, which is not part of the original creation picture.

Noah, in Bauckham’s view, is the epitome of the responsible care that humanity was meant to have for the earth. He is succeeding where Adam failed. He is, if you like, the first conservationist: God’s rescue plan for Noah takes in not only human beings but the whole of the animal creation, and the plants that feed them. We don’t need to ask questions about whether there were fish or birds in the Ark, or whether the lions ate the lambs and how they kept the rabbits from taking over. It’s not necessary to take this literally, in order to learn from it how much God cares for creation.

Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’, in the covenant that God makes not only with Noah and his descendants, but crucially, with ‘every living creature that is with you’. This is not however a complete return to Eden. In the covenant with Noah,God makes concessions to the way the world has become: we are allowed to eat meat, but not with the lifeblood in it - a rule both Jews and Muslims still keep today in kosher or halal meat.

God also proclaims that the animals will now fear the humans, and Bauckham sees this as a measure to protect humans from wild animals in this new, fallen world. Genesis 9 portrays a world in which the unrestrained violence that reigned before the flood is now kept within limits. So it is a better world, but it is no longer the ideal world that Genesis 1 and 2 describe. Indeed the Noah story can be seen as a salvation story, in which God redeems the creation: a salvation where the animal and vegetable world is saved along with its human inhabitants.

The final point Bauckham draws from this is to say that in our theology of the environment, we need to keep in mind both the ideal world of the original creation, and the real world, red in tooth and claw, that we are now living in. We need to know just how far the world is from what God intends for it; and to do that we also need to have a clear view of what it could be. Which returns us to the joke at the beginning again. God does not want to keep the world just for himself, but has chosen that the world should have human beings in it, with the responsibility of caring for it, not instead of God caring for it, but in cooperation with God’s care.

Joni Mitchell told us that ‘we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. But in fact we are earthdust - which does admittedly come from stars - we are fallen, and it’s God’s job to lead us to the new creation.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who is our neighbour? The call to be a peace church

Preacher: Marie-Noƫlle von der Recke

Readings 2 Chronicles 28:1-15

You might have noticed that one expression appears three times in the story we just heard: the word "countrymen". In other translations we would have found "kinsmen", "brethren" or "relatives". Who are our kinsmen and kinswomen? Our brethren ? Or as we find the question put in the New Testament in the introduction to the story about the Good Samaritan: Who is our neighbour ?

Judah and Israel have been 2 separate states for a long time as war broke out between them. Judah has been defeated and many soldiers have died. Prisoners and plunder have been taken and are being brought to Samaria, the northern Kingdom. There, an unknown prophet of Samaria, Oded interferes and warns Israel for wanting to keep these people and the spoil. The story takes an unexpected turn as the victors take care of the prisoners and give them their freedom back. In this story it is a question of human guilt and of God's anger and judgement but it all ends beautifully. If we look at it closely we discover that it speaks to issues that are quite important even today.

The first issue raised in this story is: Who is the wicked one ?

If we have a conflict we usually sort things out quite neatly:  the others are guilty, they are the problem (Example Duncan Morrow at a Church and Peace international conference in 2007: He described at length the situation in Northern Ireland and showed how all concerned by the conflict speak about "them" as being the cause of all the difficulties). This is the way we function at the personal but also at the political level. Actually it has become a routine way of thinking in the propaganda of the Western world in past years. The world is clearly divided between the good and the bad guys. Here is truth and right, freedom and democracy. There are the rogue states. Here Christian values. There evildoing Islam and terrorism. This clearcut construct justifies war in Afghanistan as it has in Iraq.

What does our text say about this ?

It describes quite bluntly the king of Juda's guilt: he has abandoned the ways of David, he has brought offerings to foreign gods, he has ordered human sacrifices. But the guilt of Israel is shown just as clearly: the rage with which the Judeans have been killed has reached up to heaven. And the guilt of the Israelites becomes even heavier as they take the Judeans as slaves. The Southern kingdom has followed the path of the Nations and run into a catastrophe, the Northern kingdom has been successful at war and has done what people usually do in such a case.  God's judgement falls on both Northern and Southern kingdoms: both people are declared guilty. Both people have deserved to be struck by God's wrath. Our text seems to be saying: the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other, that just does not exist!

Another current issue is also spoken to in our text:
What is God's will ?
And first of all: are wars God's will ?

There are quite a few reports on wars in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus himself says that wars are inevitable. In this story we see that Judah is being held accountable for the war and for the defeat. One might easily think that God wanted this war to happen and wanted Judah to be defeated. Our story contains at two places an important nuance which is to be found at other places in Scripture: twice it is said that this war happened because "God has let Judah suffer at the hand of its enemies". One gets the impression that Judah hasn't been under God's protection any more, that Judah had to bear the consequences of its disobedience. God has not prevented these consequences from happening through some magic device. God has allowed this war to happen but this does not free Israel from its responsibility. Israel has not been allowed to assassinate and turn its enemies into slavery. Israel is being held accountable for its deeds just as Judah is. If the Bible says that there must be wars it is not in any way fatalistic and it is not to say that God wants it that way. It just means: the world is that way. People run to their own loss. That is the reality of war, a reality that reaches to heaven - today more than ever.

But the wonderful thing about this story is that it shows in the words of the prophet Oded what God really wants. It shows the way out of the deadlock. Oded puts his finger on the evil that is happening but he also  gives recommendations as to what the will of God really is:

What is the will of God ?

Prophet Oded says in the name of God: "send the prisoners back". And exceptionally a prophet is heard and the prisoners are not only liberated but they get food and drink, they are clothed and receive medical care. Special attention is given to the weakest. In the end they are brought back home. That is the will of God. Not war, but all these signs of compassion and mercy.

Let us come back to the question we asked at the beginning of this meditation: who are our kinsmen ? Indeed there might be a pitfall in this story: its seems to be saying: Israel, watch out, those people you are taking into bondage are your own kinsmen! Judah and Israel had been 2 states for decades as the story happened but before that, they have been one kingdom, one people... It might well be that the prophet is only saying here: beware, you are taking your own kin into bondage and not your enemies. This would reduce the scope and the impact of the story and weaken its message, because it would then mean: be good to your former friends, do not treat them as enemies. It would be OK to take enemies into bondage, but not your own flesh and blood.

Now, if we turn to the New Testament and read the story of the good Samaritan, we discover how Jesus revisited this story and how doing so he blurred completely the differentiation between kin and enemy. Reading Luke 10 we find in this well known parable many parallels to our passage in 2 Chronicles 28. It is especially striking if you look at the last verse of our text. The Jewish tradition calls such a story that picks up an older one and tries to show its deeper meaning a Midrash. The story of the good Samaritan is very probably such a Midrash. The Samaritan who belongs to a people that the Jews hated in the time of Jesus is the only person in Luke 10 who behaved as a "kinsman" or relative or neighbour or brother  as he found the wounded man on the roadside. In pointing at this, Jesus abolished the  walls of separation that people raise between kinsmen and foreigners and even those raised between friends and enemies. Jesus overcomes all barriers raised between people.

We might be happy to see Europe become a political reality but the Gospel offers us here an even wider horizon. The Love of God is available to all people without exception and this means that the idea of being a kinsman or not is abolished in Jesus. We might want to formulate this first lesson out of the story we read today and out of its interpretation through Jesus as a prayer:

Dear God, stretch our hearts and our minds beyond the horizon of our family, our Church, our country and even the European Union, as great at it is, to see more and more countries join in !

The second lesson has to do with the ideologies which come and go. I'm thinking here about the ideology that tries to make us believe that it is possible to divide the world between the good guys and the bad guys. War and terrorism devastate our world in the name of this ideology. A spirit of self satisfaction reigns over nations and individuals, suggesting that the others are always the wicked one, the others are guilty.

This story is a warning against self satisfaction. A people's guilt is not a license to kill them. Even if some on both sides of the divide try to make us believe that they are acting in the name of God, the God of the Bible is not such a God. We should not put the burden of guilt on others - neither in small nor in big conflicts. We have to learn to be critical about ourselves. Here too we are called to widen our horizon. It is indeed so easy to be appalled about how cruel people can be with each other way over there ( in Africa for instance) and not to see the mechanisms that rule over relationships here, and not to see that our own countries have supplied the means of committing atrocities. It is so easy not to see that poverty there has some of its root causes here. In this area as well we may want to pray :

God open our eyes so that we may see our own guilt and may live as responsible persons and as a responsible Church.

The third lesson of this story is a most practical one:  We have seen what God does not want and what he wants. God does not want wars. This is a disturbing and motivating thought. If we think that God wants war or that wars are just inevitable, it is easy to abdicate and to just feel powerless as we witness events that just overwhelm us. If we dare say that war is not the will of God, that it is not a fatality, then we have to stand up and get involved.

What is to be done is summarized in a few words by the prophet in our story: "send the captives back".

Many situations come to my mind when I hear this sentence : I think of the kind of work CPT has been doing in Iraq, raising awareness about the plight of prisoners there, I am thinking of the refugees that come to our European countries, I am thinking of the people who have disappeared in Bosnia and Columbia. I am thinking about the many many people who live in tents in Northern Iraq in Eritrea and in Chechnya. What does this "sending back" mean ?
It is something very practical: to clothe them, to give them food and drink, to bind the wounds, to take care of the weakest and to bring them home... The good news is: There is enough in the booty for everybody to be comforted. That is the will of God. In Luke 10 the very same deeds are summarized with the word "mercy" which comes from the Hebrew word Rachamim which means the uterus, the womb. Such is the will of God. Of the God who loves humanity as a mother loves her child. We may also formulate this last teaching as a prayer:

Jesus Christ, you have demonstrated God's love in dying on the cross and God in his mercy has raised you from the Dead. Help us do what mercy requires

The story of 2. Chronicles 28 helps us to rethink our thought-patterns about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, about what God wants  and what he rejects. Jesus’ revisiting of this story shows that the word "kinsman" does not make much sense except if it means that we should behave as kinsmen, as neighbours towards each and every human being, whatever his or her origin.

God's will is compassion. He needs us, his Church, for his compassion to become visible : he needs people like Oded who raise their voices and say "send the prisoners back".  People who open the eyes of their generation, who point to problems and show God's solutions to escape the deadlock. He also needs people who do the will of God very practically, those who actually take care of the prisoners in order for them to experience liberation. God needs his Church to be a Peace Church. She should be a prophet and a deacon who show the way of God's mercy. This is the message Church and Peace tries to convey with its members in today’s Europe.