Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Where Is the Easter Hope?

My wife Sharon and I were distressed recently to learn that a 12-year-old son of a leader of the Christian campus ministry I was a part of in college two decades ago is fighting for his life. Ian is battling cancer—and, sadly, Sharon and I know quite a few other people with life-threatening health difficulties these days. One of them, Ed, a very active lay leader with the local Fellowship of Christian Atheletes (FCA) ministry for several decades, is battling leukemia. (Sharon, a teacher, is one of two faculty sponsers of her high school's FCA chapter.) While both Ian and Ed struggle with their respective illnesses, they take hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—the central message of Easter.

It's partly with Ian and Ed in mind that I respond to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's Easter message. If you're looking for a ringing affirmation of that central message of Easter, you'll be extremely disappointed. She only mentions the resurrection once, in the opening paragraph. Instead, she focuses on environmentalism, a topic that she repeatedly has proven concerned about in her nearly year-and-a-half tenure as presiding bishop.

Jefferts Schori uses the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of bringing up "the new life" that Christians live, and the importance of living "for other creatures." She then turns to the subject of how both Judaism and Christianity have been "blame[d] for much of the current environmental crisis." Lest anyone doubt whether she (at least in general) agrees with the critics, she immediately charges that Jews and Christians have historically misinterpreted and misapplied Genesis 1:28. The presiding bishop argues that "[o]ur forebears were so eager to distinguish their faith from the surrounding Canaanite religion and its concern for fertility that some of them worked overtime to separate us from an awareness of 'the hand of God in the world about us,' especially in a reverence for creation."

This statement may give readers a false impression: Did some of "our forebears" really want to keep people from caring for the Earth? Yes, the Israelites certainly worked (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to not only "distinguish" but separate themselves from Canaanite religious practices out of obedience to God, as evidenced throughout the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament. Such separation, however, is not the same thing as "work[ing] overtime" to prevent caring for the Earth. It's hard to read the Old Testament without seeing "an awareness of 'the hand of God in the world about us'" in many different ways!

The presiding bishop goes on to lament that the Episcopal Church's baptismal covenant was written too early to include a promise by Christians to care for the Earth. She then lists ways in which she believes the environment is being harmed: pollution, garbage, and cow methane that supposedly results in global warming that in turn causes floodwaters in the South Pacific. She asks that given such global warming, "are we truly sharing good news?"

And there's the rub. While Jefferts Schori may have provided herself an out by not saying "the good news," it's difficult to see "good news" as referring to anything except the Christian gospel. But the Christian gospel is not one of stopping global warming. Where in Jefferts Schori's Easter message is the understanding of the gospel as bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ and helping them grow as disciples? Where is the sense that the gospel offers hope beyond—and not limited by—perceived global crises of the day? The gospel is not handcuffed or bound by any crisis, but by God's grace speaks powerfully to the human heart in the midst of any situation.

And so where is the hope for Ian and Ed in the presiding bishop's Easter message? Jefferts Schori seemingly has bound the gospel to humanity's response to global warming, and that is a travesty. While she said at the Episcopal Urban Caucus' 2007 assembly that it is wrong to set evangelism and social action against each other, she now has written an Easter message that limits the message of the gospel by a perceived lack of one possible Christian response to the gospel. The gospel itself, however, can not only give hope to people like Ian and Ed, but to people all over the world in any circumstance of life—whether they live in plenty or want, and whether they live in relative security or struggle for survival against hostile elements.

Yes, Christians are responsible to be loving, wise stewards of the Earth over which God has appointed them as caretakers, guardians, and (rightly understood) rulers.* And Christians cannot love God without serving others, a point that Jefferts Schori makes throughout her message. But the "good news" of the gospel, and of Easter, would never be that we are consuming fewer hamburgers, thereby enabling people in the South Pacific to live with less fear of floodwaters. Rather, it is the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. That resurrection shows him to be the savior of humanity, which is desperately in need of reconciliation with God. Without that reconciliation, and the lordship of Christ over all things in heaven and on earth, it would be impossible for any human being to be a faithful steward of the environment, and a servant of the people, for which Bishop Jefferts Schori is so concerned.

*The term "rule" or "dominion" in Genesis 1 should not be casually dismissed. The meaning of it and reasons for its importance are discussed in the IRD's forthcoming Mount Nebo paper, "What Is the Most Important Environmental Task Facing Christians Today?" by Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. More details soon will be available on the IRD's website.

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