Back in the late 1990s shortly after I published a little book called Remember Creation, I was invited to give five morning lectures on creation stewardship at a Christian Bible camp north of Seattle. As I prepared for that event, it occurred to me that since the people running that camp had been so kind as to invite me, I owed it to them and to the folks who would attend my lectures to make my talks very practical. In order to tailor my thoughts to that setting, I did some research on things like deforestation in the Pacific Northwest and salmon population in Washington State and British Columbia. The logging and fishing industries were big up there so that would give hands-on context to my celebrating of God’s creation and calling for its preservation. Caring for God’s physical creation is an act of Christian discipleship, I wanted to say, and so here are some local ideas of how that might go.
Dumbest thing I ever decided.
Well, maybe not “dumb” per se but it definitely made my life more difficult that week. Had I stuck to talking about Brazilian rain forests or the decimation of African elephants through illegal traders in ivory, things would have gone much better. But the moment I mentioned logging, clear-cutting, over-fishing and other close-to-home issues . . . well, everyone had an opinion and very few thought it was a good idea that I as an outsider even dare to make suggestions on sustainability and preservation on these issues. People in the logging industry could cut as many trees as they needed and fishermen could catch as many salmon as they needed. These folks had to make a living, put food on the table for hungry children. Government regulations just threatened livelihoods, and surely even God could not be against honest working people doing what they had to do in order to get by.
I was reminded of that last week when I attended a book discussion for a fine new book by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson titled The Justice Calling. At one point in the conversation with the authors, they mentioned their own struggles in writing the book to include justice-related issues that were not just far away (like human trafficking in Asia or Africa) but more domestic situations, too. Those of us in on this discussion noted, though, that the dynamic changes immediately when the conversation shifts from the global to the local. Few would disagree that the spectacle of 9-year-old sex slaves in Thailand represents an atrocity we cannot let stand. But start to talk about how your own city’s police force may treat African Americans and . . . everybody has an opinion and mostly those opinions tend to sweep the issue aside.
As I read this new book, I was also reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, and toggling back and forth between the two volumes was a curious experience. Brueggemann says that prophetic preaching calls people away from the dominant social order that exists all around us–dominated by government, politics, militarism, consumerism–and invites them to imagine a new world, which is actually the truest world, in which God in Christ is Lord and King. Turning away from the nation state in order to embrace the Kingdom of God will, of course, involve recognizing what is wrong with the current order of things and this, in turn, will mean being capable of critiquing injustice and a lack of love among us and our neighbors. But, Brueggemann notes, that’s just where it gets tricky for preachers. Just ask the average preacher for his or her list of topics people won’t abide hearing about in sermons and you may find it matches pretty closely the list of the most pressing local issues of justice and fairness.
Probably this reflects our reflexive–albeit nevertheless still sinful–predilection to never want to see ourselves as a party to unfairness even as it taps our deep down desire not to have to change our ways. The global speck of dust in our brother’s eye 6,000 miles away is still far more discernible for most of us than the local lodge pole pine protruding from our own faces. We know changes need to be made in this world of ours but let them come somewhere else. My own turf is here for the protecting.
Yet in this Season of Lent, that just cannot remain my bottom line or any of our bottom lines. We do not follow Jesus to the Place of the Skull these Lenten days and nights to watch him solve someone else’s problem with sin and evil and injustice. The problem is mine, yours, ours. It is not someone else’s racism, environmental wastefulness, selfishness, or over-indulgence Jesus needs to address and heal but our own.
Until and unless we can let our preachers talk about the stuff on the “Don’t Talk About It” list, the Spirit cannot speak to us what we need to hear.