The Great Economy

Good morning.

I love science.

I love learning about botany and zoology and habitat and I take care to observe plant and animal life on trail walks near my home. While walking the Walter Bean trail a few days ago, I was thrilled to watch an osprey noshing on a fish high up on tree branch, the fish freshly plucked from the Grand River, its tail hanging over the branch.

I enjoy learning about the sun, stars and planets and I can’t wait to watch the Perseid meteor showers at the University of Waterloo fields tomorrow night.

I thrill to the knowledge that “chemically speaking, the only difference between us and the trees or rocks or chickens is the way in which our elements are arranged.” We are all made out of the same stuff – largely oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen.1 I am amazed by the universe and awed by the Creator.

I love the scientific method, the work of trying to prove or disprove a hypothesis. I was never a good maths and sciences student, but throughout my life, I loved discovering what science could explain about the created world. Also, years of developing and critiquing public policy on social and ecological justice issues have led to a deep appreciation for evidence-based approaches to policy development.

As people around the world confront the reality of the climate crisis, we are handily using terms such as 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a unit of measure that shows us how close we are to thresholds that may prove to be catastrophic in our environment. Knowledge of emissions sources and levels are becoming more popularly known. The science helps us to assess our current situation to protect this Earth our island home, and to take steps to respond to the reality revealed by the data.

At the same time, science doesn’t account for everything. We, our faith and life, are much more complex than science can ever satisfactorily explain.

The ancient Greeks and then later Copernicus in the 1400s, put forward the idea that the Sun, not the Earth, is the centre of the universe. This challenged the Church’s understanding of life being moved by a divine Mover. As Galileo, “the father of the scientific method” and others began to describe life using mathematical logic, and the laws of inertia and mobility, the Church attempted to resolve the problem by creating two tests of truth – one for “nature” and the other for “culture.”2 All kinds of societal changes flowed from this massive shift in understanding the relationships between God, humanity and the Earth and frame our understanding of life to this day.

As Christians living in 2019, we are positioned between our origin story as revealed in the Scriptures and modeled by Jesus, and our inheritance of a scientific method that has revolutionized our world. The ways in which we balance our understanding of faith and science evolve all the time. Yet, we trust that a study of these Scriptures will offer us wisdom and hope in our current predicament.

Let’s turn to the reading from Isaiah, the first chapter.

In the year of King Uzziah’s death -- 741 BCE – Isaiah prophesied during a stormy time when the Assyrian empire was expanding and Israel was declining. He foresaw a vision of Jerusalem’s eventual exile to Babylon followed by its restoration. Isaiah also prophesized the coming of the Messiah, 700 years later.  He was the most literary of all the Hebrew prophets expressing himself in poetry and prose, “a prince of prophets.”

The Hebrew people of Isaiah’s time -- who lived in the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah -- were embedded in a worldview that held a unified understanding of the relationship of God, people and land.

The people had experienced the blessing and the curse of agriculture, a most ancient sphere of activity that places the relationship of God, people and land in sharp relief.

Blessing came with the provision of adequate rains and food to sustain the people in Canaan, a place not watered by large rivers like the Nile, the Euphrates or the Tigris. However, the curse of agriculture was reflected in its ability to sustain powerful kings and empires who had access to large rivers in Egypt and Babylon and whose military and political interests clashed with their peasant farmer interests.

In the time of Moses and the giving of the Law, agriculture was transformed by a cosmic covenant between God, the Hebrew people, and the earth in which the land and its peasant farmers and its species all had rights, all had to do justice, and all were purified by abstaining from work, and so honouring God, with the sacrifice and restoration of the Sabbath.3

Their agrarian practices included tithing the fruit of the land to God; leaving enough for the poor to collect from the gleaned wheat and other grains; a weekly Sabbath observance and a 50-year Jubilee practice that Yahweh directed and that would allow the land to be restored, rebalanced and redistributed equitably among the people.

All of these practices were in contrast to the agrarian practices of the empires that surrounded Israel. As writer Michael Northcott observes: the Torah – the law of Moses -- is…profoundly “anti-Egyptian.” Every Hebrew household would possess an equal portion of the land that God gave in order to create a new non-hierarchical and post-slavery agrarianism that opposed the Egyptian view that kings alone could commune with the gods and act in their image.

Thus, for the Isaiah’s audience, the memory of Egypt was ever-present but so was the clear and present danger of being overtaken and exiled by the Assyrians at the time of his prophesying.

Isaiah speaks the word of God into this context. It is a word of judgment. God abhors the multitude of animal sacrifices, the solemn assemblies, the prayers because the peoples’ hands are full of blood. Isaiah’s call is for the people to move away from doing evil and return to the covenant call to “do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (verse 17).

Because of the deep relationships of God, people and land, we hear that God invites them into dialogue, an opportunity to explain themselves. “Come now, let us argue it out” says the New Revised Standard Version, or “Come, let us reason together”, an invitation that is somehow more evocative to my ears. “Come, let us reason together” -- a tender, conciliatory and parental invitation, and an opportunity for grace.

However, the covenant that held God, people, and land together had been broken and the people were responsible for no longer adhering to the spirit of the Law as characterized by willingness and obedience to God; nor the letter of the law – seeking justice, defending the oppressed and marginalized. Eventual exile to Babylon results.

Let us now turn to our gospel reading for today – Luke 12: 32 – 40, in which we arrive at a time in the ministry of Jesus about 700 years after the time of Isaiah.

The people of God in the time of Christ were often hungry. The people Jesus lived with and encountered in his ministry were losing their lands to urban elites as a result of the imperial burden of taxation. These taxes were imposed by the Jewish authorities who acted as proxy rulers of the Roman empire. Consequently, the disenfranchised Jewish community ceased to be full members of the people of Israel while also being enslaved as workers, debt-holders, and facing life-threatening hunger and poverty.

Think of our gospel readings from Luke in this season of Pentecost – the feeding of the five thousand (ch 9), the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage (ch 9), not to mention the judgement calls against unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida (ch 10). Life in Jesus’ time was nasty, brutish and short.

Christ’s acts of healing, and his moral and political teachings therefore challenged the Jewish religion and the social and political arrangements that rendered the people of God landless and enslaved.

Into the desperation of Christ’s listeners, comes this tender word: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” What unanticipated comfort mixed with discombobulation those words may have provoked in his listeners who were mostly poor and oppressed!

Furthermore, Jesus says: “Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out. …For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” Jesus was aware that among the poor and humble folk who followed him, were those in the political system who were keeping tabs on him and seeking an opportunity to arrest him for speaking out against the empire.

Jesus’ references to watchful slaves would have resonated with listeners who were carrying impossible debts. Yet, it may be that Jesus was already planting seeds for his early followers to envision a Great Economy4 that is the only treasure of actual value – an economy in which all share with equity, in which the land is cared for, and in which God is worshipped.

When the early Christians broke bread and distributed it equitably to all who were present, they became a political body in which every member had equal standing and whose head was Christ.

At the same time, they rejected the claim that Caesar was Lord or that they needed to rely on Roman bread for their sustenance; they were sustained by the bread which had ‘come down from heaven’ and not up from Rome.

The eucharist was the supreme cosmopolitical act of the early Church, in which heaven and earth are reconciled, empires cast down, and princes dethroned. At the eucharist, slaves ate with free citizens, (and) masters with their servants...”5

As we fast forward to our day and the climate catastrophe already underway, how might our Scripture readings for today inform our thoughts and actions? I offer a few thoughts.

First, we must recover a sense of the Great Economy that contains within it a divine commonwealth6 of God, people and land. This Great Economy works according to several principles:

the whole creation is abundant and provides more than enough for all if all live according to their needs

the whole creation is a web of life – affect one part, and other parts are affected.

Because our worldview has been shaped by centuries of ideas of scarcity and the separation between God, people and land, these life-destroying ideas have become embedded institutionally and globally – including in the church.

All the while, the parts per million (ppm) of all greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and destabilize the atmosphere, the waters, and the land. Empires and a global capitalist system with powerful corporate actors violently and systemically destroy those who resist their power. And yet, in the midst of this we begin to see a dismantling of systems and a turning of sorts.

A time of turning, revolution even, brings both life-affirming and life-destroying power. It can be a fearful time and a hopeful time.

More concretely –

We wonder: has God abandoned us to the prospect of a sixth mass extinction of life in Earth’s history? Has the voice of God departed in judgment of our willful and destructive ways, or, can we still acknowledge a loving God who waits for us to come and reason together? Is God still the divine Mover of the universe or do we sense a God who is in exile in our age?

We cringe: how is it possible that some of our cherished elements of democratic liberalism such as rule of law are under threat from nativist and populist movements and leaders, including in Canada?

And, is the conflict between corporate and governing empires, and the health of the planet, people and species now at an ultimate stand-off? In these desperate times, what will prevail…?

As we have seen earlier, Jewish and Christian worldviews resist the power of empire with the subversive messianic challenge of love of neighbour and deep respect for the mutual interdependence of the whole web of life.

Today, this worldview – irrespective of the explicit religious claims of its adherents – can be found in the growth of dissenting citizens, communities and networks of individuals, households, and businesses who are challenging the claims of corporate and political influencers who ignore the science and continue to pursue profit and power.

Hopeful signs of a Great Economy include the springing up of locally crafted, self-sufficient, inclusive and post-fossil fuel economy communities generated by movements such as the Transition Movement in the UK.

We know of such budding signs in Waterloo Region – not perfect but moving in a good direction.

Christians have joined or led activities to bring about this new Great Economy through:

calling for municipal declarations of climate emergencies

participating with young activists in Friday climate strikes

supporting the All Nations Grand River Water Walk and other Indigenous water and land defenders

innovating zero carbon emissions buildings

practising low tillage agriculture and sustainable agriculture

welcoming newcomers who have fled untenable situations often due to climate and conflict as root causes

divesting church and household investments from fossil fuel funds

resisting governmental policy attempts to unravel conservation efforts of the past 40 years or expand pipelines.

Psalm 95 declares, For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In God’s hands are the depths of the earth; The heights of the mountains are also God’s. We must work to keep these fossil fuels in the depths of the earth and reduce the threat their extraction and combustion poses to the web of life.

The climate crisis and our relationship with our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – perhaps seemingly shaky from our end -- invite us to keep the faith. In the words of the Apostle Paul to the faithful in Thessalonika: “…stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you have received by word…” … and in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to find consolation and hope through grace.

(Thessalonians 2: 15-16)

The Great Economy is our origin story in the faith; it remains our story until the end of the ages.