Deliberations and Resources on Radical Christianity

Brave New World…

As the ancient chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.” Unfortunately for us, we do. We as a human race – nay, as a world, are at the precipice of what history may come to realise as a great destabilisation.

By 2050, it is estimated that the global population will be increased to 9 billion, about 28% greater than it is in 2009. [1] By that time frame likewise, the effects of climate change, which are already causing extremes of weather at both ends of the spectrum, will likely displace 1 billion people across the world due to water shortages, crop failures, and rising sea levels. [2]

If, even after such alarming projections, the future seems far off, we are already currently witnessing the firstfruits of catastrophe. Peak oil production appears worryingly near, [3] with few mainstream acknowldgements even of the fact that oil itself, the literal fuel of our entire globalised economy, is a non-renewable energy resource and therefore definitively bound to run dry. The universalised recession we now experience was itself directly preceded with the worldwide grain shortage which hit in 2007-08 with record proportions. [4] Yet, in the midst of all this shocking news, recent projections indicated that the human population (and largely the developed nations) are consuming the energy required by 1.4 earths. That’s 40% than we can even manage on a maximal level, never mind a sustainable one! [5]

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the threats to non-human animals either, with extinction rates currently endangering an approximate third of known animals and 70% of known plants. This is not to be taken lightly.[6]

trinityThe likely culprit within these circumstances could very easily be named as consumerism; the ever-increasing public need to demand more luxurious forms of living which sacrifice environment for the sake of comfort. One doesn’t need huge leaps of logic to be able to understand that consumption and waste are directly connected, with global problems of energy demand and carbon emissions correlated with our collective human behaviour. If we are to address the current global crises of climate change, peak oil, and energy consumption, we must necessarily address our own individual lifestyle choices.

While those must be addressed, however, there is now widespread recognition that effective changes must come structurally as well as socially. Or, in layperson’s terms, there needs to be political change in government as well as in society. The recent Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 instilled much public anxiety, expectancy, and yes – even hope, that an understanding would be reached from those with enough responsibility and power to be able to address the climate crisis. The whole event, however, ended in grave disappointment, with not nearly enough policy commitment being made to meet carbon reduction targets. [7]

In particular, this recent state of affairs should highlight that the problem goes even deeper than matters of consumption and consumerism. What we face, while presenting new challenges in a new technological age, is actually a very ancient problem: that of civilisation itself. Historically, systems of heavily-centralised power (termed “empires,” which is how we shall refer to them here) have been proven by mere observation to be unsustainable entities. It is a sad but inevitable characteristic of empire that it upholds itself through exploitation and the purging of all available resources through trade and commodification. Just as empires such as that of the Romans and the British functioned through militarism, colonialism and slavery, so too our multi-faceted and globalised empire of capitalism functions through cheap (sweatshop) labour, depending upon cycles of poverty for production communities in the developing world and using systematic warfare to control and maintain the ongoing salvage of oil. If the aforementioned projections (and more aside) are anything to go by, it would appear that the very system of industry which keeps the wheels of empire running is steadily undoing itself. This, of course, has been a consistent conclusion of point of empires throughout history: sooner or later, they fall not through intervention, but rather because of the consequences of their own mindless reaping.

To root this in a Biblical context, the functioning of empire seems to happen through what theologian Walter Brueggemann refers to as “rapacious economics,” specifically in his treatment of the Exodus narrative where Egypt’s Pharoah enslaves the entire Hebrew people. It becomes a pathology of power, where the ruling elite of any such system come to see other people not as individuals, but as numbers and trading commodities which can be used to further their own self-interests. Correspondingly, there is also a grand disconnect from nature/the ecosystem, whereby natural resources are no longer seen as the gifts of the earth but instead become termed as “produce” which can be privatised, bought, and sold. We lose the relationships we once had with our non-human animal neighbours, who consequently become “livestock” that we can better think of as being objects, instead of beings, who can be appropriately processed through the abhorrent and horrendously carbon-intensive factory farming industry.

trinityThe first two chapters of Genesis stand as a timeless critique against the ideology of empire and the “civilisation” upon which it founds itself. In Eden, humanity – personified as Adam and Eve – enjoy what we now describe as an egalitarian relationship, partners made in the Image of God whose function it is to steward creation, not reap it. In fact, the oft-misunderstood word “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 had far more to do with humanity’s role as servants of creation rather than their despotic rulers. Additionally, within this narrative, Adam and Eve enjoyed a vegetarian diet as did all of the non-human animals present with them! The creation myth presents us with a vision of shalom, perfect wholeness, completeness, and relationship between God, humanity, and creation. All life coexists, and all food is accepted as the gifts of God provided through the earth, given freely all but for humanity’s responsibility of stewarding creation through “tilling the ground.”

As many of us are familiar with, however, this original vision changes upon “the fall,” where Adam and Eve’s sin through eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (and thereby disobeying God) disrupts their relationship with God and creation. It is only after this event that animals are commodified for the use of their skin and food, and that Adam’s responsibilities turn to hardship against the “thorns and thistles” of the land. Also interesting to note is that the equality between Adam and Eve (therefore humanity’s relationship with one another) is also disrupted, and the introduction of patriarchy – the ruling of man over woman – comes in Genesis 3:16 as a result of their sin.

I personally do not suggest that the creation narrative is a literal-historical account. Nonetheless, as a Christian I believe it has profound theological truth and tells us much of what the original authors believes the world ought to be, in tension with how it actually is at present. When held up against history, it’s amazing how well the narrative emulates the emergence of civilisation itself, where our hunter-gather ancestors moved into systems of agriculture, the domestication of non-human animals, and patriarchal control. [8] Thus were laid the foundations for what we now know as empire.

I’m aware it can be all too easy, when discussing important matters such as these, to adopt an “end is nigh” rhetoric and become seen as little more than a cynical doomsayer, which is a top reason for criticism of the environmental movement. For one, I would say that it is necessary to speak against human ills whenever they occur, and certainly as Christians we should never be complacent when we live in that tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. In order to be prophetic, we must take a stand against what is wrong, evil, harmful, and destructive. If that means pointing out that the system of empire is satanic, then it must be done.

However, further from that point, we must also be very careful not to end with prophetic condemnation. God’s final word is always “yes,” and whatever “no” comes prior is not said for its own sake but always for sake of the “yes” which follows. To speak out for the wellbeing of our environment, and against the unsustainability of civilisation, carries much optimism and hope with it. We need to learn to frame our talk in terms of restoration and relationship. While we are against what is evil, we are also for that which is good, and in this case what is good is humanity’s relationship with God, with the natural environment, with the gifts of God through the earth, with plant life and non-human animals, and of course with each other. We are to put ourselves to the work which has been set forth in Christ, who by His death and resurrection, is bringing about the total restoration and reordering of all things and all relationships.

We are, however, inevitably brought to at least two questions: what does the future hold, and what work should we be committing ourselves to? On the first, it really does seem anyone’s guess. Things do seem bleak, but that concern should necessarily feed and energise the second question. It is foreseeable that humanity will continue progressing technologically and find ways to combat the destruction we have wrought upon the earth and amongst each other, to ultimately survive as a species. On the other hand, it is also foreseeable that we are moving into a less technologically developed age, where the depleted resources of oil will be replaced by wind, water, and solar energy, which will be much less efficient than oil presently is. Humanity will probably have to learn to return to a more localised and less centralised existence due to a lack of technology and fuel. If I were to be asked for my own naive opinion, I do think it could go either way. If I am honest, however, what I hope for is the latter, since we need to learn hard lessons from the history of which we are becoming part. I, as much as anyone else, need to learn to cease clinging to the luxuries and conveniences this present (decaying) age affords.

As to the second question… Certainly, as earlier mentioned, all people need to continually review and amend their own lifestyle choices, which of course comes more easily for some than others. We aspire to recycle, use less, consume less energy, only buy what we need, and live in relative simplicity. We can also learn to buy our clothes and goods second-hand, to make use of others’ waste and recycling.

As Christians, I feel the time has come for us to step in faith and go an extra mile. Biblically, we have always been called to a communitarian life of radical simplicity. Consider the early Christian community in Acts 4:32-35, for example, where none of them had any possessions of their own and instead shared all they had with one another. The church should always be endeavouring to explore this way of living, but in present circumstances, our calling to Gospel love has never been more pertinent than now. I would encourage Christians not only to continually pursue holiness through simplicity and lifestyle, but also furthering their witness by joining in lobbies and campaigns calling upon government to address the damage they have either caused, exacerbated, or failed to acknowledge. It is essential to prophetically engage with the systems as they are, even as they are wicked entities who are rapidly decaying by their own hand. Further from this, however, Christians stand as witnesses to our faith that God is the creator of all, and that his gifts through nature are to be cherished rather than abused. We should be faithful to this great calling through loving each others, and loving all people. If we have a Gospel commitment to nonviolence, it means far more than simply condemning warfare, but also getting to the very roots of violence present in the unstable relationships of empire and civilisation, and seeking to live out a radically alternative example in the face of such devastation.

If God in Christ is reordering our relationships through the cross, then we must be energised by His cross, faithful to the work that He has put us to, and seeking community and simplicity in all aspects of our living. Then, regardless of the future, the church will remain as that subversive community of people, witnesses to the work He has done, and is indeed continually doing.



3 responses

  1. Just discovered this buried under a pile of other saved posts on my RSS reader. I really enjoyed reading it, I think it has a lot to say. Have you offered it to Howard, the editor of Movement?

    February 11, 2010 at 10:05 pm

  2. Pingback: Stuff what I’ve been reading « Graham’s Grumbles

  3. Amy

    Hey Adam, just stumbled across your blog while looking for something else online. Funny how you often find what you need, when you need it, reading this reminded me again of the meaning of being a Christian and encouraged me no end on a rather bleak day. Thanks!

    April 17, 2010 at 8:10 pm

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