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Ideology, Ecology and Bonhoeffer
By Willis Jenkins
70 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched as his government was captured by an ideology of violence, aided by a Christian constituency which closely tied its religious commitments to its cultural identity. It was a very different era, known by worse hatreds, but Bonhoeffer's response is still relevant for Christians speaking in counter-witness against the present capture of “religious values” by violent ideologies.
Bonhoeffer did two things: he called Christians into a community of uncompromised faithfulness to Christ, while at the same time he worked with a surprising coalition of resistance. Bonhoeffer preached the Gospel of Christ, trusting that if Christ's call were actually heard, it would dislodge religion from governmental ideology, faith from absolutist politics. Against the everyday powers of destruction, Bonhoeffer sought cooperation with anyone who worked to “put a cog in the wheel” of oppression.
Watching today a U.S. administration that seems as bellicose in stewarding its own lands as belligerent in invading others, claiming its mandate for both with the support of many evangelicals, we progressive Christians can be doubly disheartened, as our vocabulary of faith is bent in support of destructive politics. It is difficult for churches to “wage reconciliation” when Christianity seems to many a divisive scourge, or at least the constituency underwriting what scourges. So what do we do?
Like the minority Confessing Church of Germany . . . we can cooperate everywhere possible with those still working for peace with earth, moving toward reconciliation, recognizing that the hope of Christ's community is very often (sometimes more often) glimpsed outside those who claim it.
Like the minority Confessing Church of Germany, we can do two things: first, we can re-gather ourselves into communities that know the name of Christ as peace, still hear God's call for reconciliation, and are unmoved by fear-mongering. Second, we can cooperate everywhere possible with those still working for peace with earth, moving toward reconciliation, recognizing that the hope of Christ's community is very often (sometimes more often) glimpsed outside those who claim it.
And sometimes – this may be harder – we can cooperate with those who do claim it, but in ways we think distorted. Bonhoeffer's words consistently try to hold out the freedom of a restless faith, a call to reconciliation burning through cultural and religious identities. Freed from ourselves, from any other identity than the one we know in Christian community, we are freed to enter the world's suffering and work in any way possible for its healing. That might mean refusing to be overdetermined by political commitments, conscientiously objecting to trench duty in a culture war, while yet insisting on the real significance of the matters at stake.
So let's learn about those religious values of the evangelical Right. If the environment comes into consideration only as a matter of personal stewardship, of individual responsibility, as one part of the “purpose-driven life” – okay, let's talk about it. What purposes drive our overconsumption, our disregard for threatened species? Are those the purposes of God? How does exurban sprawl relate to the land responsibilities of the covenant? What does stewardship mean in an era of global warming?
The “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign has perhaps most visibly brought the presence of an evangelical environmental stewardship ethic to public attention. It is quite serious, inviting Christians to let Jesus Christ “be Lord of our transportation choices.” But there's more: for decades, a committed network of evangelicals has been developing hands-on training in environmental restoration and conservation biology as practices included in the way of following Jesus. (How many parishes do you know where the stewardship drive includes replanting native species?) On Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, evangelicals mediated a hopeless dispute between “liberal environmentalists” and “conservative watermen,” resulting in commitment to a new stewardship covenant. In Belize, they have purchased and set aside rainforest, calling it “preserving Eden.” This same network of earthkeeping evangelicals is widely credited with saving the Endangered Species Act from the 1994 Republican assault of Newt Gingrich's Congress. Calling it the “Noah's ark of our day,” they brought home to many conservatives the responsibility God has entrusted to humanity, and the covenant God has made with “all flesh.”
[W]e must do better than draw lines in the tundra around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and hunker down for a renewed skirmish between the red and the blue. From within a Christian community, we can proclaim ANWR as Christ's already, made through the Word, and we can show that growing into relationship with God means growing into a sense of God's joy in creating such places.
If we are to weather the coming assault, it is apparent that environmental issues must again be seen as matters of faithful discipleship. So we must do better than draw lines in the tundra around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and hunker down for a renewed skirmish between the red and the blue. From within a Christian community, we can proclaim ANWR as Christ's already, made through the Word, and we can show that growing into relationship with God means growing into a sense of God's joy in creating such places. As the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska has been doing, we can continue to hold up indigenous Gwich'in voices as stewards of the land, faithful ones of God's covenant. And as native voices all around the Arctic Circle sound alarm at their rapidly warming geography, we can show how the issue of ANWR opens out to unavoidable responsibilities for the whole earth. If you believe this place, this planet, is a trust of God, what will you make of it?
In other words, we cannot let ANWR and the Endangered Species Act become icons of our cultural identities. Rather, we must be able to show the conservative Right how they are occasions in which God is calling his people to renewed faithfulness. To those advocating for a “culture of life,” we must not fear to say that in matters of stewardship there is clearly set before us a way of death and a way of life.
So we can do two things. We can call the cultural Right to encounter anew the name of Jesus. Jim Wallis of Sojourners has been reminding the Christian Left for years that we cannot abandon preaching Jesus in irritation that his name has been claimed by the Right. Rather we must proclaim his words still more clearly, that once again the miracle of faith may unsettle political binds and speak peace to haunting fears. For inevitably, if we truly encounter the one through whom all things are created, the one in whom all things are already reconciled, our desperate patterns of life will change.
And secondly, we can work to put a cog in the wheel with all those who already glimpse the way of the reconciled world. We may discover, as Bonhoeffer did, that these people are often found outside the church, and so come to know anew where the broken body of Christ is being resurrected.
Willis Jenkins is a member of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on World Mission, and was a cofounder of the church's international Young Adult Service Corps. His international ministry has been concentrated in Uganda and Kenya, and he currently lives in Charlottesville, Va. Willis may be reached by email at email@example.com.