A fantastic new book

In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on innocent bystanders, often his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.

Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.

If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”the day the rev began pic

Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.

For Example (Wendell Berry on our economy’s effect in human communities)

Last time I remarked that Wendell Berry’s agrarian philosophy is congruent with the Trump administration’s re-focus of economy here in America. For example –

“…The attitudes of the industrial economy…” writes Wendell Berry, “have taken their toll…. the news from everywhere in rural America… bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation, chemical pollution, the loss of genetic and specific diversity, the extinction or threatened extinction of species, the depletion of aquifers, stream degradation, the loss of wilderness, strip mining, clear-cutting, population loss, the loss of supporting economies, the death of towns. Rural American communities, economies, and ways of life that in 1945 were thriving and, though imperfect, full of promise for an authentic human settlement of our land are now as effectively destroyed as the Jewish communities of Poland….

The news of rural decline and devastation has been accompanied, to be sure, by a chorus of professional, institutional, and governmental optimists, who continue to insist that all is well, that we are making things worse only as a way of making things better, that farmers who failed are merely ‘inefficient producers’ for whose failure the country is better off, that money and technology will fill the gaps, that government will fill the gaps, that science will soon free us from our regrettable dependence on the soil.  ….We have heard that the rural economy can be repaired by moving the urban economy out into the country and by replacing rural work with work in factories and offices. And all the while the real conditions of the rural land and rural people have been getting worse.

Port Royal, Kentucky… (was once) held together by a complex local economy…. sixteen businesses and professional enterprises… all serving the town and the surrounding farms. …Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local economy. There is now no market for farm produce in the town or within forty miles. We no longer have a garage or repair shop of any kind.  We have had no doctor for forty years and no school for thirty.

What does the death of a community, a local community, cost its members? And what does it cost the country? So far as I know, we have no economists interested in such matters. ….as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy…. my part of rural America is, in short, a colony…. in the power of an absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people.” (‘Conservation and Local Economy’ (1992) in The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.)

Donald Trump, Wendel Berry, and International Development theory all in agreement

One of the ironies of the present moment (and there are many) is that while the media pundits declare that President Trump’s ‘isolationism’ (in prioritizing the American economy and withdrawing from international trading not to America’s advantage), is economic suicide, bad global citizenship, and regressive… he actually advocates what both current international development theory recommends to developing nations, and what agrarian philosopher/farmer/poet/economic thinker Wendell Berry advocates for rural American towns.

International development theory currently contends, due to decades of observation, that the promise of benefits from hooking up to the global economy are not panning out for developing nations. Relatively few people are benefiting, and most of them are banks and corporations in the developed world. Instead, development theorists contend, developing nations should look inward, develop a diversified economy that meets the needs of their own populations. In other words, don’t base your economy on Americans buying bananas or T-shirts (while you have to import everything else) – the price of bananas in the U.S. may drop five cents per pound and wipe out your economy, or Vietnam may start making T-shirts cheaper than you, equally wiping out all the eggs you placed in one basket. Make things in your own country that people in your own country need, thus creating jobs and economic linkages both vertically and horizontally along the economic spectrum. This has been a radical re-think in the development industry, a painful moment of repentance. What Trump is advocating for the U.S. is exactly what development theorists advise developing nations to do. Don’t expect many people in our megalopolis or Ivy League schools to admit this though.

Wendell Berry, as well, advocates the same thing for small rural American towns. Throughout his writings he bemoans the loss of local economies and economic linkages to transnational, absentee corporations who rape local economies in all the ways we learned during the era of colonialism against the indigenous peoples of the world. Berry points out that small towns used to be loci of production, horizontal linkages (blacksmiths, tack shops farmers needed, etc) and now there are neither jobs nor those horizontal-linkage businesses. These absentee corporations care neither for the people nor the place where their goods are made or bought, and local conditions testify to the fact – including the contrast to what these places used to be like. The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry is rife with this thought. Though the Trump administration’s policies on international trade are demonized as throw-back, ignorant hyper-nationalism, he is actually doing what both the international development industry is telling developing economies to do, as well as being congruent with the avant garde thought of our most famous agrarian philosopher alive.

Resurrection and our World

To those of you who are Christians working in the complex tangle that is International Development (the primary audience for whom I created this blog in the first place!), friends, I salute you. N.T. Wright has written, perhaps more than anyone else in the last 30 years, regarding the robust meanings of resurrection. Below, is a short quote from him.

“…the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility ….When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus…”

“Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world….  The music he wrote must now be performed.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: 2006).

As we approach Easter, may the image of resurrection be a powerful driver in your work. The resurrection/ new creation is the template for reconciliation, restoration, redemption, healing. And may new creation in us make His Way and Goal (Omega) credible to the world around.

Saint Paul: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17)

Avoiding Indigenous Backlash

When I was a much younger man, I taught primary and secondary school at what was then called Twin Wells Indian School, a resident-campus-program in northern Arizona, a handful of miles off the Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of how TWIS went about their business could have been ripped from a Catholic Jesuit School playbook 500 years before. Children were not allowed to speak their native language (since the staff, with its high turn-over rate, never learned Navajo), history curriculuae were from the viewpoint of the White settlers, not one building had elements of Navajo architecture, even the food was mostly non-Navajo, etc., etc.

Fourteen years later I was visiting there with a work team to do some repairs on the campus. I was asked to address the staff on whatever subject I desired, during the weekly devotional time. What I chose to do was deliver a missiological paper on what happens when you position yourself to be viewed as the enemy of a culture. (Which is how the school was viewed on the Reservation, and attendance had plummeted to almost non-existence.) As Christians, with a doctrine of Creation and Creator, we ought to be the protectors of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in Navajo culture, I said. (Lots of Pauline material for this). When we aren’t, we not only become viewed as an outsider attack on the peoples’ own culture, but we sow the seeds for a second or third generation re-fascination with the original, indigenous religion, and a backlash against Christianity.

Have you noticed this? Christianization, currently, often comes simultaneously with a degradation of the natural environment and a tearing of the social fabric due to the overnight incursion of international civilization and connection to world markets. (Christianity doesn’t cause this, but it’s all happening at the same time these days). When Christians do not become the protectors of everything good, noble and true in a culture, you can bet that in a couple generations there will be a movement calling people back to their ancestors’ ways. Part of this is reaction to the decimation of traditional culture brought on by hooking up to the world money machine, and part of it is noticing the ills of civilization and their affects on the population. When this happens, all sorts of traditional – and important – knowledge starts getting lost, (‘What plant did grandma use for headaches? How did they make bows? How did they track and hunt boar? How did boys know they had become young men…?’), and people start talking nostalgically about their great-grandparents’ ways. That nostalgia becomes a powerful force, and creates backlash against the modern world AND Christian faith, as an outsider invasive species. This happens a lot in pre-modern societies these days, ones that were thrown into contact with the modern world quickly.

Have you observed some of this happening? What would this mean for your work? How could you and your organization be the protector of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in the local culture and religion? How would that change some things you do and say?

Why Enlightened Self-Interest Doesn’t Rescue the Environment

You would think that enlightened self-interest would cause corporations, like individuals, to avoid doing things that would be unsustainable in the future, since that would nix their ability to continue in that line of business. So, for example, you would think a corporation would avoid over-cutting a particular forest, and manage it for the long-term, so that they could continue to cut it and make profits from it in the future. However, avoiding environmental damage (as any enlightened farmer would do for his fields) is not a guiding star for corporations, who often don’t own the environments they wreck, but even when they do! Socio-political thinker and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains it succinctly in his novel Antarctica (1998):

“Say a company owned a forest that it had harvested selectively for generations, delivering its shareholders a consistent ten percent return. Meanwhile the world financial markets were offering bonds with a fifteen percent return. Lumber prices dropped, and the company’s returns dropped, so the traders dropped it and its shares plummeted, so the shareholders were angry. The management, on the edge of collapse, decided to clear-cut the forest and invest the profits from that lumber sale immediately into bonds that yielded a higher return than the forest had. In effect the money that the forest represented was more valuable than the forest itself, because long-term value had collapsed to net present value; and so the forest was liquidated, and more money entered the great money balloon. And so the inexorable logic of Gotterdammerung capitalism demolished the world to increase the net present values of companies in trouble… simply the logic of the system.”

Add to this scenario the fact that it’s not a self-owned lumber company. That company is among thousands of companies some transnational mega-corporation owns, and they are into everything: lumber, cement, films, cars, oil, wind energy, toys, music, insurance, housing, aerospace technology and munitions. If some of their companies aren’t returning good quarterly profits, they take a tax write-off and liquidate the company at a loss. Thus, cutting the forest to the ground and not re-planting, and then walking away from lumber altogether is simply a decision made at a desk in a cubicle at a Manhattan (or Toronto or Tokyo or Berlin) skyscraper, and the man whose office looks out across the city with the windows never even knows the decision was made, besides some numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, thinking that the common sense of wanting-to-have-a-planet-to-live-on-in-the-future-that-isn’t-a-wasteland would naturally cause companies and corporations to make sensible, long-term, sustainable, healthful decisions… is simply not how our world system is set up to work. Those mega-corporations are not looking out for your interests. So how do you fix that? U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, (president from 1901-1909), whom the United States can thank for the vast majority of the National Forests and wildlife sanctuaries that exist, did not believe the timber barons and mining barons of his day could be trusted with American’s forests and lands. He believed vociferously in the free market and personal freedom and property, but he also believed capitalism had to be reined in by the government on behalf of the people, or the logic-of-the-system (and those who became powerful within it) would wreck the world around us. He did not allow the giant corporations to do whatever they wanted nor to take over the world. Maybe we should go look at and think about his insights again in our day. Because current events have demonstrated for quite some time now that just hoping common sense will cause smart decisions ISN’T protecting the Earth’s environments for the future.

The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.