By Father Bud Grant
We could blame Santa Claus. You know the children’s song: “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake ….” But we don’t really mean that last bit, do we?
Rather, we tell our children to be good in order to get presents instead of coal. There is something insidious about this seemingly innocuous ethical carrot. And it seems to have permeated our culture with the demand to be paid to do the right thing.
Not even Catholic institutions are immune to the siren’s call of the dividend. To cite one small example, recently more than 400 students at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where I teach, petitioned the administration to enact a series of carbon footprint baby steps. These included such measures as banning bottled water and turning down thermostats a couple of degrees. The response was that this is much more involved than students recognize and that this would take a lot of time and, inevitably, more study.
One student wondered if bottled water provides revenue. Surely that wouldn’t explain why we would continue to provide a venue for Pepsi to sell bottled tap water from coolers plugged into our electrical grid? By the way, 15 billion bottles of water are sold annually; only 12 percent of those bottles are recycled. Pepsi’s share of the market is 9 percent. Must we replace that revenue before we ban it?
Of course, in the scheme of things, this is trivial, but that is precisely why it has rocked my confidence in our ability to make meaningful changes to save God’s Creation. If we will not act unless it is demonstrably profitable, or at least revenue neutral, then we have lost, not just the battle over bottles, not just the war against global warming, but our souls.
Melodramatic? I donno. Let’s turn with confidence to our faith.
The incarnation of Christ is God’s utterly gratuitous offering of God’s own self, not just to the “weary world,” but to a sinful people who cannot hope to achieve anything approximating merit. The ethical message of such profligate generosity is that whoever so would imitate Christ must love without counting the cost, let alone calculating the anticipated payoff for the investment. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Protestant theologian who was executed by the Nazis) called this “costly grace:” a gift that makes demands. This ethic of sacrificial love must be applied to God’s Creation, if for no other reason than that it IS God’s — and not our — creation.
But the dominant environmental argument, marketed even by activists, is that taking the necessary measures to counteract global warming will somehow prove to be wise economic investments further down the road. This, from a theological frame of reference, is sheer idolatry.
It tempts us to believe that doing what is right and good is also expedient and self serving. This anti-gospel is as absurd as that motto from the good old days of excess (you remember the world before the bail-outs) that proclaimed “greed is good.”
So, perhaps, among other measures, we should stop inculcating in our children that greed for the Christmas bonus is a motive for morality. I know. I sound like Scrooge here, and I love a good present as much as any kid, but to have converted Christmas into a celebration of consumerism that begins, not with Advent, but “black Friday” and which ends abruptly on Dec. 25 — precisely when the Church says the season begins! — is to have lost the Nativity of the Savior under all that non-recyclable wrapping paper.
As it turns out, the children’s Advent ditty has it just about right: the believer in the incarnate Christ should “be good for goodness’s sake.” To be good is to act to save God’s creation without expecting any pay back, and goodness’ other name is Jesus. We do that and there will be less coal in our stockings and in our furnaces.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)