By Father Bud Grannt
Farm and Fleet, the quasi-rural chain that sells everything from blue jeans to chicken feed, has had its children’s “Santa” section up since All Saints Day. This same “Christmas creep” is found in our lectionary.
Ever since the beginning of November the Scripture readings have reminded us to “stay awake” and “be watchful” for the advent of Christ (Mt. 25:13). These are apocalyptic references to the Second Coming that certainly anticipate the theology of Advent: “be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come!” (Mk. 13.33).
Such biblical texts are often used by some Christians as a way of dismissing environmental concerns: why waste resources protecting the world that is destined to “pass away and be no more?” This is a great question. With our hearts and minds set on that “world that will never end,” we might disregard this “foreign land” in which we currently dwell “as strangers and guests.” (c.f. Rev. 21:1 and Lv. 25.23). Secular environmentalists often dismiss the very idea of a “green” Christianity for exactly the same reasons. Christians are accused of harboring a Manichean “anti-earth” attitude in favor of a (future) spiritual world.
There is some truth in this accusation, by the way: the ancient heretical antipathy for the material order (which includes not only the earth, but earthly delights, like sex and Whitey’s ice cream) is awfully persistent, even appearing to find support in the Bible. St. Paul is often cited as a culprit. “Those who live according to the flesh,” he says, “are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit … creation was made subject to futility” (Romans 8:4ff).
There are many reasons why both the Manichean dismissal of environmental concerns and the finger pointing at Christianity from certain environmentalists is wrong, but I’d like to focus on just one. The eschatological theology of many of our scriptural texts (not all: there is theological diversity aplenty in the Bible) does not debase the earth, but rather urges us to non-ownership, or at least a non-attachment, to things that are of God but not God (c.f. Is. 24:1). This is the exquisite paradox at the core of Christian eschatological environmentalism: to save the planet we have to let go of it.
To surrender the various goods of this life is to acknowledge that they are not ours, but God’s, and that they are intended to draw us to the giver even as they are to be stewarded for the common good. This is quintessential green Christian virtues ethic. What we cling to, environmentally speaking, is an unsustainable extraction of natural resources in order to maintain a standard of living that God’s ecosystems simply cannot afford to provide while we do not, we should humbly admit, do a very good job of distributing those resources to those in most need.
In dreaming of a “green Christmas” that puts our faith at the center of the season we might pray over the great Advent eschatology Scriptures and derive from them an inspiration for de-materializing our lives. This is not to dismiss the earth and its delights, but is rather to simply focus (or focus simply) on Christ and his gifts to us. Not coincidentally, such an attitude of non-possessiveness would be a great boon to the belabored and overtaxed ecosystems stretched to the breaking point as they are ransacked to provide a standard of living that is as non-conducive to genuine joy to the world as it is destructive of peace on Earth.
Besides this re-interpretation of the apocalyptic texts, our practice of non-possessiveness might well open our eyes to the other great images of the season which promise a new heaven and new earth where lions and lambs frolic, the bud blossoms, and where “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord” (Is. 11:9).
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)