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Grief and Hope in a Suffering Creation

Perhaps the first thing is to grieve. Before we get angry about the death of coral reefs, the politics that allow the Amazon forests to burn, the economic pressures that are aggravating the coronavirus epidemic. Before we organize to pressure governments and businesses to think about the future and not just the next election or capital gains. Perhaps the first thing is just to grieve. 

The God of Israel gave humans the task of governing creation, acting as “trustees,” as the Voice’s translation of Genesis puts it. And we are watching God’s creation falter, fail, and die at a rate that simply has no comparison since the arrival of bipedal tool-wielders back in the middle Paleolithic. 

Saint James simplifies “good religion” down to the tasks of looking after orphans and widows and resisting the pollution of the world.  You don’t have to squint too hard to see those koalas in the Australian inferno as orphaned, the endangered orchids of the Amazon as widowed, and the coal ash laden waterways of Missouri as “polluted by the world.”  

In fact, even before squinting in the direction of koalas and orchids, we have to face a hard reality here: the most vulnerable humans are the most affected by dirty air, polluted water, and harsh agricultural practices. Communal habits bigger than you and me, our generations, or the generations that came before have brought us to such a global emergency that we must now admit that we have failed — not every case, but still entirely—at good religion. We have been poor trustees of the lands and waters below and the skies above, which, according to the first chapter of the Bible, is the whole reason we’re here. 

And once we’ve grieved, what then? What does hope look like, when any efforts you and I can make are not going to bring back the 25,000 dead koalas, help slow down the growth of Trash Island in the Pacific, or convince governments to protect biodiverse regions from the sort of capitalism that reigns unchecked in so much of the world? 

Last spring I met a remarkable young Rabbi from Chicago named Aryeh Bernstein. In a presentation on the links between Torah and ecological justice that guide his personal habits and those of his community, he told us that people often ask him why he bothers to eat, dress, shop, and work in such a counter cultural way. His answer somehow filled me with grief and hope at the same time, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever forget it. I’ll paraphrase it:

I realize that the most austere of personal habits won’t slow down the climate crisis. Going vegan won’t change our global addiction to beef, riding my bike won’t change our addiction to fossil fuels. Even if we all do it together, it will be too little too late. I don’t do these things to affect change at all actually. I live the way I live for two reasons. First, so that I can create community with others who care for creation. So I can learn from them and come to love them and to love the world through them. Second, so that when the Messiah comes and God acts to redeem creation, I’ll already have the habits in place and can share in the work that will, in fact, change something. 

We have taken the stage at the moment when creation’s play turns into tragedy. And yet tragedies are not without hope—we, as Saint Paul reminds us, do not pass through a suffering world as those without hope. We can find one another, and discern together the habits of creation care, of good religion, so that when God acts and the Messiah comes, we’ll be ready. (When he comes back, as Christians say—I like to think that the Messiah arrives, Jews will say, “He’s here!” And Christians will say “he’s back!”, and then we’ll look at each other and shrug, maybe laugh, and then go off and join him in the work of giving birth to the new creation.) 

The rabbi’s words made me think of the parable of the foolish and the wise bridesmaids. There was so little to do, during the long night. And yet the ones who practiced vigilance, who “stayed awake,” were ready when the wait was finally over. His words made me want to find some friends and start experimenting with ways of staying awake with hope during the long night of grief and delay. 

What orphans, widows, and pollutants of God’s creation do you feel like grieving today?

What is a small habit that we could try together that would bring us hope and joy and prepare us for the day when God acts? 

This spring, we will continue to devote Sowing Holy Questions to issues of stewardship, now giving special attention to the role of humans–and the calling of Christians–as stewards or trustees of the non-human creation around us.  

Dr. Anthony D. Baker joined the seminary faculty in 2004. He teaches classes in both historical theology (focusing on a figure, an era, or a school of thought) and constructive theology (the building of persuasive arguments about God and creation). He is the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology as well as various articles in Modern TheologyPolitical TheologyThe Journal of Anglican StudiesAnglican Theological Review, Heythrop Journal and other journals and collections. He is currently working on a book that explores theological themes in the works of Shakespeare. Professor Baker is the theologian-in-residence at Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church in north Austin, where he and his three children attend.

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