Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jonah and the Vine

Jonah and the Gourd Vine, Jack Baumgartner
I've been thinking about Jonah.

Not the Jonah of chapters 1 and 2 - the reluctant prophet, running away from God, thrown into the sea, finally making it to shore in a tide of fish vomit.

But the Jonah of chapters 3 and 4 - the prophet without compassion, all too eager for his disastrous word to come true, sulking in the desert because God is merciful.

The picture (used by permission, see here for more) is of Jonah after his journey to Nineveh.  The text portrays Nineveh as a vast megalopolis, "three days journey across".  Its huge and complex structures are not sustainable; Jonah warns that the city has only "forty days" on the path on which it has set itself.  Indeed, this sounds like a true word of prophetic warning.  But as the story unfolds we find that what underlies it is Jonah's secret contempt for the people to whom he is sent, and his nasty doubt as to whether he will actually see the catastrophe that he depicts. Sitting under the vine, outside the city, he "waits to see what will happen".

If I sound a warning about the unsustainability of our teeming world, I need to beware of this attitude of mind. 

But in the end the last word as the word of grace that belongs to God, who says "Should I not have mercy?" - both on the people and livestock of the huge city, and on the isolated, vengeful prophet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

A long-buried memory stirred for me this week.

October 21, 1966. I was just starting elementary school, six years old. People seemed somber, hushed; mourning. That day, in the village of Aberfan, a colliery spoil tip collapsed after heavy rain.  The resulting landslide engulfed an elementary school - a school just like mine - and 116 children, as well as 28 adults, lost their lives.

I can't get back into the head of the child I was then, but I think I learned something about pollution that day.  Not pollution as slow insidious poisoning - that would come later - but pollution as waste piling up in plain sight, a process which it is obvious cannot go on for ever but which it is nevertheless convenient to ignore.

After the disaster, a huge sum of money was raised by public subscription.  But money could not bring back the lives lost or compensate for the damage done.  No more than the efforts this week by Penn State students and alumni to raise money for RAINN can atone for the sexual abuse of children.

I learned on the Environmental Justice retreat last week how our society unloads the burdens of waste, contamination and pollution disproportionately onto communities of low status: minority, low-income, whatever.  It is not hard to see this if one is ready to look. Several times in Dr Ana Batista's tour of the Ironbound area, I heard her say "We brought a team from the EPA" (or somewhere like that) "to look at this, and they took action the next day." But so often it is in the interests of the National Coal Board or the football program or the rich or the wealthy or the powerful - no, let's be honest, it is in our interests - not to look.  What change would we have to make, if we looked?

"The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them", said Jesus, "and their great ones exercise authority." That is the way of the world. There are the strong, the important; and there are those who can be overlooked. "But it shall not be so with you."  Jesus identifies himself not with the powerful and authoritative, but with the weak, with those on the bottom of the ladder, the "least of these", the overlooked.  Be careful who you overlook! (Matthew 25:45).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Environmental Justice

I'm in Newark at the moment, at a GreenFaith retreat devoted to environmental justice.

What does that mean?  I suppose, abstractly, you could say it means "justice in respect of the allocation of the environmental costs of the economy."  But that is way too dry.  Concretely, it refers to the way that communities which are already burdened or oppressed become the preferred location for the dirty operations that no-one else wants - the chemical plants, the incinerators, the huge goods transhipment operations, and so on. 

We visited the Port of Newark with a guide from the Ironbound Community Corporation.  In a few miles around Newark airport are located all the operations I mentioned above, as well as Superfund toxic waste sites, a recreation field "temporarily" closed (for the last 25 years) because of chemical pollution, and a prison.  Yes, warehousing unwanted people is just another "obvious" use for this area.  The Community Corporation is doing amazing work here, but they are fighting against decades of the powerful pretending not to know about the harm done to the weak.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Creation Care at Calvary

Over the last month or so I've been meeting one-on-one with people in my faith community - Calvary Baptist Church, State College - who I've learned are engaged in one way or another with the call to creation care.

It has been exciting to learn about the organic gardeners and the passion for sustainable community and the "incubator" for sustainability projects at New Leaf

I'm hoping to help bring together all these great initiatives - plus many more which I'm sure are there but I don't know about yet - under the umbrella of "Creation Care at Calvary" or CCC. We'll be having our first meeting in a couple of weeks. (If any Calvary folk are reading this and would like to be involved, please contact me.)

Karl Barth spoke of praying "with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other".  I hope we'll be praying with the Bible in one hand and compost in the other - metaphorically speaking at least.  I'd love for us to show in action that we care for the earth because it is God's, and he doesn't make stuff to be thrown away.