Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The eternal subordination of the poor

All this theological talk of mutual love relationships,

go and do the WWF ecological footprint test and tell me, do you believe in the mutual love of Father, Son and Spirit? Or do you slip in some eternal subordination based on, I don't know, cultural importance or history?

For me, I'm a heretic by a factor of 2.3
That's how many worlds would be required if everyone were to live at the standard I do.
That is how many worlds the poor have to make up for.
I keep living this way, and so does most of my christian culture. We talk and talk about 'mutual love relationships', but act as though we are ontologically superior.

We look through history and scoff at the times when the church aligned itself with greedy powers and accumulated wealth for itself, yet we jump in bed with an unsustainable, greedy system in the name of 'gospel proclamation'.

I heard that a few years ago, the Glebe board of the Sydney Anglican Church set it's growth target at 11%. Where do we think this kind of growth is coming from? Do we really think it is sustainable? Do we really think that in a globalized economy, our growth doesn't come at the expense of the third world? Or that our collapse doesn't affect them?

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality”.

Well, we will be hard pressed in the church in Sydney for a while.
No more regional grants, no more money to build churches with the latest media facilities. We will only be able to live at two times what the world can handle instead of four.


Matthew Moffitt said...

Hey, did the original amount of money the Glebe board had to play with come from the sale of Glebe (the suburb) in the 70's (i.e. land which was stolen from indigenous Australians 200 years ago)?

Mike W said...

I'm not sure Matt, but quite possibly

byron smith said...

Yes, it was from the return of the Glebe to the government, which had given the area to the Anglican church in the 19thC.

As for the footprint calculator, though it is cute, it is dangerously deficient. It does not allow you to get below 1.3 earths, even with optimised answers across the board (I first took my own profile and then tried the "perfect" profile), which highlights the fact that personal changes are insuffient (though they are also necessary, of course). We need both political changes and social changes: town planning, focus of industry, investment in energy and transport infrastructure, level of consumption, assumptions about what a 'good' life involves - these are all not simply about me and my actions.

That said, I think you are quite right to point out the theological (heretical) assumptions that enable us to live in ways that perpetuate and exacerbate social problems. This is not simply our fault, but we are far from blameless.

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Mike W said...

I guessed that would be the case with the footprint calculator. The only way around that would be to have a question "are you part of a larger social structure that has addressed
'town planning, focus of industry, investment in energy and transport infrastructure, level of consumption, assumptions about what a 'good' life involves" which they seem to assume we are not.

byron smith said...

Indeed, though another thing that would be worth adding to the site is a little blurb saying that personal lifestyle changes are important but not the only factor and that political action is also required.

In fact, now I think of it, they also didn't ask about consumption levels of buying new products. For example, the energy that goes into building a new car is generally about the same as the energy used by the car during its working life (this varies from model to model, of course). So someone who doesn't drive much, but still changes their car every two years is using huge amounts of energy. Hmmm, actually, I think there was a question about electronic purchases.

Mike Bull said...

I think mixing faith with environmental issues can be dangerous. Guilt is no motivator. If God puts you in a palace it's for a reason. If he gives you power or wealth, or talent, use it for Him.

Yes, we should be responsible, but the church needs people of wealth and influence, and the Bible is full of them. Philip didn't tell the Ethiopian eunuch to go home and swap his chariot for a Prius.

The west is rich because it is (or was) Christian. Don't worry, if we keep turning from God, we won't be. Perhaps that's what we are seeing now.

I believe the Holy Spirit miraculously blesses faithful economies. The only way our governments can keep us in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed is to rob the future. If we turned to God, I believe many of the so-called "natural" problems we face would disappear like Elijah's drought. We are being humbled, and that's good. But the future is not bleak by any means. God's justice always has one eye on the future.

80% of the world's hungry children live in countries with food surplusses. Political and social changes help, but the answer is the gospel. We need more Josephs, so God is humbling us.

That's my 2c. Don't buy the panic. Get on with the job.

byron smith said...

Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that getting faith and ecology wrong can be dangerous.

However, I think that failing to integrate our faith with ecology can be even more dangerous. The whole earth is the Lord's and everything in it. How can Christians not also bring their faith to ecological issues? But I suspect that we probably agree here.

Of course, ecological concern without the gospel quickly becomes fear-mongering, guilt-inducing, hope-destroying, or creature-worshipping. But that is precisely why Christians are needed in the discussion.

Guilt is a powerful, but ultimately destructive motivator. The Christian motive is love.

Yes, everything we have comes from God, but what we do that wealth is the key question. And remember that at one one rich young man was told to go and sell all that he had and to give it to the poor. The church does not need rich and powerful people. It simply needs the Word of God. If God brings the rich along so that they might be humbled and be encouraged to become generous, then that is great. But wealth is a very ambivalent good and with the writer of Proverbs 30, I would rather have neither poverty nor riches.

The reasons for the wealth of the west are many, and although Christian faith was not irrelevant, neither was the African slave trade and colonialism.

We need more Josephs? Yes, perhaps, though remember that Joseph would have taxed the wealthy and stopped them feasting on their excess in order that everyone might have something.

The answer is of course the gospel, but the gospel cannot be preached without bringing social and political changes. It is and always has been good news to the poor.

Mike Bull said...


Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I guess my point is more about dealing with Mike's "eco-guilt", an expression I just found in a thoughtful article here:


I think you articulated my point when you wrote:
"The answer is of course the gospel, but the gospel cannot be preached without bringing social and political changes."

Our governments are bribing us with the fruits of a Christendom that is now barren, purchased with borrowed money, blood in the delivery room and on the battlefield. The gospel is the only solution, not the best one or even a big part of it.

byron smith said...

Guilt can mean subjective feelings or the objective state of having done wrong. When the former sit around unaddressed, they become soul-destroying. When the latter is denied due to the danger of the former sitting around destroying one's soul, that is also destructive. Our eco-guilt requires repentence, acceptance of God's gift of forgiveness and fruit produced in keeping with that repentence, shown (amongst other ways) in loving our neighbour by becoming less wasteful. I take it that was part of the point of this post.

Mike Bull said...


Thanks for that. I agree, and yet I don't think Mike or you or I have anything to repent of as individuals (unless you two are especially, secretly, wasteful).

One woman in the USA said she was going to swap her car for a horse, and get herself sterilised, all for the sake of the planet. A wise commentator said she had done us all a favour.

A problem of quite a different nature might be the one we face, and that is underpopulation. What do you think of the film "Demographic Winter"? There is a trailer on YouTube.


Mike W said...

Hi guys,
I don't feel 'eco-guilt' as such. But it isn't good enough to compare myself to those around me and say "Am I particularly wasteful?" when my entire society is wasteful at someone else's expense.

And that is the reality we live in. We live in a globalised economy where our wealth doesn't simply come from our wise tilling of the soil, or from favourable rains, but taking from other people.
Our production and consumption doesn't simply affect the patch of ground we call our own, but affects large swathes of the earth that we may never visit.

This isn't bad in itself, but is simply another area where we must bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear.

My frustration is that christians (including myself) and christian leaders don't seem to think that the christian community can or should offer wealthy western society a different way of living.

Mike Bull said...


I do agree with that. Byron's comment that there should be Christians at the discussion table is spot on. I guess what I mean is when the gospel becomes Jesus AND [fill in the blank] we are heading for trouble. It might be Jesus and homeschooling, or Jesus and living in a commune, or Jesus and vegetarianism. So I guess it's just a matter of emphasis.

byron smith said...

I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.

I do personally have quite a lot of wastefulness to repent of. I have far more clothes than I need, many of them produced using massively water intense processes. I eat food (often too much of it) that is grown using techniques that waste soil and water when alternatives are available. I live in buildings that use enormous amounts of energy to build and are often designed to be energy wasteful during their lifespan. I own many pieces of unnecessary junk (deigned according to built-in obsolescence) and my purchases have encouraged the growth of wasteful industries. I have accepted hundreds of unnecessary plastic bags at supermarkets and shop at stores that waste energy in their displays and over-packaging. I have feasted on meat as a part of a staple diet (much of it from factory farms) and consequently played a small part in encouraging forms of intensive agriculture that waste energy, destroy rainforests to grow more soy, deprive natives of their land and treat animals as object. I have used plastic bottles when there was perfectly accessible and drinkable tap water. I have burned fossil fuels for frivolous reasons and my lifestyle reduces the quality of life for others I have never met. I could go on.

And this is just on the theme of wastefulness, which I am not sure gets to the heart of the issue, since love is (in one sense) wasteful. The prodigal son has a prodigal father and it is not their prodigality per se which is the issue. Wastefulness may be a sin for the economic rationalist, but Mike W is right to frame this discussion as being also (and more importantly) about love. Our society's wastefulness is sinful because it is a failure to love rightly, expressing a willful ignorance of the damage that it does to the lives of others.

The good news is the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit nevertheless embrace me and so I can (and have, and do, and continue to) repent and begin with faltering steps to live a life of good works that is rich in good deeds and which attempts to share, to be attentive and to be thankful, rather than horde, ignore and take my massive wealth for granted.

Demographic Winter, from the trailer, seems to be about the decline in the fertility rate of developed countries. Yet just from the trailer, I noticed two assumptions I would question: that white people are inherently more important/superior than other races and must be preserved; and that economic growth is a very high priority and human flourishing is impossible without it. Perhaps the film addresses these points at greater length; have you seen the full thing?

This isn't bad in itself, but is simply another area where we must bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear.
I assume you mean that the fact that we affect each other is not a bad thing in itself, rather than saying that the fact our wealth at the expense of others is not a bad thing in itself?

You are right to say that the gospel is not Jesus and. But it is Jesus therefore. The risen Lord Jesus reigns, therefore we are free from sin, guilt and hell, from the powers and principles, from the fearful or lustful accumulation of wealth, from gluttony and apathy; and we are free to give, to share and to love.

Mike Bull said...


I understand all those problems, but as you say, personal changes are insufficient. I would say they are almost, if not totally, irrelevant, without a return to agrarianism.

So it is not about my personal love, except as that changes the culture with the gospel. I think that's my point.

We and our children should be grateful, for instance, for where we live, and ready to sacrifice it any time God calls us to. But we should never, ever feel guilty about it.

That's almost as ludicrous as telling my kids they are guilty for living on aboriginal land.

So, yes, we have things we don't deserve. And yes, industries that produce many of them are wasteful and selfish. But yes, I am grateful for them and I am going to enjoy them as gifts from God, and share them wherever possible.

You are right to say this is a cultural issue. I believe we will be forced to sort it out and will do so. God is in control. There's a book I recommend called "Angels in the Architecture" by Doug Jones and Doug Wilson. I think you would like the essays on a future for our cultures. They are realistic and optimistic.

byron smith said...

That book looks very interesting. Thanks for the title!

personal changes are insufficient. I would say they are almost, if not totally, irrelevant, without a return to agrarianism.
It depends what sphere of relevance you are drawing. Irrelevant to avoiding ecological catastrophe and societal decline? Quite possibly (though the very common situation in which we find ourselves saying "I'll change if you change first" ought to make us pause over this one). Irrelevant to personal discipleship in which we seek to avoid the love of money and to pursue the love of neighbour and the celebration of God's good gifts in fast as well as feast? Possibly not. That is, ecological responsibility does not need to be tied to consequentialism. It may be that habits that respect the humble status of humanity and the integrity of the community of life are worth forming even if I am the only one who forms them and everyone else continues to accelerate their consumption.

We and our children should be grateful, for instance, for where we live, and ready to sacrifice it any time God calls us to. But we should never, ever feel guilty about it.
I believe that the present situation of massive abundance in some countries (combined with the rampant love of money) and widespread deprivation in other countries constitutes just such a divine call to a simpler lifestyle as a witness to the grace of God.

We should feel guilty for sins. If our hearts covet the security and ease that wealth brings, then we are guilty and ought to repent. If our lives fail to love our neighbours, then we are guilty and ought to repent.

That's almost as ludicrous as telling my kids they are guilty for living on aboriginal land.
What and when you tell your kids is a contextual judgement for you to make with wisdom and reflection. But you and I (and our children) are direct beneficiaries of the acts of dispossession and suppression against indigenous communities carried out over centuries. One of Australia's leading theologians believes that the church ought to lead the way in making resistution or satisfaction for these crimes. Full talk here. Summary by Matt Moffitt here.

Let me repeat: this isn't about feeling guilty. It is about examining our lives (including the social structures in which we are embedded and which our actions reinforce) and where God graciously reveals to us the depth of our sin, also finding grace to receive forgiveness and power to live in new ways.

byron smith said...

Let me clarify, since I first said that we should feel guilty, and then said that it was not about feeling guilty. As I said above, godly sorrow that leads to repentance is the appropriate response to recognising sin in our lives (personally and collectively). But this godly sorrow is not the goal, but the spur towards the goal of joyful and humble living in the grace of God.