Justice, Peace and Care for Creation: What Is at Stake? Some South African Perspectives
Conradie, Ernst M., International Review of Mission
This article explores the relationship between the three aspects of the social agenda of the ecumenical movement captured in the motto of "Justice, peace and care for creation". It investigates the moral, spiritual and theological issues that are at stake from a South African perspective, drawing especially on a recent document entitled "Climate Change--A challenge to the churches in South Africa" (2009), published and endorsed by the South African Council of Churches. It examines the underlying tensions between these concepts and the ways in which one is sometimes prioritized over the other. It concludes that the themes of justice, peace and sustainability may be associated with different aspects of God's work on earth and that this can only be dealt with on the basis of a deeper theological assessment of the whole of God's work.
There can be little doubt that the ecumenical calls for a "Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society" (Nairobi, 1975) and for "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation" (Vancouver, 1983) have been able to capture the social agenda of the church in a particularly lucid way. The struggles against economic injustice and inequalities, to address various forms of conflict (domestic violence, inter-group conflict, genocide, xenophobia, civil war, inter-religious conflict) and environmental destruction, are hereby combined in one phrase. Moreover, the phrase has been fruitful because one could explore the complex interplay between these agenda items. It is also helpful to analyze what is at stake with regard to any one issue--for example, climate change--on this basis. It is therefore not surprising that these phrases have elicited so much discussion over the last 35 years.
Nevertheless, the phrase remains contested for at least three reasons that I will explore below. Firstly, one may debate the relative priority of the three components in terms of contextual considerations. Why is the theme of justice placed first and sustainability last? Secondly, how is the social agenda of the church (if captured accurately in this call) related to the identity of the church (its roots, nature, beliefs, spirituality and mission)? What difference does it make to address these agenda items in the church and theologically and not merely in the sphere of civil society? This continues to beg questions about the relationship between "ecclesiology and ethics". Thirdly, and precisely because of the previous question, there is a need to explore the theological issues underlying these concerns. How is God's justice related to the peace that passes all understanding and to God's mercy that endures forever and that nourishes and sustains the whole earth? Only on this basis can one capture the deepest spiritual dimensions of the quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
In this contribution I will explore first the moral and then the spiritual and theological issues that are at stake from a South African perspective, drawing especially on a recent document entitled "Climate Change--A challenge to the churches in South Africa" (2009), published and endorsed by the South African Council of Churches (SACC). (1) This document is not primarily a prophetic call to influence political decision-making on climate change. Instead, it invites self-critical reflection, calling for an ecological transformation, renewal and conversion amongst Christians in South Africa.
An order of priority? South African reflections
The relative weight attributed to (economic) justice, peace and care for creation has been a matter of perception and a bone of contention in the South African context. The nature conservation policies of the apartheid era provoked the suspicion that conservation boils down to the establishment of game reserves for a privileged few, often at the expense of the dislocation of local people. Many urban blacks view issues of nature conservation as a concern of the white middle class, the hobby of an affluent, leisured minority who would like to preserve the environment for purely aesthetic reasons and who seem more concerned about wildlife than about the welfare of other human beings. The primary concern for the majority of South Africans is the day-to-day struggle of surviving in overcrowded, squalid, unhealthy conditions. Some fear that attention to environmental concerns may divert scarce human and financial resources from the more pressing issues of poverty, hunger and employment and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In 1991 Frank Chikane, the former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, expressed some scepticism regarding the priority of the environment on the social agenda of the church:
To most of us who come from countries which are ravaged by senseless wars, characterized by gross violations of human fights and by massive poverty and unemployment, the introduction of the item of the integrity of creation on our agenda seemed like a conspiracy by those who benefit out of our poverty and oppression, to divert and diversify our struggle for justice in our situations. It seemed like some people wanted to keep us busy with seemingly abstract concerns about the misuse of biotechnology rather than the real issues of land dispossession and racism, sexism, economic exploitation (classism), political oppression, and denial of the right of religious freedom and the use of religion as an instrument of oppression. (2)
The date here is significant given the World Convocation on JPIC (Seoul, 1990) and the WCC Assembly on "Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your Whole Creation" (Canberra, 1991), but also the period of transition to democracy in South Africa (1990-1994). Indeed, here justice was a prerequisite for sustainability, just as liberation from oppression was a prerequisite for justice and the advent of a democratic constitution. (3)
Since that time, things have certainly changed. Nevertheless, the quest for economic justice remains as dominant as ever before. This has to be understood against the background of contrasting government policies for Reconstruction and Development (RDP) and Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), and the much debated economic policies adopted under Jacob Zuma's government. Moreover, as has often been noted, the composition of the most affluent 25 percent of South Africa have changed dramatically over the last 16 years, while the gap between them and the poorest 40 percent of the population has actually increased in this period, despite a strong sense of "upward social mobility" amongst the lower middle class and housing and social grants provided to the destitute. Clearly, such economic inequalities, together with the overt wealth (if not naked greed) of the old and new elite and extremely high unemployment rates, define the current South African situation.
By contrast, discourse on reconciliation and peace receives relatively little attention. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation elicits more attention outside the country than inside. Xenophobic violence attracts considerable media attention but only underlines the priority attributed to economic considerations. Domestic violence and rape is recognized as a problem, but it is apparently so endemic that few church leaders and community workers know how to address the problem--probably because it can only be rectified through a long-term process of moral formation and accepting male responsibility (4) amidst severe societal pressures (crime, gangsterism, poverty, unemployment, HIV and AIDS).
In such a context it comes as no surprise that environmental degradation, although recognized, remains a marginal concern. In a September 2007 survey by TNS Research Surveys amongst 2000 South African adults, it was found that climate change was ranked last amongst 16 social issues identified. Not surprisingly, crime and HIV/AIDS topped the list. (5)
Can such prioritizing be avoided? What is morally at stake?
In secular as well as ecumenical discourse such considerations regarding relative priorities are by now easily refuted, despite popular perceptions to the contrary. There is a growing recognition that these three items on the social agenda of the church can only be addressed in association with each other:
* Economic productivity is hampered by a degraded environment--with grave consequences for a sustainable livelihood amongst impoverished communities.
* Environmental degradation, most notably climate change, is a matter of justice since those who contributed least to the problem will have to bear with its consequences.
* No peace or reconciliation is possible without economic and cultural justice.
* Injustices often form the root of conflict: An escalating spiral of conflict often emerges from structural violence, followed by revolutionary and repressive forms of violence.
* The roots of many conflicts are associated with the availability of scarce resources, such as water and oil that are threatened by environmental degradation.
* It is impossible to address an environmental concern such as climate change without coming to terms with the polarization that characterizes international discourse in this regard.
Theoretically, it is indeed not too difficult to come to terms with such a complex interplay. One may simply argue that these are various dimensions of the same problem. One may use any point of entry as long as there is an awareness of the other dimensions so that these would be addressed appropriately. This, one may argue, was also the thrust of the WCC programme on a "Theology of Life" that may be understood as an attempt to integrate these agenda items conceptually and programmatically--but losing the creative tension between these concepts in the process. (6) In the nuclear household, it is typically not possible to separate such concerns. If one's child is in hospital this would have implications for education, finance, family cohesion, gendered role responsibilities and so forth. It is only in large institutions where such aspects are separated in the form of different departments or desks--often with grave repercussions for dealing effectively with a problem.
Biblically, such a prioritizing of one theme above the other is clearly flawed as well. Typically, these themes are woven together. The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) provides a parable of our foolishness to separate what cannot be separated. Here the dividing of inheritance (7) leads to division between brothers, paralleled by the separation of the rich man from the other villagers. He finds himself all alone in contemplating his riches. (8) As Ambrose famously commented, the rich man's storage problem could have been resolved since he has ample storage available in the mouths of the needy. Here, too, social conflict is intimately related to justice, but justice is also not separated from broken relationships. (9) This drama is played out against the background of issues of sustainability. The bumper crop of this year would not necessarily be repeated next year. The riches are not shared in face of the fear of scarcity--which undermines the relaxation that the rich man allows himself, despite the abundance of God's grace and the plenty that the land brought forth. (10) Moreover, the seemingly unlimited riches that would last for many years are undermined by the man's own limited lifespan. His plans are therefore not sustainable either.
The SACC document on climate change recognizes the need to learn anew how mercy and loyalty, justice and peace are intimately connected (see Psalm 85:10-11). Nevertheless, the tension between these concepts is retained. This applies to both the sections on "seeing" (analyzing the roots of the problem) and on "judging" (discerning what is at stake). In ecumenical documents on climate change, also from within the African context, climate change is typically regarded as an issue of justice and not only of sustainability. This is usually related to the observation that the current and the most likely future victims of climate change contributed least to the problem. The section on "seeing" takes this observation further by exploring the roots of climate change in terms of the injustices that characterize the production of wealth (and the use of energy in this regard). It identifies ten sets of factors required for wealth production (p. 26-28). Since climate change is a function of such production of wealth, it can only be addressed through economic transformation that will entail a redistribution of wealth. At the same time, such calls for wealth redistribution would remain facile if the most appropriate mechanisms for redistribution are not clarified.
The interplay between justice and sustainability may be illustrated with reference to the South African context. In terms of the Gini coefficient, we have the worst economic inequalities in the world--leading to endemic tensions in society that are expressed in organized crime and corruption. The display of wealth by the consumer class is contrasted on a daily basis with the plight of the poorest 40 percent of the population. Here the emphasis throughout the document on the impact of the ideology of consumerism in the South African context (unlike the rest of Africa), amongst the consumer class and the lower middle class alike, is crucial. (11) The lifestyle of the consumer class requires the production of wealth that is characterized by injustices, but the aspiration of most others is to adopt a comparable lifestyle. Such consumerist aspirations are of course understandable but also tragic due to the recognition that the production of more and more wealth would not be sustainable given limits to the earth's carrying capacity (especially the absorption of carbon dioxide as a waste product of the current global economy). This is perhaps the deepest reason why climate change is indeed an issue of justice and why a concern for justice prompts an exploration of issues of sustainability. This also suggests that there is, alongside the production and redistribution of wealth, also a need for the redefinition of wealth (perhaps along the lines suggested in the "new economics") that would address issues around sustainability.
Climate change as spiritual issue?
In discourse on climate change in civil society and in an ecumenical context, one may identify an "ethics of convergence". (12) The analysis of the data is often similar; there is an emerging consensus on the appropriate targets and even on the strategies to be employed. Indeed, the documents issued by ecumenical organizations are quite similar in style, content and emphasis compared to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Worldwatch Institute, the Nicholas Stern commission or the Climate Action Network. This is certainly appropriate given the need for Christian participation in global forums where climate change can only be addressed through cooperative efforts. Nevertheless, it is, in my view, somewhat of an indictment on ecclesial discourse on climate change that it has merely reiterated what is offered in secular discourse. All too often Christians have repeated moral imperatives, calling on others (or on churches in general) to respond in this or that way. This suggests that Christian discourse on climate change is apparently not taking its own message seriously (13) and has largely failed to make the distinct contribution that it can indeed make. Indeed, have we as Christians managed to proclaim the good news of the gospel at a time when it is most needed, where it hurts most?
The SACC document on climate change seeks to respond to this observation by focussing on the spiritual issues at stake. It deliberately does not describe the likely impact of climate change in any detail and does not go into the technical details on adaptation and mitigation (see p. 19-26). Instead, in keeping with its target audience, the document focuses on the observation that climate change has become a moral, cultural and indeed a spiritual problem (see p. 5-7). Why is this the case?
In a section on "Judging the inability to offer an alternative economic vision", the document observes that climate change has been on the global agenda for more than two decades but that the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are likely to increase (due to a number of factors). It is also observed that a wealth of scientific information is already available, that there has been no shortage of conferences and consultations to address climate change, that these received considerable media attention and that technological solutions are apparently already available. This seems to suggest that addressing climate change has become a matter of mustering sufficient political will. Such political will is only possible on the basis of voter support and social pressure. The document then identifies the heart of the problem in the following way:
The underlying problem is not just a lack of information or planning. It is a liberal fallacy to assume that information and education is sufficient to prompt moral action. Likewise, even though South Africans are generally well-informed about HIV and Aids, such awareness seems to be insufficient to stop the rampant spread of HIV-infection. Christians know that they need to love their neighbours like themselves, but still find it difficult to do so. The problem is evidently not just a lack of knowledge. This may help us to understand why human-induced climate change points in the direction not merely of an economic or ecological crisis but towards a deeper cultural and spiritual one. This problem has to be addressed through moral formation and not merely by providing more information. It is not simply a matter of agreeing with a memorandum spelling out some common values or listing desired actions either. Moral formation typically takes place within faith communities. This implies that the ecological transformation of religious traditions is critical to the emergence of an ecological ethos. We suggest that, at a deeper level, the problem may be one of a lack of moral imagination, moral courage and moral leadership. It is indeed a matter of moral vision. We need to envisage alternatives to the current global economic order that has caused climate change--alternatives that will be able to generate sufficient wealth, distribute such wealth more equitably and help to redefine our very understanding of what wealth entails. Such a vision needs to be attractive enough to motivate millions of people, to energise and mobilise action (14).
Climate change is therefore a moral issue not only because of the issues of justice that are at stake but also because it prompts reflection on moral formation and appropriate virtues. It is a spiritual issue, because it prompts the most basic questions: Why should we do what is right in the first place? What will enable us to do what we know we need to do?
Several secular observers have recognized the potential of the world's religious traditions to offer the necessary inspiration, spiritual vision, ecological wisdom, ethical discernment, moral power and hope to sustain an ecological transformation of the global economy and the life-style patterns underlying that. Given the complicity of Christianity in the root causes of climate change, it should be clear that Christians will have to and may play a crucial role in coming to terms with the deepest roots of the crisis. Moreover, the prophetic literature in the Jewish-Christian tradition offers wonderful resources to express such an alternative vision.
The document then observes that churches in South Africa have failed to express and embody such an alternative vision, probably because of the attractiveness of the consumer society. In fact, the gospel is being compromised in numerous ways by the impact of consumerism in the church itself, for example, through the appeal of the prosperity gospel (p. 42-44). This observation prompts an exploration of an alternative vision in terms of the ecumenical notions of "justice", "peace" and "a sustainable society" (p. 47-56). This leads to a section on the interplay between these three aspects--where it is acknowledged that South African Christians tend to prioritize the one above the other (p. 56-57). Often such priorities correlate with a person's context and position of power and influence in society. In the section on the need for discernment, the tension between justice, peace and care for creation is therefore retained and remains unresolved.
What is at stake theologically?
It is, in my opinion, necessary to dig a little deeper in order to fathom what is at stake in the relation between the visions of justice, peace and a sustainable society. At the level of ecclesial praxis, it seems that any order of priority would depend on the context and that the one could not be addressed with the other. At the level of ethics, as we saw above, one may explore the complex interplay between these aspects. Often, though, the urgency of justice issues implies that calls for justice must be raised first and foremost, possibly to ensure that they are heard. Does this also apply theologically--where theology is not merely used as a metaphoric decoration for discourse on ecclesiology and ethics, but contemplates the identity and work of the triune God?
Such questions are not often addressed and they raise complex theological issues. A few preliminary observations may be helpful: God's work of sustaining and nourishing life on earth is typically associated with the theme of providence: God's mercy and faithfulness to God's own beloved creation endures forever (Ps 136). The earth is filled with God's hesed (Ps 33:5). It sustains us from moment to moment. This creates the necessary room for the history of God's acts of salvation/liberation/reconciliation. Justice is not merely a cardinal virtue and a value to become embedded in social structures; it is also associated with God's merciful verdict over our lives, our societies and our civilizations. A just verdict is what the victims of history look forward to and may celebrate now already as God's verdict is known. Reconciliation is typically discussed as a soteriological concept while peace remains an elusive and eschatological concept.
These observations suggest the need to reflect on the relatedness of various aspects of God's work, especially creation, providence, salvation and the hope for the completion of God's work. This matter cannot be explored here, but it may be interesting to investigate how this is handled in the SACC document on climate change.
a) In the section on "justice" the document states that Christians are right to regard climate change primarily as a matter of justice. This is explained with reference to the notions of gross economic inequality, ecological debt and the recognition that the victims of climate change have contributed least to the problem. The core of the argument relates to the recognition that the limited carrying capacity of the earth's biosphere and its limited ability to absorb the waste products of the consumer society aggravate such injustices, since everyone clearly cannot adopt the life-style of the consumer class.
Unlike many other ecumenical documents (e.g., from the African continent), this recognition does not only prompt prophetic calls to confront such injustices and to explore the meaning of solidarity with the victims. Such calls are certainly affirmed, but the thrust of the document is towards introspection and a confession of guilt. This has to be understood against the background of South Africa's own very high carbon footprint, the impact of consumerism and prevalence of consumerist aspirations. While it is appropriate to use the language of "the victims of climate change" with respect to the poorest 40 percent of South Africa's population, it is simply not possible to distinguish clearly between perpetrators and victims (or bystanders and beneficiaries) in this regard. This requires pastoral discernment--to refrain from placing undue blame on the victims or equating the environmental impact of the affluent and the poor, and also to explore the secret corner of the human heart. The document therefore links justice to God's judgment over our lives, cultures and ways of living. Christians are called to examine themselves in order to discern what would survive God's judgment.
That same judgment is a source of hope, not fear: "The victims of history cry out for a just verdict in the face of inequalities, injustices, oppression and extermination" (p. 49). However, the document leaves little room for complacency in claiming to be "innocent victims", for it immediately adds: "In the context of climate change such victims include numerous other species whose habitats have been devastated through urban expansion and commercial agriculture." In the face of the long-term scenarios portrayed in discourse on climate change and the many prophets of doom and destruction proclaiming a message of fear, this hope for God's judgment may well be quite unique. This is the kind of message that Christians may live from in the context of climate change.
In the sense that God's judgment is indeed "final", only because it is God's judgment, a certain priority is attributed to the vision for justice. Justice must come first in order to allow for a new beginning (not an end):
The challenge to Christians is to discern God's justice in such a way that it will elicit fresh hope--for the many victims of society and indeed for the perpetrators. That may certainly help us to revise our understanding of the basis, content and significance of Christian hope. We will have to learn anew what it means to trust in God alone. What we need perhaps most of all is a just verdict, a dear verdict that will liberate those that are currently victimised and that will offer a fresh beginning for all on that basis (p. 49).
b) Without justice there can be no lasting peace. In this sense justice has a certain priority over peace. However, one may also maintain that the aim of justice is peace. This suggests that an eschatological priority may be attributed to the quest for peace. However, more is at stake here when the focus is not merely on the eschatological vision but on the process of peace making (pax facio). This suggests another form of priority. Whenever violent conflict erupts, everyone tends to attend to their own interests first. This takes precedence over any other social concerns. In South Africa the political problem of democracy had to be resolved before issues around HIV and AIDS, education and housing could be addressed. The priority of climate change on global agendas will be surpassed by issues of peace wherever violent conflict over scarce resources erupts.
In the context of climate change, a political agreement is required in order to facilitate the local processes that will be required in order to change the energy basis of the entire global economy. Political will and leadership is required at an international level since climate change can only be addressed through global efforts. Of course, as the Copenhagen debacle illustrates, sufficient political consensus is hard to come by. This is related to the many forms of polarization that characterize discourse on climate change--between East and West, North and South, the Christian and the Muslim "worlds", the consumer class and the poor, (over)-industrialized and so-called "developing" economies, urbanized Africa and rural Africa, South Africa (linked to the so-called BRIC countries--Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the rest of Africa, gated communities and (environmental) refugees, previous and coming generations (ancestors and the unborn) as well as between the interests of humankind and other kind. Justice for the victims of climate change can only come through the difficult route of negotiations at various levels.
What does this require? An important paragraph from the SACC document on climate change explores what is at stake here:
It is at least important to understand that doing injustice always includes an element that can never be undone. Although restitution is often possible and necessary, there will always remain a deficit that cannot be addressed by the perpetrator due to the flow of time. For example, one can express remorse over a word that offended someone so that the impact of such a word could be minimised, but once such a word has been uttered, it can never be retracted. In other cases, for example rape or murder, the deficit between the harm done and what can be restored through acts of punishment or restitution will be much more significant. Such a deficit can be used as a weapon for revenge but can also be tolerated, condoned, forgotten or forgiven. This also implies that full justice, giving everyone exactly what is due to them, is never possible. In this sense, peace [making] and reconciliation surpasses the quest for justice. In history, and in South Africa, there have been many examples of people (including parents, community leaders and martyrs) who have demonstrated a willingness towards reconciliation despite the injustices done to them. To forgive someone is to deem the continuation of that relationship to be more important than the harm that was done to oneself (pp. 50-51).
This notion of a "deficit", born from the recognition that full justice, giving everyone exactly what is due to them, is not possible, comes to the heart of the matter but is highly delicate. Firstly, the deficit can only be tolerated, condoned, forgotten or forgiven by the victim. Secondly, if that is the case, reconciliation is only possible on the basis of confessing guilt by the perpetrator. Thirdly, lasting peace can only emerge if reconciliation is followed by appropriate acts of restitution. Fourthly, this has to be accompanied by symbolic rituals where the deficit is recognized and where it is acknowledged by both parties concerned that what is given back (through partial restitution) may indeed suffice for what is actually due (the whole which can never be given back).
Walking such a tightrope in interpersonal affairs is difficult enough. The controversies over the proceedings and outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provide ample evidence that this is highly complex when individual cases of a gross violation of human rights becomes a parable for national reconciliation. In the case of negotiations around climate change this is even more complex.
In this light the SACC document raises the question: What message of reconciliation could Christians offer with regard to climate change? It responds that there can be no easy answer to this question:
Firstly, those countries that have proportionally a high per capita emission of greenhouse gases are also countries where Christianity has historically been influential. Secondly, Christians with a large carbon footprint face other Christians with a smaller footprint across the table. While Christianity is associated with the affluent West, at least historically, in (South) Africa most church members are indeed poor and the likely victims of climate change. The problem is that such Christians, typically come to the table of international dialogue on climate change without having been reconciled with one another at the Lord's table (p. 51).
In a few highly charged paragraphs, the document then continues to explore the significance of the Christian message of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, for Christians in South Africa, in the context of climate change (see p. 52-3). It concludes by acknowledging the difficulties for Christians with a large carbon footprint and for Christians with a smaller carbon footprint to speak together over such a common challenge. Indeed, the tension has to remain unrelieved since the matter remains unresolved.
c) The SACC document continues with a section on "sustainability". It comments on the ecumenical use of the term since the Church and Society conference in Bucharest (1974) and the Nairobi General Assembly of the WCC (1975). It then explores various levels of the problem with reference to the debate on "limits to growth", "sustainable development" and "carrying capacity".
The document then comments that the most important question in reflecting on sustainability is not how something can be sustained or whether it is sustainable, but what exactly is being sustained: "The real question is whether industrialised civilisations can continue along more or less the same lines for another century or so. As many have recognised, what is at stake is the very foundations of our notion(s) of civilisation" (p. 55). It links this question with the call for justice on the basis of the recognition that the carbon footprint of various aspects of contemporary society (such as suburban housing, the tourism industry, air travel, mega-sports events, educational institutions, structures of governance and economic systems) can only be sustained on the basis of a smaller footprint elsewhere. Some may need to travel more, but that is only sustainable if others travel less (if using fossil fuels). This leads to the following conclusion:
It should be abundantly clear that the sharp inequalities that characterise the global economy cannot be sustained indefinitely. Not only would it be impossible for the global poor to adopt the standard of living of the consumer class; in a world with scarce resources the societal tensions associated with such inequalities cannot be contained (p. 56).
The document also assesses what is at stake theologically in such discourse on sustainability. This is expressed in an important paragraph:
Christians have always recognised God's providence, nourishment and sustenance. This is not merely a statement about the availability of resources. It is a deeply Christian confession of faith in God who has remained faithful to God's own creation even though we as a human species have not remained faithful to God. For Christians, the symbol of God's faithfulness is the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. God cares for us even when we do not care much about God. God continues to provide in our needs despite the impact of a consumer society with expanding needs where there never seems to be enough wealth for everyone. We demand more even though God's grace is abundant (pp. 54-55).
The document then relates this to climate change by suggesting that this faith in God's provision and sustenance is being tested in the context of climate change:
Will God remain faithful to Noah's children even when we engage in activities that threaten to destroy the ecosystems that sustain our lives? How long will God have patience with us? How long will God's mercy sustain us? Will we learn that God's mercy is sustained by God's justice? What about God's judgement over our lives, our ways and standards of living, our cultures and civilisations? Is God's judgement not also a way in which God's mercy is sustained? When will God begin to use the forces of chaos to destroy that which is no longer sustainable in order to start anew, to bring forth something that is creative, surprising and a source of wonder and amazement?
The theme of sustainability is thus associated especially with the theme of providence. It weaves together three aspects of God's providence that is typically identified in the reformed tradition, namely, ongoing conservation (conservatio), governance (gubernatio) and God's interaction with secondary causes, including human agents (concursus). However, it is clear from the formulations above that the themes of God's acts of creation, ongoing creation, salvation and final judgment are also brought into play. I will explore this interplay in the conclusion below. What should be noted here, though, is that the relative priority of issues around sustainability is not merely argued on the basis of common sense wisdom or pragmatic considerations. It is true that the concerns for justice and peace cannot be sustained if the ability of the biophysical environment to sustain human settlement is hampered. We need to care for the earth so that the earth can care for us. However, there is indeed more that is at stake here, namely, a Christian understanding of God's work on earth.
Reflecting on God's work on earth
In the previous section we saw in each case how the themes of justice, peace and sustainability may be associated with aspects of God's work on earth. The quest for justice is associated with God's merciful judgment over our lives and societies. Peace is an eschatological concept associated with the hope for the consummation of God's work, while reconciliation is best understood in terms of God's salvific engagement with the world. Sustainability is most obviously linked with God's providence.
In my view this begs deeper theological questions about the relationship between various aspects of God's work. In recent work I have suggested that seven "chapters" may be identified in the narrative of God's work, namely, 1) creation, 2) (evolutionary) history (ongoing creation), 3) the emergence of humanity, human culture and sin, 4) God's providence (conservatio and gubernatio), 5) the history of salvation, 6) the formation of the church, its ministries and missions, and 7) the consummation of God's work on earth. (15) Of course, one may wish to question such distinctions, the terminology employed, the narrative framework and the sequence of the seven "chapters" as suggested. The focus of the question, though, is on the ways in which the relationships between these themes are understood. What is the glue that holds them together? How is the story of God's work being told, whether explicitly or implicitly?
Although I cannot do justice to the complexity of this theme here, I wish to offer three suggestions in this regard:
a) It is crucial to make a distinction between creation as an act of God (creatio) and as the product of God's work (creatura). Creation as creatura is not only related to God's act of creation but to each of the other aspects of God's work. It is of vital ecological importance to reflect on the outcome of what God is doing and to relate that to the Earth itself.
b) This helps to emphasize that the Christian message of salvation cannot be understood as salvation from the Earth but only as the salvation of the Earth. Admittedly, raises complex questions as to what this phrase may mean. (16) From what does this the Earth have to be redeemed? Only from anthropogenic self-destruction? At the very least this phrase should remind us that salvation is for the sake of creation (creatura), that this is a sign of God's faithfulness to the work of God's hands. As the Dutch theologian Arnold van Ruler insists, salvation is not about the Saviour, or about salvation itself, or about being saved (the saved-hess of being) but about the being of the saved. (17) Any reflection on God's "holistic mission" would require reflection on diverse interpretations of the content and ecological significance of the Christian message of salvation. (18)
c) A narrative approach to the work of God may also help us to reflect on the relative priority of the aspects of the work of God underlying the themes of justice, peace and sustainability. One can assign priorities in different ways. The beginning of the story is crucial as it sets the stage for everything else that will follow. However, one does not need to start a story at the beginning. The end, of course, provides the clue as to how the different episodes are related to one another. Or, perhaps, the secret lies in the climax, in the height of the tension--the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Alternatively, one may suggest that it is possible to start a story anywhere, as long as the rest of the story is brought into play. In the case of the narrative of God's work, it is not possible to tell the whole story, if only because it remains incomplete. Instead, we tell it in fragments (every Sunday) and live gratefully from such crumbs even though we know that each fragment can at best provide a distorted synecdoche of the whole. Only in this way can one fragment of the story be corrected by the others. This indeed is the strength of doing theology in an ecumenical mode--so that we can remind one another of the full riches of God's work, and can correct one another's distortions. For South African Christians, this was indeed crucial during the decades of struggle against apartheid.
(1) The document was produced by the Climate Change Committee of the South African Council of Churches through an extended process of consultation from November 2007 to September 2009. It was subsequently endorsed by the national Executive Committee of the SAC(." and 211 Christian leaders in South Africa. I served as the editorial scribe of the committee.
(2) Quoted in D. Preman Niles, Between the Flood and the Rainbow, Geneva, WCC, 1992, p. 36.
(3) At a major consultation on JPIC at Granvollen, Norway in 1988, George Tinker argued that the sequence of JPIC should be reversed to give priority to the integrity, of creation because this is foundational for justice and peace. At the same time Konrad Raiser observed, "Is there behind the environmental commitment of the ecological movement of the industrialized nations a latent evasion of the demands for social and economic justice throughout the world?" See his Ecumenism in Transition: Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement? Geneva, WCC, 1991, p. 68.
(4) See Lindsay Clowes & Ernst M. Conradie eds., Rape: Rethinking Male Responsibility, Stellenbosch: EFSA, 2003.
(5) Reported in the Sunday Independent, 21 October 2007.
(6) For a discussion in this regard, see my Christianity and Ecological Theology: Resources for Further Research, Stellenbosch, SUN Press, 2006, p. 143-5.
(7) Kenneth Bailey suggests that there is a wordplay involved with respect to the division of inheritance (12:13): "The translator has selected a rare word, used only in this text in all of Biblical Greek, for the word 'divider'. In Greek it is meristes. Drop the r and move the i and the word becomes mesites, which means (reconciler). Jesus has not come as a meriste (divider) but rather as a mesites (reconciler). See Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 61.
(8) Bailey observes that this self-indulgent rich man is determined that he alone will consume God's gifts. The surplus wealth becomes "my grain and my goods". Indeed, the list of my crops, my barns, my goods, and finally my soul, has often been noted. Bailey comments that this man's speech in verse 19 is not sad but pitiful: "This wealthy, self-confident man has arrived, he has made it. All that he has longed for has now been realized. He needs an audience for his arrival speech. Who is available? Family? Friends? Servants and their families? Village elders? Fellow landowners? ... The gregarious Middle Easterner always has a community around him. But this man? He can only address himself. His only audience is his own nefesh." See Bailey, Ibid., p. 65-66.
(9) Bailey comments: "In a case of a broken personal relationship [over inheritance] Jesus refuses to answer a cry for justice when the answer contributes to a finalizing of brokenness of that relationship. He did not come as a divider. Jesus' parables often reflect a profound concern for justice for the poor. For him justice includes a concern for needs and not simply earnings (cf. Matt 20:1-16). But here a self-centered cry for justice is understood by Jesus as a symptom for sickness. He refuses to answer the cry hut rather addresses himself to the healing of the sickness that produced the cry." See Bailey, Ibid., p. 70.
(10) Bailey compares this parable with a saying of Ben Sirach. He observes that wealth is portrayed in the parable as a gift from God. In Ben Sirach's version the man reflects on what he should do with what he has earned. Jesus' character must ask: "What do I do with what I have not earned?" Bailey comments: "That he does not perceive the question in this fashion is what the parable is all about. Jesus' version introduces the idea of 'loan'. The man discovers his soul to be on loan. Was his wraith also on loan?" See Bailey, Ibid., p. 63.
(11) South Africa's newspapers report on a daily basis on the naked greed, lavish lifestyles and power-mongering amongst the former beneficiaries of apartheid and the current ruling elite alike. Coupled with the high prevalence of organized crime to obtain wealth instantly, one may observe that many South Africans have become obsessed with acquiring material wealth. Amongst the lower middle class this has not only fostered a strong upward social mobility, but also a culture of entitlement. If one can portray oneself as a victim--of apartheid, of crime, of AIDS or of fate--this seems to suggest that one is entitled to a degree, a job, a good salary,; a house, a car, a position of power or even to sexual favours. The prosperity gospel (which thrives in urban centres) renders theological legitimacy to such aspirations and upward social mobility.
(12) See Wolfgang Huber, Es ist nicht zu spat fur eine Antwort auf den Klimawandel: Ein Appell des Ratsvordtzenden der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland. EKD-Texte Heft 89 (30/5/2007.), www.ekd.de.
(13) See Wolfgang Huber, Kirche in der Zeitenwende: Gesellschaftlicher Wandd und Erneuerung der Kirche, Gutersloh, Bertelsmann Stiftung, 1998, p. 234-243.
(14) SACC, "Climate Change: A Challenge to the Churches in South Africa," Stellenbosch, SUN Media, 2009, pp. 39-40.
(15) See especially my article "The Earth in God's Economy: Reflections on the Narrative of God's Work", Scriptura, Vol. 97, 2008, pp. 13-36.
(16) See my essay "The Redemption of the Earth: In Search of Appropriate Soteriological Concepts in an Age of Ecological Destruction," Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, Ecology 2010 (forthcoming).
(17) See, e.g., Arnold A. van Ruler, Verwachting en voltooiing: Een bundel theologische opstellen en voordrachten, Nijkerk, Callenbach, 1978, p. 55.
(18) See my essay "The Redemption of the Earth...."
Dr Ernst M. Conradie teaches Systematic Theology and Ethics in the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.…
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Publication information: Article title: Justice, Peace and Care for Creation: What Is at Stake? Some South African Perspectives. Contributors: Conradie, Ernst M. - Author. Journal title: International Review of Mission. Volume: 99. Issue: 2 Publication date: November 2010. Page number: 203+. © 1998 World Council of Churches. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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