Sin, Salvation, and Climate Action

Excerpted from a sermon at Altona Mennonite Church on September 11, 2022, called “The Gospel for All Creation.”

The Apostle Paul speaks of salvation often as “liberation” or “redemption” from “evil powers.”

For Paul these “evil powers” are forces that control us, yet which seem to be beyond our control. And for Paul the most basic of these evil powers is human sin: our individual habits of harm that wound ourselves and others, and our collective systems of harm that do the same but on a larger scale.

Let me name three of these evil powers that are especially strong within us and among us, causing devastation and destruction and death not just for humanity but for all creation: the sins of pride, greed, and violence.

In our pride, we as humanity have centered ourselves within creation and elevated ourselves above creation, instead of centering the Creator and lifting up creation. In our pride we have subjugated creation for our own ends instead of caring for creation as an end in itself.

For centuries now we as a western, industrialized society have sought to master creation in order to extract as many resources as we can out of it, all for our own purposes without any thought of the impact on the rest of creation, or even future generations. Even when we have known better, as we surely have for decades now, in our arrogance we have downplayed or ignored the problem.

As for greed, our greed as a western society is well-known. We have developed deeply ingrained habits of consumption and accumulation, always striving for more and newer and bigger and better. We have developed an entire economic system dependent upon consumption and accumulation.

This has caused tremendous harm to ourselves as human beings. We have objectified each other, seeing our core identity as producers and consumers and even objects to consume rather than as persons created in God’s image, having inherent worth and dignity regardless of our ability to produce or consume.

But our greed has also caused tremendous harm to the rest of creation. Instead of seeing the earth as a sanctuary created by God for the flourishing of life, the earth is viewed as a repository of resources to be extracted in order to sustain the capitalist engine of production and consumption and accumulation.

The consequences to species and ecosystems, and the impact on vulnerable peoples as the earth heats up, are catastrophic.

Out of our hubris and to sustain our greed, we have committed violence against creation and one another, causing destruction and death. We as so-called “developed” nations have exploited and violated the poorest and most vulnerable among us, including vulnerable ecosystems and species, all in order to maintain our lifestyles of convenience built on consumption and accumulation.

Our pride, our greed, and our violence. These are three of the most evil powers of sin at work both in human hearts and in the structures and systems of our society. And, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the wages of sin is death”: our pride, our greed, and our violence has paid as wages a devastating death not just for humans but also for the rest of creation.

But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that in Jesus we can be liberated from our pride, our greed, and our violence. We can be liberated from these evil powers that dominate and destroy us and the world which is our home.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Jesus shows us a better way, where we are freed to live in humility and compassion instead of hubris, in simplicity and generosity instead of greed, in ways of justice and peace instead of violence. Jesus taught and lived out these things in resistance to the pride, greed, and violence of his day.

Jesus “humbled himself,” Paul says in another Christ hymn in Philippians 2, “he humbled himself, took on the form of a slave,” and died a slave’s death on a Roman cross.

And this humility was driven by compassion: multiple times the Gospels say that Jesus was “moved by compassion” to respond to the needs of others. Jesus shows us a better way than human pride, a way that prompts us to work together for the good of each other and all creation.

Instead of greed, Jesus taught and lived out simplicity. Freeing ourselves from the need to accumulate more, being freed from the chains of Mammon. Instead, trusting in God for our daily bread: just what we need, no more, just when we need it, not before.

This way of simplicity leads to generosity. Because we can hold our possessions lightly, because we trust that God will provide for us when we need it, we can be generous with what we have when others are in need.

And Jesus taught and lived out the way of nonviolence, living in harmony with one other and all creation: loving both neighbours and enemies, and attending to “the birds of the air” and “the flowers of the field.” This is a way that resists evil non-violently, walking in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable even if that means a cross.

This is the good news of Jesus: that we can be liberated from the evil powers that dominate and destroy us, including our own pride and greed and violence. And the key to experiencing this good news? It is as Jesus himself said when he first came proclaiming the gospel: “Repent and believe.”

We need to turn away from our habits and systems of harm, our ways of pride and greed and violence—we need to repent.

And we need to believe—not simply “believing certain things to be true,” that’s not what biblical faith is. Rather, biblical faith is trusting in God and committing ourselves to God’s way. Walking in Jesus’ way of faith, walking in Jesus’ way of hope, and walking in Jesus’ way of love.

My friends, here is where the good news of Jesus intersects with our eco-mission as a church: when we live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, when we live out the faith and hope and love of Jesus, when we live out our liberation from pride and greed and violence, we will see creation renewed.

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)