Posted by: Carl Magruder | February 6, 2009


                As you might guess, the water cooler talk around here is not what you might find in a typical workplace.  Oh, we discuss the commute, and weather like everyone else.  We were fortunate that Lizzie was in California for a conference last week when her team won the Super Bowl, or we might have been subjected to some gentle gloating, but a good deal of the casual conversation in this office is concerned with ethics, theology, and ecology.  I suppose that this is to be expected in an office where meetings start with a prayer.

                Repentance is a theme that has come up recently, and which is present with me today.  There are three aspects of repentance, though we often get stuck on the first one and do not go on to the second and third.  The three parts are: confession, ceasing to sin, and surrendering one’s life to divine law.  It turns out that sincere confession is not the end of it.  Furthermore, repentance is a prerequisite for atonement.

                What does this mean in a society that is built on and necessitates for its perpetuation of its economy the destruction of God’s Creation?  The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of resources and creates a proportional amount of waste while almost a third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day.  That’s not exactly gospel economics.  God, who has created heaven and earth, and declared them ‘good’, surely does not condone the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, the ozone layer, the oceans, etc.  We know for sure that ecological devastation that disproportionately harms the poor and powerless is a clear violation of Christ’s teaching and example.

                I am not writing this out of a fascination with legalistic piety, by the way.  As a Christian environmentalist, I have noticed the fervor with which people have latched onto the idea of carbon offsets as a form of atonement—a sacrifice that heals the breach caused by damaging Creation.  The effectiveness of carbon offsets is debated, and certainly not all offset schemes are created equal.  Some environmentalists have likened them to papal indulgences.  My focus here, however, is on the psychological and spiritual interest in them.  There are many who long for a carbon-neutral lifestyle.  Are these the people described in the Beatitudes as “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”?  (Matt. 5:6)

                Given the knowledge of how our lifestyle choices effect the Creation and all of its inhabitants, how do we repent?  It is clear, for instance, that use of the private automobile is very damaging to Earth.  Air travel is more damaging still.  There is no scriptural justification for sin simply for the sake of expedience, because everybody does it, or because the law of the land condones it.  There is no longer any legitimate claim of ignorance for most of us.  And yet, the pervasiveness and persistence of my transgressions goes on.  I don’t own a car, but I still use fossil fuels for travel and household uses.  I still eat meat, even beef occasionally, for that matter!

                I have been fascinated by the Book of Acts for the last year or so.  It depicts, in part, how the early Christian community tried to live according to the principles and guidelines that Jesus had taught, even though they were in the midst of an empire that did not share their values.  They created a radical economic structure, and sought to create a community that would run on spiritual values.  They did not directly confront the empire politically, except in the sense that living spiritual values is always a challenge to the status quo.  Of course, they did not live in a democracy, the way we do. 

                At the NCC Eco-Justice offices, living our faith is in part a matter of helping to reshape the society at large in a way that makes the second part of repentance, which is ceasing to transgress, more possible.  Public policy reform can help us to provide comfort to the poor, reduce violent conflict, foster racial equality, and be more faithful in our care for Creation.  Of course, the project of creating the blessed community goes forward at the same time, and there is certainly a place for personal spiritual integrity in our lifestyle choices.  It is an ‘all of the above’ scenario—personal, communal (congregational), and national. 

                It is a joy and a responsibility to witness to the Gospel on Capitol Hill.  Repentance and atonement happen every day, over and over.  The Hebrew word for sin, which might best be translated as “missing the mark”, implies that we will try again.  If we hit the mark, we will move the target back!  The staff here is constantly encouraged by the involvement of Christians all over the country who take on environmental concerns as part of their private and congregational life. 

                If you would like to learn more about reducing your carbon footprint and helping your congregation or youth group to move towards carbon neutrality (a sinless state?), please click here.  For information on reducing exposure to toxic chemicals in your church, home, or workplace check out our Cleanliness and Godliness toolkit and gathering guide. 

                “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  John 1:14




  1. Thank you, Carl, for your always thought-provoking comments on real problems, ongoing solutions, and theological implications.

    Your idea about transportation and other carbon-increasing activities being sinful is intriguing, and while I can’t argue with the obvious impact on the environment and disproportionate use of these technological inventions by a few of the planet’s inhabitants, I’m having trouble finding in my heart a need to repent of driving to the light rail station each day in order to go to work. For one thing, as far as repentance goes, I have much bigger fish to fry (and at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I don’t think I’m alone in this). Paying attention to and acting to limit potential energy-wasting measures (both large and small) in my control, sharing my blessings with others, and working to encourage and educate others about the effects their choices have on their health and that of the planet and its other inhabitants are aspects of my life that I recognize as needful right now. As I continue to live the truth I know, I will continue to be enlightened. I hope, meanwhile, to not be discouraged in my ultimate goal, which is, indeed, a sinless state, one that completely transcends the need for carbon-based energy (“And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” Rev. 21:23).

    However, I believe that God, who knows and loves each of us and the whole of his creation intimately, did not bless us with the abundance of the earth’s resources and the knowledge of how to make use of them for our benefit so that we could then be condemned for doing so. I do not deny the fact that we, collectively and historically, have not made use of these resources in a way that is fully pleasing to him. My understanding of the Savior’s atonement includes compensation for and restoration from these collective sins and their consequences (again, a benefit from an omniscient and all-loving God).

    That being said, The fact that we are progressing to the point that we recognize the harm caused by our lifestyles is the further light we need to convince us that we must make alterations in them. I believe God expects that of us, and will actively assist us in finding ways to overcome these harmful ways of existing in the world as we ask him to do so.

    “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” Isaiah 28:10

    • I may have focussed unduly on individual right ordering in this message as well. What has changed in part as a result of post-modernism is that the idea of individual righteousness has receded in importance as the interconnectedness of all things has become more and more apparent. We now must seek systemic righteousness–structures that serve to mitigate suffering and make God’s love more accessible in the world. Individual righteousness (barring truly heinous acts) may have its primary significance only in how it prepares us to be a helpful part of an emerging global consciousness of unity.
      Luckily, there is grace, and there are miracles, (called “radical discontinuities” by systems theorists), and the whole of Creation strains towards healing and wholeness.

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