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PLAYING THE GREEN CARD: Schori's Easter Message -- by Gary L'Hommedieu

PLAYING THE GREEN CARD: Schori's Easter Message


By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu

"When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?" (The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Message for Easter 2008)


Well, there you have it, the "resurrection" proclamation of the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. According to her message, the only thing "rising" is methane gas from cow patties (in their "pre-hamburger" state, if you catch my drift). At least we can be thankful that it's not the same old "bull" from the National Church office. The Lady Primate is unearthing still another treasure from the era of gender equality.

The Schori Easter message has a pretty good point. She makes a fair and intelligent link between the so-called Baptismal Covenant of the 1979 Prayer Book and the call for Christians to exercise biblical stewardship over creation. As she put it, "We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors." Ouch! That smarts a bit, as indeed it should. Furthermore, she makes her case on a sound theological basis. "We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives."

Good point. Now for the application:

"I would invite you to explore those [baptismal] promises a bit more deeply -- where and how do they imply caring for the rest of creation?"

An excellent thought for this or any time of year -- but as the central proclamation of Easter? The only thing proclaimed is that I really am guilty after all. One is left wondering how the fact of Jesus' resurrection informs my reflection about caring for creation? How does it transform me, empowering me to "rise" above whatever spiritual deficiency draws me to overcompensate through hamburger fetishes (for example)?

I don't get the impression the Presiding Bishop looks at Jesus' resurrection as anything like a fact, certainly not the way she sees global warming as a fact. She makes a fleeting reference to "the resurrected Christ" whose "grace" empowers me to share the "abundant life" -- by which she means my disproportionately large share of the earth's abundance. That abundance does not come from Christ but from my overzealous forbears, who "worked overtime" to outshine Canaanite fertility worshippers, whipped the creation into submission like early industrial capitalists and banked the profits. I'm their spiritual heir and beneficiary, who now needs to disperse more crumbs from his abundant table and perhaps redirect his consumer tastes so that the crumbs are less toxic.

Then all of a sudden she lets me off the hook. I'm not being called to any real repentance, not even burger-less Fridays, which might raise ocean temperatures before next General Convention. For now I need go to the time-out chair, reread my Baptismal Covenant and feel guilty for a few minutes. But don't worry, intones the Lady Primate; nothing will really change.

Nor do I get the impression I'm being called to radical conversion. For today's Episcopalian becoming radical means anything but conversion. It might entail some adjustments to one's political vocabulary. Anyway there's nothing to be converted to, or filled with, or empowered by, once I have ears to hear the message. I'm as likely as ever to backslide in that far country where fast food adorns every high hill.

The Presiding Bishop knows who she is -- the poster child of the new Episcopal religion. Her relationship with the great majority of her devotees is as strong as it is warm. She knows that they want her to deceive them, to play at religious depth, neither to enter those depths herself nor to draw them in. They know she will call them to dizzying heights and let them off dirt cheap. She will challenge them to save the world, then hold them accountable for less than a penny on the dollar -- the going rate for utopia at the UN under Millennium Development Goals. Her disciples won't ask her why two and a half trillion dollars funneled through the UN over the past five decades failed to achieve utopia, or even deliver 12 cent malaria vaccines to children in Africa. They won't ask because they don't want to know.

Today's Episcopalians want to be deceived the way people at other times wanted to be saved.

In her message Professor Schori speaks from an actual area of expertise -- biological science -- though one suspects she's been out of the field for a while. She speaks of global climate change as if it were an established fact, unlike the resurrection of Jesus, which is a pregnant metaphor and potentially useful in drawing attention to political fads. She may not be aware of the growing list of scientists publishing evidence of a global cooling trend, and others who are just fed up with politicians exploiting the latest "crisis" for their own benefit. What her comments attest is that global warming, regardless of its status as science, is political orthodoxy. The resurrection is myth; climate change is dogma.

Its status as orthodoxy is what qualifies global warming to be added to the TEC pantheon of issues mandated under the Baptismal Covenant. Dr. Schori exercises a skilled critical eye in identifying the kernel of doctrine in the Prayer Book and expounding it:

"Our latest prayer book was written [back in 1976] just a bit too early to include caring for creation among those explicit baptismal promises" listed in the Baptismal Covenant. The "explicit baptismal promises" she refers to went under the names of "justice and peace." What was "explicit" about these rather generic sounding promises? The fact that the popular culture had equated "justice and peace" explicitly with the many protest movements of the era, all of which followed the same pattern, displaying the same histrionics, and touching on the same emotions. The proto-type, of course, was the civil rights movement, which demonstrated enormous success in commanding the attention of the world. This success was exploited by later movements, whose advocates had a luxury to protest that the civil rights pioneers never enjoyed. Some early leaders say civil rights ended with Viet Nam.

By the time the Prayer Book was approved in 1979 the civil rights engine had already left the station dragging anti-war and feminist cars in its train. Shortly afterwards other cars were coupled to it, notably the gay rights car. The environmental movement had begun, but it had not yet been politicized into a coherent force. The Presiding Bishop's Easter message is not the first instance where a Christian leader has expressed concern about the environment or directed Christians to a biblical stewardship of creation. It is one of the first times a ranking prelate has made a spectacle of righteous impatience over the environment and allowed this to overshadow the church's kerygma. The Presiding Bishop in her Easter message is testing something still fairly new: she is playing the "green" card.

Political wild cards have a slightly different function in the church than they do in the secular arena. In politics playing wild cards -- the race, gender, sexual orientation card, etc. -- has the effect of putting a political adversary on the defensive, while protecting the person playing the card from taking an actual position or committing himself to an idea. Politicians press for knee-jerk reactions from an excitable electorate to savage their enemies and mask their own intentions.

The church stumbled on political card playing in a serendipitous moment. The 60s and 70s were the era in which God was declared dead and trendy clerics wrote "honest" exposés of their loss of personal faith under the scrutiny of modernity, even while refusing to resign their comfortable livings. Then overnight Western Christianity was reborn as a sanctimonious protest movement. On college campuses students were using the moral high ground of political outrage as an excuse to flout the rule of law and traditional morality. "Yes I'm skipping class, shacking up with my honey and indulging in illegal substances. But these are trivial matters. What defines me morally are the strong statements I'm making about justice and peace." In the churches protest, with its palpable feeling of moral superiority, became the modern equivalent of a sacrament. It conveyed righteousness -- the sense that one is right with whatever's out there -- which is the raison d'être of religion.

The Presiding Bishop's Easter message is the latest experiment in the trafficking of righteousness. Whether the climate crisis is genuine or not, the fact that Americans feel guilty about it is beyond doubt, and that's what matters. This is where Schori demonstrates her own spiritual intuition.

"The Judaeo-Christian tradition has been famously blamed for much of the current environmental crisis, particularly for our misreading of Genesis 1:28 as a charge to 'fill the earth and subdue it.' Our forebears were so eager to distinguish their faith from the surrounding Canaanite religion and its concern for fertility that some of them worked overtime to separate us from an awareness of 'the hand of God in the world about us,' especially in a reverence for creation. How can we love God if we do not love what God has made?"

Observe the following three elements which here make up the sacramental playing of a political wild card -- in this case, the green card.

First, the Presiding Bishop identifies the spiritual problem -- her own sense of guilt, and that of her demographic circle. Western tradition has been "famously (read "appropriately") blamed" for the global environmental crisis. Most of us feel guilty already and squirm under the reminder that the rest of the world has learned to play the blame game. Here's how we will dispose of our guilt. We will indulge our guilt feelings, savoring them almost -- after all, our guilt has made us famous! -- and then we will resolve them into a hypothetical political program, environmentalism. Next we will identify the predictable adversaries to our hypothetical program among those in our own circle, typically anyone two inches to the right of us on the political spectrum. These will be classified as adversaries not of our program but of the environment itself. Similarly, we are no longer advocates of a single hypothetical solution to a problem; we are the solution incarnate. In a moment we have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of justice and peace.

Next, the Presiding Bishop puts on airs of elite scholarship citing a well-known biblical text and revealing its "real" meaning. Interestingly, she does not do this to "unlock" the text and give it a fresh interpretation, which is the task of scholarship. Instead she reaches for a novel interpretation in order to place herself in a position of superiority relative to the text. In the case of Gen 1:28 the Presiding Bishop declares her true sympathies, mischaracterizing the Hebrew protagonists, and then siding with their enemies -- with the Canaanite pagans, on the one hand, and their contemporary counterparts, the neo-pagans that comprise our modern secular society. Her contempt for her own spiritual "forbears," those greedy workaholic proto-capitalist Hebrews, is scarcely concealed. The message is subtle but clear: the church's task today is to distance itself from its formative culture, even as the ancient Hebrews "distinguished themselves" from the Canaanites. She is the fox in the ecclesiastical henhouse.

Here is a point that cannot be overstated: progressive Christians draw on their own history primarily, if not exclusively, as a primitive backdrop against which to highlight their own comparative superiority. Historic Christianity is the dragon which today's Christians slay on a world stage, specifically to win the approval of a public that no longer conceals its hatred for Christianity. Martin Luther complained about the Babylonish captivity of the church, but this is something even further advanced. This is the Stockholm Syndrome of the church.

Finally, Dr. Schori concludes her analysis with a rhetorical question whose unassailable truth is taken to validate the half-truths and distortions she has used immediately before. "How can we love God if we do not love what God has made?" One hears the mournful tone of Pax Romana: "How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being, if we love not the world which thou hast made?" This hymn, composed during the nightmare of the Great War, states a theological truth in the form of a rhetorical question. It would be monstrous to argue the point. Its truth does not, however, overturn patent falsehoods which may happen to be scribbled on the same page by another hand. Neither does it make the Presiding Bishop's slander of Hebrew religion into historical fact. Gen 1:28 is not God's permission to destroy the environment, which she now heroically challenges. Her use of a rhetorical device is the means by which she establishes her own scriptural straw man, which she then knocks down. She has signaled to the public that the Bible, here portrayed as a hideous mandate to pillage the creation, exists primarily as something for clever people like herself to debunk and destroy.

Playing the green card does not employ inflammatory rhetoric, nor is it yet widely used for character defamation in political campaigns. It has been tested to be an effective means for conjuring up moral capital out of thin air. As in other social concerns, parroting prescribed formulas of grave concern translates immediately into personal righteousness. Such is the politicized nature of discourse in the public square.

Global climate change is a perfect example. The facts of a global warming "crisis" are widely disputed. In some circles it is proclaimed as dogma, where even to question it is to advocate the return to a flat earth. In other circles it is viewed as fear mongering and opportunism. The most important fact about global warming is that it is added so readily to the list of things for which the West is "famously blamed," thus issuing in the usual rituals of narcissistic self-loathing and blame shifting.

Here is where playing a political wild card, such as the newly christened "green card," demonstrates a different potential in the church from that in the general society. They both equally attest to the total politicization of public discourse. But politics in church has a religious function, beyond the recognition of the church as a political institution. In recent decades politics has enabled the church to reinvent religious salvation. This is not the old idea of religiously motivated people improving or "saving" society through social reformation or revolution. This is not actually achieving "justice and peace," but feeling good about talking about it. This is about being delivered from the guilt of those offenses for which we are "famously blamed."

As for there being an abundant life communicated to us through a man sent by God who literally died for us and rose again, that theory is safely ensconced in the archives of the flat earth society. Let's hope it inspires a few people to recycle their morning papers on Easter Sunday. If we're lucky they'll cook something besides burgers on their grills Sunday afternoon.

---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.

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