Kin-dom and Activism for faith communities, four approaches

December 23, 2017

By Rev. Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Ministries, supported by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota and the Sisters of Loretto, Denver

For several decades, Christian feminists have been using the term “kin-dom”, instead of the traditional “kingdom”, especially in saying the Lord’s Prayer. The new language has spread more broadly into some parts of progressive Christianity.

As I consider the state of the world these days — ecologically, in terms of human justice, politically — I’m convinced that “kin-dom” is a valuable and enticing image that provides an alternative to what scientists are calling the Anthropocene.

Placing the two new terms side-by-side gives a vivid sense of how far astray the modern global society has gone, and of the directions that we must turn to get back on track.

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Swapping in a hyphen to replace the letter G in kingdom leads to big changes in meaning and understanding. It turns us away from a notion of God as a masculine monarch, and challenges the idea that God’s creation is best seen as a hierarchical entity. (I’m guessing that the theological pun only works in English.)

The language about God’s kin-dom is new, but the idea is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian thinking. As I have written often, the Hebraic formulation of shalom lifts up the vision of peace with justice through all creation. Ethicist Larry Rasmussen has helped us recover that wholistic view with the powerful phrase “Earth community.”

This week, I’ve gone back to a helpful book on that theological theme, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation, by Richard Bauckham. In the first paragraph of the book’s preface, he writes, “the Bible does evince a strong sense of the interconnectedness of all creatures and relates this to their common dependence on God their Creator.” Kin-dom, indeed.

In the central chapter of the book, Bauckham notes that the use of “community” to include both humans and the rest of nature probably originates with American conservationist Aldo Leopold.

What is important for us about Leopold’s image of a biotic community is that it models the kind of commonality and interdependence of humans and all other creatures that the Hebrew Bible recognizes and which, at the same time, is so clear from our contemporary ecological plight, especially the effects of climate change.

God’s kin-dom, God’s realm, the presence of shalom, the community of creation — all of these are found as driving themes throughout scripture. They appear as motivators of hope and behavior, the goal toward which we are called to direct our personal and collective lives. Bauckham notes, “If there is hope for the people, then there must also be hope for the non-human creation.” He adds:

But, if we accept the diagnosis that human wrongdoing is responsible for ecological degradation, it follows that those who are concerned to live according to God’s will for [this] world must be concerned to avoid and repair damage to God’s creation as far as possible. Like the coming of the Kingdom of God, we cannot achieve the liberation of creation but we can anticipate it.

For faithful and aware Christians today, community and our kinship with all creation are essential components of relevant theology and ethics.

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Christian theology has to reclaim Earth community as a central proclamation because we are now so far away from that blessed community. There is an emerging sense that we have entered the Anthropocene — another new word for our modern age.

The cover story for the September 27, 2017 issue of Christian Century was titled (in the print version), Waking up to the Anthropocene. Norman Wirzba described this new era:

The Anthropocene marks the moment when humans became the dominant force in planetary history, responsible for the widespread alteration of the world’s land, ocean, and atmospheric systems. If in the past it could have been assumed that nature’s power dwarfed and limited human ambition, in the Anthropocene the situation is reversed: human power is now the primary, determining influence shaping Earth’s future. Though planetary systems and ecological processes are still clearly at work, their expressions can no longer be understood apart from human activity. From cellular to atmospheric levels, there is no place or process that does not reflect humanity’s technological prowess and economic reach.

That human power, unfortunately, is not benign, and it is not building up the vitality of the community of creation. In a series of graphic presentations, the website “Welcome to the Anthropocene” highlights the crossing of critical planetary boundaries — including species extinction and climate change — and names 1950 as the start of a “Great Acceleration” in human impacts. Wirzba (along with many other experts) connects the Anthropocene with the rise of now-dominant political and economic systems. “Both imperial power and capitalist production are driven by the desire to accumulate wealth. The wealth that is sought, however, has little to do with the commonwealth“. He also points to a philosophical/theological issue in our way of relating to the world. “But when freedom is characterized as liberation from nature, or as the ability of self-determining subjects to annex and exploit the world without end, then the degradation of places and the exploitation of communities are sure to follow.”

More than a decade ago, I named the challenge for those of us who are “liberal” and “progressive” that our notions of progress often celebrate an increasing separation from and power over the natural world. The modern mindset has infected even our theological aspirations.

The new geologic era of the Anthropocene reflects human intentions that are almost exactly contrary to what is needed to build up God’s kin-dom. Our modern age has belief systems, economic systems and political systems that are devastating the planet.

Here in the United States, my great and ongoing lament is that our national political institutions — the executive branch and the congress — are driven by the mindset and the values of the Anthropocene. They, and parallel forces in state governments and business, are moving rapidly and brutally to exploit and abuse the community of creation, and to build human power and wealth. This veering of public policy away from Earth community demands that Christians be involved actively in political and social change.

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It is not a surprise that two startling new terms have emerged in recent years. The emergence of the Anthropocene is one reason why Christians have found it necessary to emphasize the blessing of God’s kin-dom. Kin-dom is a profound theological hope that can guides us in this age of destruction.

Wirzba ends his article with this statement:

The dream of a perpetual growth economy that will fuel the individual ambitions of billions is over. In our Anthropocene world, it has become more important than ever to devote ourselves to the sort of homemaking that makes hospitality to all people and all creatures a distinct possibility. Christians have much to contribute to this work.

The choice before us is stark and vivid. We can continue to accelerate the destruction and destabilization of the Anthropocene, or we can turn toward the hope and healing of God’s shalom for all creation.

In the preaching and teaching of churches, I pray for a dramatically stronger emphasis on God’s kin-dom, and the value of the community of creation. In our advocacy and witness, I pray that we can be clear and compelling in the turn toward Earth community.

Shalom!Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Our commitment to God’s shalom — to peace with justice encompassing all creation — calls us beyond deep thoughts and fervent prayer, and into some form of effective engagement with the world.

Our efforts at activism may be hindered, though, if we define the term too narrowly. If we can envision only one way of doing activism, we’ve limited our strategic toolbox, and discounted the skills and gifts of people who are better suited for other kinds of action.

Today, I want to highlight four very different forms of activism, to help clarify the range of options that are available to us — especially within the context of faith communities.

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Issue activism
Tightly focused advocacy on specific issues is the classic image of activism. It is the presumed, go-to approach for many people and organizations committed to social change. It often builds on the models developed by Saul Alinsky, and his definition of an issue: a matter where a specific choice can be presented to a single decision-maker for a clear-cut answer.

Issue activism, then, focuses on decision makers — legislators, people in government offices, corporate executives — and goes to them with demands. We call members of congress, urging them to pass or block a bill. We stage a protest outside of corporate offices, calling for a decision (stop using palm oil in your products, don’t frack here).

Sometimes the “demand” is made politely, with phone calls to politicians. Sometimes it is more explicitly conflictual, with an angry confrontation or acts of civil disobedience.

Issue activism is the hallmark of activism because it is so effective at addressing specific issues. Wins and losses are measurable. Victories build enthusiasm and political capital.

But within faith communities, issue activism can be difficult to do. The issues that are selected may divide the congregation. The sharp lines that can be drawn between “us” and “them” who take opposing sides can feel too divisive. It is a proven and powerful strategy, but it may be hard to implement within a religious setting.

Public witness
There are many occasions when it is necessary to act, but there is no decision-maker to target, and no specific choice to highlight. In what I call “public witness”, the activism is addressed to a broader community, lifting up a more general concern.

A great example of public witness comes from Billings, Montana, in 1993. In an act of anti-Semitism, on the first day of Hanukkah, a rock was thrown through the front window of a house displaying a Menorah. Within a matter of days, Christian families put drawings of a Menorah in their windows. The local paper printed a full-page image that could be displayed. 6,000 homes, in a city of 80,000, took part in the act of solidarity. Nothing was done that qualified as issue activism, but the community was changed.

This past summer, after the violence in Charlottesville, rallies and marches were held across the country. The message was fuzzy — a rejection of the KKK and the “alt-right”, a rejection of racism and violence, an affirmation of community and racial justice — andthat outpouring of witness has shaped community values and clarified measures of political strength. So, too, with the Women’s Marches held last January.

Public witness — taking a stand about a matter of ethical importance — is a wonderfully appropriate strategy for faith communities. Our participation as clergy and as religious institutions adds strength and creditability to the witness. Acts of witness demonstrating broad concern for a cause (climate change, racial justice) can lay a foundation for issue activism, or reinforce the more specific work being done on an issue.

Constituency building
Margaret Mead’s famous quotation affirms that a small group of committed people can change the world. Usually, though, that small group builds a much larger constituency of support and action. One necessary form of activism is work to build up the movement.

To make a difference in the world, activists need to bring more people into involvement on the issue. We need to move people from being “aware” of a problem or an issue, to being “concerned” and “committed” — getting to the point of making a moral judgment and taking a personal stance. The activism of constituency building is directed at our friends and neighbors and colleagues, to get them involved. We may often try to connect those folk with other organizations working on an issue or cause.

Faith communities have a mixed record on this kind of activism. All too often, I’ve seen churches do education about an important topic, and call it quits after a simple sharing of information. Nobody is moved to do anything. The better examples go beyond simple awareness into ethical engagement — in sermons, classes, or service in the community — and in encouragement to act in some way. Faith communities can do important work by getting their members to participate in work for social change.

Building conversations
In recent years, US politics has become highly polarized and communities have become deeply divided. The election of Mr. Trump, and single-party control of Washington have heightened an already existing problem.

In this fractured context, and with the “bubbles” of social media and news where everything reinforces a partisan perspective, rising levels of mistrust and misinformation make communication virtually impossible across the broader community.

A new and necessary form of activism for today involves intentional work to establish communication, respect and trust in divided communities. There is a need to get people together who hold conflicting opinions and beliefs — not to negotiate a policy stance, but to hear each other’s stories and to understand each other’s motivations. Without that kind of understanding, we will be caught in a setting where opposing advocates can never compromise or cooperate.

Faith communities are an ideal setting for this kind of conversation. Often, our congregations include people with sharply divided perspectives on many issues, but who also have some sort of personal connection. Within churches, we can provide a setting where passionate people can speak and hear about why we are strongly motivated on critical issues — not to convince each other, but to better understand each other and open the door to respectful communities.

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This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are many other ways that individuals and groups can engage in action: financially with investing or divesting or purchasing decisions; through the courts; in the hands-on work of ecological restoration; and more.

These four strategies for action, though, are ones that can be considered by faith communities that want to make a difference in the world. They expand the toolbox so that congregations can find a way of acting that is appropriate for their particular setting, and the problems that need to be addressed.

There are many ways to act, and many issues or problems that need action. How is your congregation applying faith in ways that make a difference and get people involved?

P.S. — Last week’s Notes talked about the “Our Children’s Trust” lawsuit, and the way it raises claims of climate justice for coming generations. I neglected to include a link to a sermon I gave on that topic recently which goes into more depth on a theology of stewardship and the details of the legal case.