Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 2–4 

From the Editors: Eco-Discipleship

Michael Kunz and Laura Schmidt Roberts

Vision and compassion: these are two essential and inseparable elements of transformative spiritual life. When Jesus approached Jerusalem the week before his death and resurrection, he paused to survey a city that considered itself the center of right religion. There he wept, for he clearly saw the inevitable consequences that lay in store for a people who did not understand the things that make for peace. In that moment of vision and compassion, Jesus exemplified the long history of prophetic witness whose relevance and practice continues to this day.

Jesus constantly upbraided the religious establishment of his day for its blindness and hardness of heart. It is possible to claim consonance with biblical values while remaining oblivious to, or unmoved by, suffering and impending doom, but this places us on the wrong side of the biblical narrative. Christian faith, if lived true to its calling, provides us with the vision and compassion to identify the critical crises of our time, understand their fundamental causes and consequences, and work effectively toward their healing and restoration. The current groaning of creation is surely one such crisis, to which this issue of Direction is devoted.

The jeremiads of those concerned about environmental destruction tend to cause hearers to switch channels in search of less gloomy news. Little content in this issue recites litanies of negativity, but it is important at the outset to devote a paragraph to our context, for even the briefest recounting of our ecological crisis is sobering in the extreme. Extinction threatens many of earth’s diverse species, while hunger and food insecurity stalk human populations. Pollution of air and water shorten human lifespans, while garbage covers sections of ocean larger than most countries. Deforestation, depletion of aquifers, overharvest of global fisheries, and loss of soil fertility are a few of the pointers to unsustainable practices that compromise the present and jeopardize our future. And all of this is but a minor key compared to the potential future impacts of changing climates and rising seas.

Ours is not the first generation to face ecological damage, though our crisis is indeed most dire and extensive. We might gain some insight from John Muir, whose writing and advocacy helped birth the American conservation movement. Muir recognized two fundamentally different worldviews which lead in diametrically different directions. When he first arrived in California, he noted the pervasive attitude of almost all the people he encountered: “Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate” (John of the Mountains, 320). Reality was perceived as a {3} collection of separate entities. Such a worldview pervades our dominant view of economics, politics, nature, and religion. Problems and solutions, when viewed from this vantage, will take on a particular character. Muir viewed reality from a fundamentally different perspective, captured in his comment that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (My First Summer in the Sierra, 157).

A metaphor for deeper understanding of an issue is to “connect the dots.” In the common form of a children’s puzzle, what appears at first to be a random scattering of isolated points on paper reveals a coherent picture when the lines establishing their relationships to each other are drawn. This is certainly the case when the human and nonhuman aspects of ecocide are examined. The easy dichotomies we so often employ are revealed as illusory. When those dots are connected, care for a whole and healthy environment is understood as part and parcel of caring for a human neighbor. The disjunction between spiritual and material concerns fades as well. Even our concepts of the arc of history—past, present, and future—are understood to be connected in new ways.

Each of the articles in this issue provides us with new insights and avenues for expression of compassion. Though they range in form from biblical exegesis to consideration of daily practices, they all help us connect the dots. Ched Myers provides insight into the role of nature as a character in the quintessential conflict between imperial oppressor and oppressed recounted in Revelation and Exodus. These texts, he suggests, see nature’s violence as rebellion against greed and exploitation, calling us to a deep repentence. Laura Schmidt Roberts draws our attention to theological anthropology, asking how our understanding of human personhood changes when human interrelatedness with the rest of creation is seen as constitutive of human personhood in the way interhuman relationships are. Our attitudes and practices shift when we see that creation consists not of separate entities but of the kind of relationships Martin Buber characterizes as I-Thou rather than I-It.

Nathan Hunt applies theological themes and perspectives to a specific history of human and environmental oppression in the state of Colorado. Opposing care for humans to care for the bioregion can and must be rejected. Ken Martens Friesen draws on a different history, that of Anabaptist simplicity, which served as a foundational practice for centuries of Anabaptist Christians. That long tradition can serve as an antidote to the consumptive materialistic culture at the root of so much environmental devastation.

The polarization of environmental debates has led many Anabaptist and Evangelical churches to avoid conversations about environmental issues. {4} Katie Isaac offers helpful ways to reframe environmentalism as creation care so churches can once again attend to ecological responsibility as a Christian obligation. Audrey Hindes points to contemplative practices associated with wilderness, garden, and table that grant us a greater experience of God’s presence. In this process we also come to know and cherish creation more fully. Finally, Katerina Friesen tells of the lament and blessing of worship services held in wild nature. The practice of communal worship in the physical setting of creation has been a part of biblical and historical tradition; perhaps it is even more relevant now.

We who inhabit the intersection of Anabaptist Christian faith and environmental concern find ourselves standing with Jesus on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, lamenting what has been and may soon be lost. Compassion seems to compel us toward mourning, an aspect of many of the essays in this volume. But vision centered in the transformative power of the gospel does not leave us permanently in lament. With the psalmist, we live in hope that mourning will be turned even into a celebratory dance.

Wendell Berry, Christian poet and farmer, once observed: “The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do” (What Are People For, 201). These essays point to transformative vision and compassion that empower us to live fully into God’s intended shalom.

Amen, Lord. Let it be so.

Michael Kunz
Professor of Biology
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, CA
Laura Schmidt Roberts
Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, CA