This week we talked about environmental fairness, but we discovered that this is not a simple calculation. In theory, according to Scripture, there are the bad people that covet everything and the good people who are impoverished and oppressed. This is certainly the broad scope of the problem. There are certainly the rich and the powerful who think they have a right to everything without concern for who gets hurt. It has become increasingly hard to deny that. It is easy to imagine that we will stand up to the oppressor and stand for the oppressed. But our conversation took a turn to more difficult choices.
In our conversation, I felt despair. I felt it earlier in the week as I read the chapter in Inhabiting Eden on toxic waste and the way it disproportionately affects the poor. If we’re talking about the broad strokes of environmental issues, I can find hope. If we’re talking about food or farming, I can feel hope. With those things, I feel like I know a few things I can do. I can watch what I eat and what I buy. But toxic waste is something different. I can’t clean up a Superfund site. I can’t remediate lead poisoning in children. I can make some choices about the companies I support with my wallet; I can advocate for policy changes; but those choices seem off in the distance, a great abstraction between my actions and the results I wish to see.
It’s not the first time there have been hints of despair; people have suggested from the beginning of this series that it seemed overwhelming, that talking about the biblical and theological foundations of creation care is not enough. We want action. We are not alone in this. Ellen Davis, the biblical scholar who has focused her career on discovering the scriptural guidance for dealing with the earth, has said that her students always begin with despair. And when we have studied other seemingly intractable problems, such as racial justice, our initial response was despair. It is necessary to begin with lament and grief. This is the source of judgment.
We read the words of Ezekiel this Sunday. I could have also read from Isaiah. Pick a prophet. There is judgment. The prophets exist to pronounce God’s judgment on God’s people. When judgment comes, it looks dark. But we must always remember that it is conditional. There is always an opportunity for repentance, redemption, and salvation. The passage from Ezekiel ends with a promise that God will provide for the sheep, that they will be fed. The chapter goes on to say that the land will be returned to its purpose, to provide food so that no one will be hungry. Isaiah 55.11 tells us that God’s word does not come back empty.
I believe this. Too many times we hear stories of a small act of kindness that makes the difference in a person’s life. I remember the story of “Peaches” in David Shipler’s The Working Poor. She had grown up neglected and abused in foster care. She was made to feel worthless. But she remembered going to church as a child. In particular, she remembered a woman who always welcomed her into her home, who gave her biscuits fresh from her oven. As she sat in the pain of another abusive relationship, she remembered that someone somewhere thought she was worth treating well and that gave her hope. She imagined that she was worthy of a better life and she got one. It took a lot of work on her part and the support of a lot of other people, but her life changed because one person thought she was worth it. The word of God — feeding a child in need — came back fulfilled.
We can’t do everything. We can’t fix every problem. Often, we must choose between lesser goods and competing priorities. While this is cause for lament, it is not cause for despair. Do the thing that is for you to do. Find others who are doing the things that are for them to do. Name the difficulties. Sit in the grief of awareness and then raise your voices together in hope. If you speak the word of God, with your voice and your actions, it will not come back empty.